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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

MEMOIRS OF LEE KWAN YEW

A Statesman's Write of Passage


Bitter and Sweet Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs get a strong response from Malaysia

Response A son replies to criticism of his father

SINGAPORE'S FOUNDING PRIME MINISTER, Lee Kuan Yew, has made a mark on his country as few other leaders have. In The Singapore Story, the first volume of his memoirs, he recalls his boyhood, the war years and meeting the young woman who was to become his wife. Lee gives a trenchant account of his political career, most controversially concerning Singapore's merger and painful separation with Malaysia. Some excerpts:

In the beginning

Competing in college

Under Japanese rule

IN THE BEGINNING

I grew up with my three brothers, one sister and seven cousins in the same house. But because they were all younger than I was, I often played with the children of the Chinese fishermen and of the Malays living in a nearby kampong. It was a simpler world altogether. We played with fighting kites, tops, marbles and even fighting fish. These games nurtured a fighting spirit and the will to win. I do not know whether they prepared me for the fights I was to have later in politics.

Life was not all simple pleasures, however. Every now and again my father would come home in a foul mood after losing at blackjack and other card games at the Chinese Swimming Club in Amber Road, and demand some of my mother's jewelry to pawn so that he could go back to try his luck again. There would be fearful quarrels, and he was sometimes violent. But my mother was a courageous woman who was determined to hang on to the jewelry, wedding gifts from her parents. A strong character with great energy and resourcefulness, she had been married off too early. Had she been born one generation later and continued her education beyond secondary school, she could easily have become an effective business executive. She devoted her life to raising her children to be well-educated and independent professionals, and she stood up to my father to safeguard their future.

As I grew older, she began consulting me as the eldest son on all important family matters, so that while still in my teens, I became de facto head of the family. This taught me how to take decisions.

COMPETING IN COLLEGE

Raffles College was founded in 1928 by the Straits Settlements government. Each student had to take three subjects. I read English, which was compulsory for arts students, and concentrated on it to improve my command of the language, and to help me when I studied law later; mathematics, because I liked it and was good at it; and economics, because I believed it could teach me how to make money in business and on the stock market - I was naive!

At the end of each of the three terms in the academic year there were examinations, and for the first of these I was the best student in mathematics, scoring over 90 marks. But to my horror, I discovered I was not the best in either English or economics. I was in second place, way behind a certain Miss Kwa Geok Choo. She had been in the special class preparing to try for the Queen's scholarship two years running. I was disturbed and upset. There were only two Queen's scholarships a year for the whole of the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Penang and Malacca), and they would not necessarily go to the two top-scoring students. Above all, I feared an even-handed geographical distribution designed to give a chance to entrants from Penang and Malacca. The scholarship board might not want to give both scholarships to Singapore students, in which case coming second might just not be good enough.

UNDER JAPANESE RULE

The key to survival was improvization. One business I started changed the course of my life. While brokering on the black market, I met Yong Nyuk Lin, a Raffles College science graduate.

I had been asked by Basrai Brothers, Indian stationers in Chulia Street, if I could get them stationery gum, which was in short supply.

I asked Nyuk Lin whether he could make gum. He said he could, using tapioca flour and carbolic acid. So I financed his experiments.

The gum turned a decent profit, and we made it in two centers. One was my home, with my mother and sister helping; the other was Nyuk Lin's home, where he was helped by his wife and his wife's younger sister, Kwa Geok Choo, the girl who had done better than me at Raffles College. My visits to check on production led to a friendship that developed over the months.

By September 1944, we knew each other well enough for me to invite Nyuk Lin, his wife and Geok Choo (now simply Choo) to my 21st birthday dinner at a Chinese restaurant at the Great World, an amusement park. It was the first time I had asked her out. True, she was escorted by her brother-in-law, but in the Singapore of that era, if a girl accepted an invitation to a young man's 21st birthday dinner, it was an event not without significance.

The three and a half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life. They gave me vivid insights into the behavior of human beings and human societies, their motivations and impulses. My appreciation of governments, my understanding of power as the vehicle for revolutionary change, would not have been gained without this experience. I saw a whole social system crumble suddenly before an occupying army that was absolutely merciless.

In the midst of deprivation after the second half of 1944, when the people half-starved, it was amazing how low the crime rate remained. People could leave their front doors open at night. Every household had a head, and every group of 10 households had its head, and they were supposed to patrol their area from dusk till sunrise. But it was a mere formality. They carried only sticks and there were no offenses to report - the penalties were too heavy. As a result I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime. That was not my experience in Singapore before the war, during the Japanese occupation or subsequently.

Page 2 Political Allies...A Stormy Courtship...Bitter Run-up

Page 3 Dealing with the Tunku...An uneasy marriage...PAP enters the fray

Page 4 UMNO's role in race riots...Breaking up...Gathering opposition...The last straw

Page 5 Divorce by stealth...Suddenly, independence...Difficult to fix...No more bullying


This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home

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