MM Lee on lawyers, politicians and S'pore's future

9 August 2006
Straits Times
(c) 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

THE idea of selling his skills, and doing a job where it did not matter if a client was in the right or wrong, did not appeal to Mr Lee Kuan Yew as a young lawyer here. Recalling those times in the 1950s in an interview with the Singapore Law Gazette, Minister Mentor Lee also said he did not think highly of the adversarial system. But as the Law Society’s monthly publication noted in its latest edition: ‘The son that the legal profession lost was the gain for Singapore politics.’ Mr Lee said if he had remained a lawyer, ‘it would have been a meaningless existence. I have been a participant and as prime minister, I studied the system. I found it an unfulfilling profession’. He felt that his role when he was prime minister, was to ensure the legal system brought justice and that it should not be circumvented by skilful advocacy. One aspect of Singapore’s early legal system, trial by jury, was abolished in 1970 after Parliamentary Select Committee hearings. Mr Lee went into practice after returning from London and became, among other things, a legal adviser to several trade unions. He helped found the People’s Action Party in 1954, becoming its secretary-general and Singapore’s first prime minister in May 1959. In the interview at the Istana recently, Mr Lee was asked about the legal profession today. He said it has come a long way since the 1960s. The National University of Singapore’s law faculty has developed to an extent where its top 3 to 5 per cent of graduates are equal to their international counterparts. Mr Lee could also understand why it is difficult for the profession to retain lawyers, saying young lawyers do not realise its competitive nature. Without reference to any case, he also said clients’ monies must always be safeguarded. The Law Society has to implement safeguards ‘such as having two signatories, another person or the client’. But Mr Lee disagreed when asked if lawyers made better politicians. Although ‘it is true that lawyers, the litigation ones, communicate effectively in English’, this does not make them better politicians. He noted that after the 2001 General Election, five new MPs, of whom three were doctors, became ministers. Mr Lee did not name them, but the three doctors were Dr Ng Eng Hen, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and Dr Balaji Sadasivan. It was the doctor who was the better communicator, he said, again without citing anyone in particular. Good communication and connecting with people are important qualities, and for him, a good leader is someone able to connect with others: ‘When this happens, the people believe, have confidence in him and follow. He must lead by example and not by force.’ Emotional intelligence is also as essential as intellectual quotient. ‘A person with a high IQ but no EQ is at a disadvantage,’ he said, citing the example of the Japanese. ‘Their body language and physical movements help them to communicate beyond words with the other person. ‘Our judges in the courts, for example, may not be able to make good judgments if they do not feel for the people who appear before them.’ As for whether he likes the state that Singapore is in today, he said modern Singapore had become a ‘valuable red dot’. ‘The strategy for Singapore’s continuous successful future is to move ahead and pre-position ourselves,’ he said. ‘Think beyond tomorrow.’

© 2006 Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive LLC (trading as Factiva). All rights reserved.

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