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Lee Kuan Yew

‘I always tried to be correct, not politically correct’: Lee Kuan Yew’s memorable quotes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 March, 2015, 7:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 10:26am
On world leaders and politicians:

On Deng Xiaoping: “I would say the greatest was Deng Xiaoping. At his age, to admit that he was wrong, that all these ideas, Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, they are just not working and have to be abandoned, you need a great man to do that."

On Deng Xiaoping again: "Deng Xiaoping is a great man because he changed China from a broken-backed state, which would have imploded like the Soviet Union, into what it is today, on the way to becoming the world’s largest economy.

On Chinese President Xi Jinping: “I would put him in Nelson Mandela’s class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgement. In other words, he is impressive.”  

On the greatest US President: “But for the misfortune of Watergate, I would say Richard Nixon. He had a realistic view of the world. He was a great analyst, realistic, but also a tactician to get things done. But this need with wanting to know everything and to make sure he got re-elected became obsessive.”

On the worst US President: “My name is Jimmy Carter, I’m a peanut farmer, I’m running for president. The next thing you know, he was the president!”

On British politicians: “In Britain, if you look at the First Class Honours list of Oxford or Cambridge and trace their careers, you will find that these people end up not in politics, but in banking, finance and the professions.”

On former US president George W Bush: “I would not put him [as] the second worst. I would say Bush Jnr had melancholy advisers … Bush Jnr knew he didn’t have much experience. It is virtue to know yourself."

On former US president Bill Clinton: “Very clever man, very political, likeable fellow because he’s got that outgoing personality… When he talks to you, you are the most important person in the world. But I think, it’s generally true, he breaks the rules… Well, in his case, it’s partly his character. I don’t know. I mean, he had a difficult childhood and so on, so forth."

On his son, Lee Hsien Loong: “If I were not the prime minister, he could have become prime minister several years earlier. It is against my interest to allow any family member, who’s incapable, to be holding an important job because that would be a disaster for Singapore and my legacy. That cannot be allowed." 

On whether he was proud of his son being premier: “Yeah, but at the same time, I must be very careful that he is not going to smudge the record. Well, he has got a tough time, but he has got more resources than I had when I started.”

On Americans: “The Americans are great missionaries. They have an irrepressible urge to convert others.”


On Singapore: 

On priorities: “What are our priorities? First, the welfare, the survival of the people. Then, democratic norms and processes which from time to time we have to suspend.”

On the art of governance: “Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.”

"I make no apologies that the PAP [People's Action Party] is the government and the government is the PAP." 

"Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up." 

“Rest on laurels? I wish I could do that. No, you rest when you’re dead”. 

“You know the Singaporean. He is a hard-working, industrious, rugged individual. Or we would not have made the grade. But let us also recognise that he is a champion grumbler." 

“If you can select a population and they’re educated and they’re properly brought up, then you don’t have to use too much of the stick because they would already have been trained. It’s like with dogs. You train it in a proper way from small. It will know that it’s got to leave, go outside to pee and to defecate. No, we are not that kind of society. We had to train adult dogs who even today deliberately urinate in the lifts.” 


On Democracy

“I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.” 

“One-man-one-vote is a most difficult form of government. Results can be erratic.” 

“But we either believe in democracy or we don't. If we do, then, we must say categorically, without qualification, that no restraint from any democratic processes, other than by the ordinary law of the land, should be allowed … If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally. If you believe that men should be free, then, they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication. Then, no law should permit those democratic processes to be set at nought.” 

“Amazingly, throughout most of the contemporary Western world, leaders in government require no special training or qualification. Many get elected because they sound and look good on television. The results have been unhappy for their voters.” 


On Life, Love and Controversy:

“I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind.” 

“I wish I can meet my wife in the hereafter, but I don’t think I will. I just cease to exist just as she has ceased to exist – otherwise the other world would be overpopulated.” 

On love: "I don’t believe in love at first sight. I think it’s a grave mistake. You’re attracted by physical characteristics and you will regret it."

“You lose nothing by being polite. The answer is ‘No’, but please say it politely and give the reasons. … Explain to me why ‘No’. Don’t change ‘No’ to ‘Yes’. Don’t be a fool. If there was a good reason why it is ‘No’, it must remain ‘No’, but the man must be told politely.”

“Life is not just eating, drinking, television and cinema …The human mind must be creative, must be self-generating; it cannot depend on just gadgets to amuse itself.” 

On eugenics: “There are many sons of doctors who have married doctors. Those who married spouses who are not as bright are tearing their hair out because their children can’t make it. I have lived long enough to see all this play out.”

"So when the graduate man does not want to marry a graduate woman, I tell him he’s a fool, stupid. You marry a non-graduate, you’re going to have problems, some children bright, some not bright. You’ll be tearing your hair out. You can’t miss. It’s like two dice. One is Jack, Queen, King, Ace, other also Jack, Queen, King, Ace. You throw a Jack, Queen, King, Ace against dice two, three, four, five, six, what do you get? You can’t get high pairs, let alone a full flush.” 

On his regular routine: “Now, I walk on the treadmill three times a day – 12 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes after lunch and 15 minutes after dinner.”

"I used to play golf, but found it did not give me vitality because it’s a slothful game… Nine holes of golf will take you one and a half, two hours. I run [for] 20 minutes, I feel better off. So the cost-benefit made me drop golf."

On corporal punishment: “I have never understood why Western educationists are so much against corporal punishment. It did my fellow students and me no harm.” 

On homosexuality: “No it’s not a lifestyle. You can read the books you want, all the articles. You know that there’s a genetic difference. They are born that way and that’s that. So if two men or two women are that way, just leave them alone.” 

On the media: “Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government." (Address to the general assembly of the International Press Institute in Helsinki; June 1971)

On fashion: “I’m not interested in changing either my suit or my car or whatever with every change in fashion. That’s irrelevant. I don’t judge myself or my friends by their fashions. Of course, I don’t approve of people who are sloppy and unnecessarily shabby or dishevelled… But I’m not impressed by a US$5,000 or US$10,000 Armani suit.” (1995)

Sources: Tom Plate's Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew; Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going; Time Magazine; The Wit & Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew; The Man and His Ideas; One Man’s View of the World; Lee Kuan Yew in his own words, 1959-1970