In Conversation with James Minchin

Author: Thum Ping Tjin
Published:

The legend and myth of Lee Kuan Yew looms large, not just over Singapore but over many countries around the world which aspire to emulate his achievements. But who is Lee Kuan Yew, and what exactly did he accomplish? The very first book to try to tackle Lee using a rigorous research-based approach was James Minchin’s No Man Is An Island: A Portrait of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. As a researcher, Minchin was given incredible access to the upper echelons of Singapore’s elite. He interviewed cabinet Ministers, senior officials, close associates and former adversaries of Lee, both in Singapore and Malaysia. When the book came out in 1986, it was revelatory, detailing both Lee’s spectacular successes and his failures and serious misjudgements, including his abuses of power, his shabby treatment of his colleagues, and his dangerous dependence on prescription drugs which impaired his judgement at a critical time. Minchin’s portrait was not challenged by Lee, but the book is next to impossible to find in Singapore and years later, Minchin himself was banned from entering Singapore. He remains banned to this day.

On 15 November 2018, PJ Thum sat down with James on one of his frequent visits to Kuala Lumpur. They spoke about his life in Singapore, his experience writing the book, his ban from Singapore, and his reflections on Singapore’s politics today.

PJ Thum: So thanks, Jim. Thank you so much for sitting down with me and thank you for agreeing to an interview with New Naratif.

Jim Minchin: Pleasure.

PJ Thum: You wrote No Man Is An Island, and you published it back in 1986. First of all, it’s a curious title. How did you come up with the title?

Jim Minchin: I started this project back in 1971, just after I returned from my three years in Singapore. I tried to stay on longer, but at the time I was having a little bit of a difficulty with the Bishop of Singapore, who regarded my, some of my views as a bit of a…

PJ Thum: For the benefit of our audience, then, you were a priest in Singapore for three years?

Jim Minchin: Yup, I was appointed to the staff of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, but by a variety of circumstances, I came quickly to work in Alexandra, in a church, a daughter church of the Cathedral, Our Saviour’s Church, as it then was located. And I lived there, but I also had a lot of involvement with hospital ministry, and I set up an ecumenical university chaplaincy at the then-University of Singapore in Bukit Timah, which brought me into contact, also through my musical interests, with a whole range of people that I wouldn’t have met had I remained simply within a cathedral or parish circumstances.

PJ Thum: So then you left Singapore in ’71, but you started the book project then?

Jim Minchin: Yeah, just in ’72, really. When I came back, I found it very difficult to settle back in Melbourne because Singapore was, for me, an entry into a new world, which I hadn’t begun to think seriously about in my whole time up to that point. And I was astonished by the speed of social engineering that was going on—the abolition of pirate taxis, the development of the new housing estates. Bukit Ho Swee was just near me. That was the first of the PAP government’s housing estates, and a very controversial one. And then Queenstown was in progress. I saw Toa Payoh when it was still a market garden. I used to visit a friend at Thompson Road Hospital, and see a gradual development of Toa Payoh—very rapid development. And bringing of the hawkers into centrally located places. The whole face of Singapore was being changed. And that intrigued me.

PJ Thum: And also you were there at a very contentious time because, when you first arrived, we technically were still a multi-party democracy. It wasn’t until, I think it was late ’68, elections, and the PAP won a clean sweep. And after that it was single party… I don’t know if democracy is the right word after that, but it was single-party rule. And then there were also protests against the Vietnam War, that also occurred around then. So this was a very interesting period that you happened to arrive in Singapore.

Jim Minchin: I preached in the Cathedral one night in the presence of the American ambassador. And I voiced some contentious views on the matter in my sermon, and the Dean of the Cathedral apologised. Not really an apology, but he just said, “The views expressed from the pulpit tonight are the views of the speaker, and not necessarily of the whole Anglican communion”, to placate the American ambassador. I didn’t know he was in the congregation. I found out later.

PJ Thum: Oh Wow. Okay. I guess he was what Americans call Episcopalian? That’s the equivalent of [Anglican], right?

Jim Minchin: A lot of American diplomatic figures came out of Episcopalian background. But, but whether or not, because St Andrew’s was the kind of church of the former British rulers, it had a kind of standing in diplomatic circles as a place to be.

PJ Thum: Okay. So you’re in Singapore during this incredibly transformative time. Then you finish; I guess it’s  like a three-year contract, and you finished and you go home. And then you decided to write a book about Singapore.

