On Thrift : MM Lee Kuan Yew

‘I see no reason why I should impress people by having a big car or changing my suits every now and again to keep up with the latest styles.’

MM Lee is known in Singapore for his simple, down-to-earth lifestyle. He lives in a house which has not been renovated for decades in Oxley Road, prime real estate in the city area. He wears the same worsted wool suits when travelling on planes to go overseas. He was, in a sense, an ecologically conscious consumer long before such a concept became fashionable. Never in favour of the disposable society, he believes in the value of thrift, not over-consuming resources. The day this interview took place, he was wearing a jacket so old, he confessed that the man who tailored it for him had died. His lifestyle is so spartan, he considers it an extravagance for the Prime Minister to wear a new shirt each year for the National Day Rally.

Do you try to recycle?

We haven’t got the system of different dustbins for different items. Our people have yet to understand and would not be able to do it: Bottles, tins, food go into different chutes and bags. We’ll get there sometime.

Another part of being environmentally conscious is not to consume so much, and you’re not particularly a great consumer?

No, I’m not. I eat less, I travel less. I wonder whether I’m right in buying my car. Even if I travelled by the best Mercedes-Benz taxi limousine, it’ll cost me less than what my Lexus is costing me every day. Except that I don’t know what time I’m going to wake up, and take the one kilometre to office, one kilometre back. My car is five years old and it’s only done 20,000km.

In photographs we can see that your wardrobe, your shirts, seem to have been kept for years, decades. You don’t throw away your stuff.

Why should I throw something away which I’m comfortable with? I’m not interested in impressing anybody.

I had a supervisor who taught me criminal law. He used to be a lecturer but, you know, he became old, so he only did supervisions and he had a fireplace that did not give out any smoke because he was gassed in the First World War, and he had a lung problem. He also had a large family. He had leather patches on his coat elbows, knees of his trousers. One student was bold enough to ask him, ‘Sir, are you lacking in clothing?’ He took it gracefully. He laughed and said, ‘That college porter at the gate has to be dressed well. He wears a top hat, always to look smart. I don’t have to dress to impress anybody.’

As I listened to that, I said, ‘It’s inverted snobbery.’ But it makes sense. I see no reason why I should impress people by having a big car or changing my suits every now and again to keep up with the latest styles.

The trouble is my wardrobe is now full up. I’ve got many new suits that are absolutely in good condition because I seldom wear them. I don’t go to office every day wearing a suit, except for formal functions or when I am abroad. They are of finest worsted wool. In fact, the older I get, the less willing I am to spend time putting on a suit and tie. I just have a blouson or a buttoned-up Chinese jacket, and it saves a lot of trouble. I have had them for many years and they are very comfortable.

Isn’t it a virtue though?

No, it is not. You may say it’s a virtue, others think, why is this chap that thrifty? Watch other prime ministers. They always have new ties, new shirts and suits to look good on TV.

I mean, you look at our Prime Minister. He wears a new shirt every year for the National Day Rally. Look, I have no reason to want to impress anybody.

May I ask, how many years have you had your jacket?

This one? It’s a very comfortable jacket. The man who tailored it for me is dead.

How many years have you had it?

I can’t remember now. Nearly two decades or 15 years. And it’s very comfortable.