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A calibre that's sadly lacking in regional leaders now
I HAD scarcely heard of Lee Kuan Yew when I first set foot on the hot tarmac of Singapore's Seletar airport some 50 years ago in 1966 en route from London to Sarawak to cover the "Konfrontasi" between Indonesia and Malaysia. But he was to become a central figure in the Asia that I came to know later.
Now that he is gone, I feel a genuine sense of regret at the passing of an elder statesman of a calibre which, after nearly 40 years spent in South-east and East Asia, I believe is sadly lacking in regional leaders now.
Mr Lee transformed the steaming hot port city of Singapore, where in 1966 I saw rats jumping out of waste bins along the often dirty streets, into a super-clean city-state from which rats, dirt and corruption (along perhaps with some of its former character) have long been banished.
My stay in 1966 in the even hotter jungles of Sarawak, preceded by a sojourn with the Royal Marines in Singapore, left an indelible impression that drew me back to Singapore in 1972, when I interviewed its then-minister for foreign affairs Sinnathamby Rajaratnam for the London Times.
By 1976, when I joined the newly launched The Business Times in Singapore for a stint as a reporter, Mr Lee was already leaving his indelible mark upon the "Lion City" and upon South-east Asia in general; an impression characterised by respect, admiration or, for some, active dislike.
My own impression of Mr Lee was inevitably coloured by the fact that in 1977 I joined the Far Eastern Economic Review, a publication with which the former prime minister had a sometimes confrontational relationship. I was made almost brutally aware of this when on my first morning at the Review one of my then colleagues was brought into the office handcuffed after being detained by the internal security police, and a couple of days later when our office secretary was taken in for questioning.
I won't dwell on the details of this incident and of subsequent "problems" the Review had with the Singapore authorities but I gather they were not unconnected with the fact that the Review's long-time editor, Derek Davies, was formerly a member of the British Foreign Service. Mr Lee, I was given to understand, was of the impression that Mr Davies had never really quit the service and that Mr Davies saw the former British colony of Hong Kong (where the Review was based) as a place from which to "do down" Singapore, another former British colonial possession.
I make no comment on this other than to say that the rivalry between the two "harbour cities" was certainly intense and that in my nine years as business editor of the Review, I sometimes found it difficult to be fair to one without antagonising the other (or the Review editor). I recall the embarrassing experience I had at a garden party at the Istana in 1977 when Mr Lee was performing a round of official handshakes but clearly avoided extending his hand to me. The gesture was aimed not at me personally but at the Review, a then-government minister assured me.
During 10 subsequent years in Hong Kong, followed by more than 20 in Tokyo, I came to realise that Mr Lee was widely respected beyond South- east and East Asia - not least in Britain where former prime minister Margaret Thatcher clearly saw him as someone she could "do business with".
In some ways, Mr Lee was a large fish swimming in a small pool where his actions often made uncomfortable waves for others. In a larger sea, he might have put his undoubted talents as a statesman to wider use, whether as a leader of a bigger country or of an international organisation.
Mr Lee's method of address was not that of a great orator but he displayed a penetrating understanding of regional power balances and geopolitical issues, which his legal training made it possible for him to express in lucid and forceful terms.
In his later years, Mr Lee became almost avuncular. I recall attending press briefings he gave on visits to Tokyo and having my questions answered in a style that was as friendly as it was informative and totally at odds with the impression of him as a stern interlocutor. One looks in vain now for a similar figure, although China's President Xi Jinping could emerge as a respected elder statesman at some point. Japan needs someone of equal calibre. From comments Mr Lee reportedly made, I infer that he might not have been happy with the direction Japan is taking now.
- The writer is BT's Tokyo correspondent
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IN DEPTH: Lee Kuan Yew: 1923-2015