Jim Minchin: No, I decided to do some exploration about what I’d countered. The other big factor that influenced me quite a lot, personally, was the introduction of National Service in 1967, because I had a number of youngsters in my parish, particularly in Alexandra, who came out of Anglo Chinese School and other places, and they’d been exposed to Christianity through a crusade, the big crusade in ’68. And quite a number of them came to the church in a sort of follow up to the crusade. And I got to see them and learn a bit about the circumstances of National Service, which struck me as anomalous, given the history of the hua qiao (overseas Chinese) in different countries of Southeast Asia. It was a new development. So that played quite a big part, seeing these young guys who never thought of themselves doing National Service but now having to do so, it’s quite a significant psychological change, and it had more impact on me, I think, than the fact of the clean sweep and the elections.

PJ Thum: So then you decided to start researching. So it wasn’t initially a book?

Jim Minchin: No. I decided—afterwards, I laugh at what happened—but I decided I’d undertake a Master’s thesis. By then, as 1972 went on, it became very evident to me that there were two people masterminding this process of social engineering. One was Lee Kuan Yew, and the other was Goh Keng Swee, the then-finance minister. And in that process, Goh was obviously operating out of fairly conventional politics and economics derived from his time at the London School of Economics. Fairly conventional. But the views being expressed about Singapore’s place in the world, and who its friends were, and all that sort of thing, had very strange characteristics for me, coming out of reasonably liberal democratic expression of life. I’d not been terribly political, but in general, had fairly left-wing views, but of a liberal kind from Australia. And when it became clear that these two were the key figures, and I looked more carefully, I decided it would be much more interesting for me to write about Lee Kuan Yew, because he was clearly intent on making over a nation. A whole group of people, and what he regarded previously as a political absurdity, a tiny island like Singapore having a nation-state capacity.

PJ Thum: Yes, very artificial. Historically, we were part of Johor, we were part of Malaya, and suddenly we’re on our own. I think the government is focused very much in the economic argument, but they have left aside, they just neglect the social-cultural aspect to our separation. People didn’t see or think of themselves as Singaporean, and this identity being so distinct from the rest of Malaya. We were supposed to be one country, one nation.

Jim Minchin: One of the most significant developments in my life has been the experience of Chinese, particularly, but also of Indian and to a lesser extent Malay, friendships. In the early days, when I came, my first visit to Malaysia was to West Malaysia, in 1968 in April, just three months after I’d arrived in Singapore. And it was virtually indistinguishable, the cultural cues, all the attitudes towards life. There was some recognition of significant differences emerging, but nowadays it feels as if Singapore and Malaysia are really quite alien to one another in all sorts of ways. I don’t think profoundly, in all respects, but certainly on the surface it’s very striking.

PJ Thum: So to come back to your project then. You wanted to understand this transformation, and then you signed up for the Masters. Is that the genesis of the book?

Jim Minchin: The Masters, I titled, eventually, from one of the finest poems written about Singapore, My Country and My People, “Patriot of the Will”. It’s a little bit of a disparaging reference in Lee Tzu Pheng’s poem because the people most to be feared are those who are patriots who have their own willpower. Their own will. And they shape a society or they shape life around them, whether it’s a family or a bigger unit, according to what’s going on in their own will, their own determination. So it’s a very clever, it’s a wonderful poem, as is most Lee Tzu Pheng’s work. I took my title from that. But it was far too obscure once I made the transition. The decision to write a book came only after the Masters had been submitted, and it was already over length for a Masters’ thesis. And I decided then, because I’d been so affected by the whole exercise of writing the thesis over a 10-year period while I was an active parish priest or university chaplain that I needed to take it further. And then I made the decision not go for a PhD because I wanted to communicate this more publicly. So the book is more than double the length of my thesis, and has a lot of material dealing with different facets of society, rather than just looking all the time at the political development. And I found that in that process, of course, quite fascinating insight into the political process, because you can’t separate out one from the other.

PJ Thum: So you spend, did you say 10 years doing your Masters? So this is what, ’72 to ’82.

Jim Minchin: No, it’s a bit less… 8 years. I submitted the thesis in 1980.

PJ Thum: I see. And the thesis then was based more on public sources.

Jim Minchin: Yes.

PJ Thum: And at some point you decided to turn it into a book. How did you end up getting all these interviews? You got cooperation. You got to interview Lee Kuan Yew himself for this book. So, how did you go from, Masters with publicly available sources to…

Jim Minchin: No, all the interviews, all the major interviews, were done for the thesis.

