The man who called Lee Kuan Yew a dictator to his face
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The man who called Lee Kuan Yew a dictator to his face

William Safire, the former speech writer for Richard Nixon and New York Times columnist who died on Sunday aged 79, was known as a pugnacious commentator.
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There are perhaps few better examples of this than his interview with Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, at the World Economic Forum in 1999, when he called Lee a dictator and accused him of showing disregard for the principles of liberal democracy.
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In Safire’s word’s: “The determinedly irreplaceable Lee Kuan Yew is the world’s most intelligent, and to some most likable despot.”
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Lee’s response to the accusation of dictatorship was “do I need to be a dictator when I can win, hands down?”.
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Safire’s New York Times piece on the interview is online here, while a full transcript of the interview has been posted here.
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There are some real gems in here, such as when Safire asks whether Lee’s son (Lee Hsien Loong) would be deputy prime minister [as he was in 1999] if it wasn’t for the familial connection. [Lee junior was sworn in as Singapore’s third PM in 2004.]
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Lee responds: “If he were not my son, he would be the Prime Minister. I’ll tell you honestly, I stopped him, because he can run faster than any of the others. But I told him it would do him no good. Just stay out of this race. And his generation, his peers, know that I am not boasting when I tell you this.”
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Then, Safire asks whether Lee forsees a dynasty. Lee replies:
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“I am not that bereft of satisfaction with my life that I need to live vicariously through him. In fact, if he doesn’t measure up, it is better that he does not show up, because he’ll just besmirch the family reputation.”
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Lee also talks in the interview of the need to restrict the flow of online content to the “lumpen mass” of 30%-40% of Singaporeans who are not well-educated. [Just 15% of Singaporeans were using the internet back in 1999, compared to 76% today.]
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“We don’t want this barrage day after day … the society has got to adjust and evolve step by step.”
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Hat-tip to Reme Ahmad, assistant foreign editor at the Straits Times, and his personal blog.
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Photo courtesy of Flickr user No Use For a Name.