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Singapore's founding father speaks out

Lee Kuan Yew
Lew Kuan Yew celebrated his 80th birthday in September.

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start quoteI do not believe that popular government means you must be popular once you're governingend quote
-- Lee Kuan Yew

SINGAPORE (CNN) -- In a wide-ranging exclusive interview, CNN's Maria Ressa spoke with Singapore's founding father and political colossus, Lee Kuan Yew, about the city state's youth, the fight against terrorism and his distaste for opinion polls.

Lee, Singapore's first prime minister who led the country to independence from the British, ruled with zeal and ultimate authority from 1959 until he stepped down in 1990. He remains a senior cabinet minister in the government of his successor, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

An oasis of calm in an often troubled region, Singapore has emerged as a regional financial hub, despite its dearth of natural resources. In the mid-90's, this city-state of 3.5 million people had virtually no unemployment, no corruption and no homeless. In fact, more than 85% of its people owned their own homes - with the help of government subsidies.

In almost three decades, it was one man's vision that powered Singapore's transformation.

From British rule, to the communist war, to the brutal Japanese occupation, Lee said he learned from Singapore's violent past.

Lee Kuan Yew: We were motivated by an intense desire to create a fairer and more just society, where man does not exploit his fellow man because he's a different color or different race or different religion.

Maria Ressa (CNN): Between the time you stepped down in 1990 and today, what changed for Singapore?

LKY: So many things have changed. First, some generations have moved on. Secondly, the world has changed, well it makes it more difficult for the leaders to meet rising expectations. Yet the aspirations of the people keeps on going up. And from time to time, we have a recession or we have a setback, and people are extremely unhappy or dissatisfied because they have assumed that it will always go up.

CNN: Are you saying this younger generation is spoiled?

LKY: I wouldn't say that -- it's not been tempered. It hasn't gone through a baptism of fire.

CNN: If you were to conduct a class for future leaders, what lessons would you emphasize?

LKY: Well, I would say first, don't try and seek popularity. Popularity is an evanescent, fickle thing. Gain respect. That's not easy to achieve, and if you don't misbehave or squander it, it will last. The modern society, they take polls, straw polls, and they govern according to what the polls show, which way the wind is blowing. I think that's a disaster. That's not leadership.

CNN: What about the leaders that are so worried about their popularity because they need to win elections, for example?

LKY: I do not believe that popular government means you must be popular once you're governing. You have to govern in a way so that even while you are unpopular while you are governing, at the end of your term of office when you go to the polls, the voters know you have done a good job for them and they will vote for you again.

CNN: You talked about fighting communism. Any lessons from that time period you can juxtapose with this new ideological war, the war on terrorism?

LKY: (The religious fanatic) wants to enjoy his life. He wants to become a powerful and important person. A religious fanatic believes that he has to do this because his God wants him to do it.

CNN: How would you fight terrorism?

LKY: I don't know. I think there are two levels at which this battle has to be fought. One is just to ferret them out. Next, you've got to have absolutely first class international cooperation. On intelligence and financial transactions. You've got to cut off their funding. You've got to know where their breeding grounds are.

At the moment, the radicals are on the ascendant. And the moderates are pushed aside, silenced or cowed. But the radicals cannot win, are not going to win. They cannot bring about this Islamic state that will make people happier and better off. Because they can't win without knocking out the secular governments. So sooner or later, they will go for their own governments. Not for America. They will have to go for their own Muslim governments, to take power.

And I think sooner or later, the battle will be joined between Muslims who grew up believing that this is the way forward to progress and prosperity, and the radicals.

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