PJ Thum: Oh, okay.

Jim Minchin: It was partly on the strength of my being an Anglican priest, and therefore, potentially a fairly harmless person who’s got that kind of hobby like trains, or gardens, or whatever.

PJ Thum: [chuckles] Right.

Jim Minchin: I got wonderful access to a number of people. I had, for instance, a couple of superb interviews with Tunku [Abdul Rahman]. With Lim Kim San, with Goh Keng Swee, with [S.] Rajaratnam, and they were all very open and candid. At that stage, that was par for the course, because there still was an atmosphere in the party that Lee Kuan Yew is by himself, and from the Separation onwards only he and Devan Nair really held together the two different streams in the PAP. On the one hand, you had people like Rajaratnam and Toh Chin Chye saying we mustn’t get out of Malaysia. This is a serious mistake. Hopes to become the political energy of Malaysia have been dashed. And Kuan Yew felt that to great degree. But, on the other hand, people like Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San, saying it’s a waste of time. We’re being held back, we’re being crippled economically by the continuance. And the only two that really could hold the show together were Lee and his trusted, his best trusted confidant, that was Devan Nair.

PJ Thum: But during this period, Devin Nair was still a DAP [Democratic Action Party of Malaysia] assemblyman.

Jim Minchin: Yup.

PJ Thum: Devan Nair didn’t come back till, what, ’81, to become president. [Correction: Devan returned to Singapore after Malaysia’s 1969 elections, to become Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress. He entered Parliament in 1979 as MP for Anson, before leaving in 1981 to become President.]

Jim Minchin: Yes. But they were in constant contact.

PJ Thum: And his wife, [Avadai] Dhanam, was a PAP MP, wasn’t she?

Jim Minchin: That’s right.

PJ Thum: Ah, I see. It’s really interesting how close those two were and how tightly they worked together. And how quickly it all fell apart between them.

Jim Minchin: That was another story. And later on, it had fallen apart by the time I wrote the book. But I did got to know Devan very well. I’d already interviewed him for the thesis. And it was a good interview because he admitted some problems, as well as praising the successes of the PAP. I suspected he was still pretty well enamoured of the general direction. And it was at the time, ’76 I think I interviewed him, which at the time of the Socialist International confrontation.

PJ Thum: Yeah. When the PAP were going to be kicked out. And before they got kicked out, they walked out.

Jim Minchin: Yeah, that’s right.

PJ Thum: You can’t fire me. I quit.

Jim Minchin: Yes, that’s right.

PJ Thum: Okay. In Devan’s later years, of course, he expresses great, great regret at how foolish he was at believing in Lee Kuan Yew so entirely. And, from what I’ve seen of his later writings in exile, he doesn’t excuse himself?

Jim Minchin: No.

PJ Thum: He writes as if he was so completely seduced by Lee Kuan Yew, I think is the way I would put it.

Jim Minchin: Yes. He was captivated by what he saw, at the time, as the integrity of Lee Kuan Yew. All of us have our own standards of what integrity means, and I was a little bit sceptical that an intelligent man, with his union background and his political antecedents, could be so entranced by this vision. But he said that there are plenty of inconsistencies and even some aberrations in the way that Lee carried out his policy, but it’s essentially a vision for the welfare of Singapore, and I subscribe wholeheartedly to it. That certainly wasn’t his view later on.

PJ Thum: It’s quite amazing to me, thinking of Singapore and our ministers today, that you, a young Anglican priest, just being able to write to the Minister saying, can I interview you for a Masters? It’s not even a PhD, it’s not even like a major publication. It’s just a Masters, and you getting that access. And in some cases, the stories you tell in No Man Is An Island are incredibly detailed and intimate. What does that say about Singapore then versus now?

