Reflections of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew

Everyone knows about Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew or MM as Singaporeans fondly call him. An icon of Singapore, there is a lot of literature about MM’s life, ?his magnificent achievements and his views. Frankly, there is little about MM that we do not know or which can still be written about. This interview focuses on MM – the lawyer, his values and principles, his frank views about the legal profession, leadership, and communication. Of course, no story about MM is complete without mention of his two favourite topics – Singapore and China.

‘I do what is right and I do it to the best of my capability. If that is inadequate, that’s all I can do,’ says MM of his guiding principle. What is right, to him, is based on integrity and realism.

In the 1950s, MM had been unsure of Singapore’s future. ‘I did not know how the world economy will perform or the dominance of technology then. My colleagues and I did the best we could under the circumstances then.’

When asked whether he liked the state of Singapore today, he replied that ‘like’ was a difficult and inadequate word to describe modern Singapore. ‘We have become a valuable red dot. We are highly organised, at our optimum and well connected. Our forte came from adopting the English language.’

A keen spectator of international developments, MM gave insights on the new super power in Asia – China. When he visited Shanghai in 1976, it was dark, overcrowded and full of pre-world and dilapidated buildings. MM predicts that Shanghai, with a growing population of about 1,300 million, will take over Hong Kong and become ‘the major centre of the Far East’ in the future. Before that, they need to go through the transition of mastering the English language and developing the rule of law, he says.

MM has always been very interested in the growth and workings of China. A friend of China, it is not surprising that the world leader who has left the greatest impact on him is the late Chinese communist party chairman, Deng Xiaopeng. ‘He is an outstanding leader. He has a decisive quality and a sense of realism. He goes to the heart of the matter. When we meet, he would speak in Szechuan Mandarin and I would communicate in English. He is the man who saved China. His visit to third world countries Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore must have made him realise that China was on the wrong track. In December 1978, he opened up China.’

According to MM, Singapore will serve as the platform for Shanghainese businesses to operate and go regional. He acknowledges that the Singaporean Chinese are very different from the mainland Chinese. ‘Although we may speak the same language, we are very different from the mainland Chinese. Our beliefs and value systems are different. Our culture is different and will continue to be. Nothing is static.’

Singaporeans have to brace themselves for change, he cautioned. ‘We must never forget that we are living in a fast changing world. We have to continuously keep changing. That’s the only way to remain relevant. The strategy for Singapore’s continuous successful future is to move ahead and pre-position ourselves. Think beyond tomorrow,’ he reiterated.

Emphasising the importance of intellectual quotient (‘IQ’), MM acknowledges that the current method of selecting Singaporeans, be it into the Public Service Commission or into the NUS law faculty, is not perfect. ‘Certificates, character references, psychometric tests and National Service records are useful aids but insufficient to pick the best man or woman.’

Do leaders need emotional intelligence? ‘A person with high IQ but no EQ is at a great disadvantage. EQ is essential.’ He illustrates this by referring to 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.’

Good communication and connecting with people are qualities important to MM. To him, a good leader is a person who is 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.’

With many lawyers who are Members of Parliament (‘MP’s), can one naturally conclude that they make better politicians? MM disagrees. ‘It is true that lawyers, the litigation ones, communicate effectively in English. However, this does not make them better politicians.’ He explains that after the General Elections held in 2001, five new MPs, of which three were doctors, became Ministers. It was the doctor who was the better communicator, pointed out MM. A good politician has to speak the people’s language, connect with them and then communicate it in Parliament.

He traces the beginnings of politicians being lawyers to the old English political system. British MPs were poorly paid and needed a profession to supplement their incomes. They turned to law.

About 47 years have passed since MM practised law. His mother told him that he must have a profession, unlike his father who was a rich man’s son and a storekeeper. MM had three choices then – law, medicine or dentistry. All three would have helped him to be self-employed and not work for the British. He ?chose law.

In 1946, he boarded the Britannic for England. He spent the first year of his legal education in the London School of Economics. Not liking the life in hectic London, he moved to the Cambridge town and finished his legal education in its renowned university. In law school, he preferred the practical subjects of contract and property to Roman law or English legal system. His Cambridge education was not just about learning the law. It shaped his life as a future politician.

Back in Singapore, he practised litigation in the areas of contract, criminal and arbitration in Laycock & Ong. He was called to the Malayan bar and practised law in the then Malayan states as well. He did not enjoy his nine years of law practice. ‘I was selling my skills for a living. Whether my client was in the right or wrong did not matter. I did not think highly of the adversarial system.’

‘If I 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 stated vehemently.

One of the stakeholders of the early legal system was the jury. During the Select Committee hearing for the abolition of the jury, MM questioned famous criminal lawyer David Marshall on how many of his clients in more than 100 of his murder cases were convicted. ‘He said only one. I then asked him whether any of his clients were guilty. He said that this had never occurred to him and that it was not for him to decide.’

MM, who was then Singapore’s Prime Minister, felt that his role was to ensure that the legal system brought justice, which should not be circumvented by skilful advocacy. Jury trial was abolished in Singapore in 1970.

When asked about his views on the legal profession as it stands today, he replied that the legal profession has come a long way since the 1960s. The NUS law faculty has developed to the extent that the top three to five per cent of its graduates are equal to their international counterparts.

MM appreciates the reasons why it is difficult for the Singapore legal profession to retain its lawyers. ‘Young lawyers often do not realise the competitive nature of the profession they are entering. This is not a problem peculiar to Singapore.’ On litigation lawyers, he commented that ‘litigation lawyers are a special group of lawyers. They are prepared to work very hard, do the getting up and articulate their points well in court. If you do not enjoy this, find it tiresome, then don’t do litigation. Be a solicitor or a company secretary,’ he advised.

‘Small law firms will always be there.’ Why? ‘There will always be those who do not prefer to work in larger firms.’ He felt that clients’ monies must always be safeguarded. ‘The Law Society has to implement the safeguards such as having two signatories, another person or the client.’

In his political career, MM acknowledges that his legal education helped him to understand the constitutional process and the legislative system. MM, his wife, and Eddie Barker were responsible for drafting the Singapore Constitution.

MM Lee’s foray into politics and his highly impressive political career are evidenced by the status enjoyed by Singapore in its short history of 41 years. The son that the legal profession lost was the gain for Singapore politics. His secondary school teacher’s prediction – ‘He is likely to attain a high position in life’ – has come true indeed.

Rajan Chettiar
Rajan Chettiar & Co

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