Jim Minchin: Much more plural society, much more open. There were several significant breakthroughs that I had. One was coming across someone who’d been involved in the bureaucracy of government who, not only as a child, from his birth, and he was able to tell me quite a lot of things. He came from a Chinese-educated background and, like, for instance, the then-deputy vice chancellor of Nantah, whose wife had been a good friend of Kwa Geok Choo, had a very ambivalent attitude towards Lee, particularly at the time leading up to 1980, when the debacle of the downtown losing its “Chineseness” came to the fore. And even someone like Lim Kim San, who said to me once, on the record, “Lee Kuan Yew doesn’t have a Chinese bone in his body.” That was a somewhat gratuitous insult, but he was wanting to say, we work with this man because we think he had the best ideas overall, but we’re our own people. Goh Keng Swee said exactly the same. He said to me, for instance—it was quite a funny incident, you don’t have to keep this, but I met him just the day after he returned from Sydney, clinching a deal to buy over a huge amount of Sydney real estate, which was owned in the trust of the Anglican Church in the diocese of Sydney. And a lot of it was brothels and pubs. And Keng Swee, needless to say, was quite delighted at that. And it was very expensive. But he said to me, amongst other things, I have no desire to be prime minister. There are aspects of political leadership, particularly in the current circumstances, that really don’t appeal to me. I still want my life as a human being and so on. This man is keen to stay, and as long as we can find sufficient common ground—which was a very deliberate part of Lee’s policy in the early years, up until really the ’80s, to keep faith with the attitudes, the basic philosophy or approach of his cabinet ministers and senior cabinet ministers. He said, oh, you might disagree with me about, say, my attitudes to race or eugenics, but let me also say that I agree with the general direction of policy. So you give me some leeway or latitude and I’ll give you some as well. So that broke down once people like Toh Chin Chye became disenfranchised, and, a whole number of others. But these early contacts, there’s one other aspect of my contacts during the research, or two that I should mention. One was getting good access to some of speeches off the record. For instance, in the period immediately after Separation, when Lee was on various kinds of medication, and spoke really quite recklessly. Wisely, those speeches were kept off the public record, speeches to the public union, public service sector, and so on. For some reason, again I suppose, because I was seen as a fairly harmless figure, James Fu, the then press secretary to the prime minister, gave me access. So I had to read them on the spot. I couldn’t copy them or take notes. But I read some extraordinary speeches, which gave me an insight into Lee’s own mood at the time of separation before and after it. That was one thing. The other thing was meeting a number of people, and I’ll instance K. M. Byrne [Kenneth Michael Byrne, Minister of Labour and Law] by name, because he wanted me to make it public, who felt used by Lee Kuan Yew. There was a big case against Chew Swee Kee, who is the education minister in the Labour Front government.

PJ Thum: This is the 1959 corruption trial.

Jim Minchin: Yes, before 1959. They set up a commission of inquiry. Funds from Taiwan, actually came through Catholic sources in Taiwan, had been misused. Lee persuaded Kenny Byrne not to tell the truth, and that was to say that a European voice from taxation office had told him of this defalcation that was going on, and all this misappropriation of funds. And Kenny Byrne said it was a lie. It was a Chinese fellow, who subsequently became very prominent in the taxation department, who passed the information.

PJ Thum: And I remember they blamed it on a European voice. And then they conveniently blamed it on an official who had just passed away.

Jim Minchin: That’s right. And of course, no one believed it that was in the know, or was aware of the situation. But Kenny felt deeply, and he said, this is not a confession, because I’m not speaking to you as a Catholic priest, but I’m telling you, I felt deeply ashamed of myself. But again, because I was so convinced that this was the way forward, Kuan Yew was able to persuade me that, for the sake of the party and its success in the coming elections, we should do this. But I met a number of other people. For instance, a psychiatrist, who later took his own life, who was charged directly, no written instructions, charged directly to administer psychotropic drugs to Lim Chin Siong in detention. There was an official psychiatrist, who gave him some drugs, but these were other ones, much more powerful. And Lim Chin Siong became terribly confused. And when I met him some years later, I was astonished that he still had such  fire in his belly. It was flickering flame by that stage, but here’s a man that every effort was made to break him and discredit him with his fellow left-wingers, and it hadn’t fully succeeded. I met him when he was working in a law office, and he remains by far the most impressive figure. And the thought of him being treated that way, that he survived it, severely affected, but not destroyed. It was a tribute. Lee regarded this as necessary because Lim Chin Siong was always, for him, the greatest threat, because he was the most able communicator, the most coherent vision, which he knew in the long-term wouldn’t fully enable Singapore to flourish after Separation in the world, but was still a very formidable reality.

PJ Thum: According to his brother, you know, after Chin Siong finally came back to Singapore, he was pretty much a broken man. He would have his periods where it was like he was back to normal and he had lucidity and strength. But those inevitably exhausted him. So he had to really ration what little strength he had. Most of the time he was physically and mentally so broken from his time in detention that he couldn’t function properly anymore. To do that to a person, it’s a crime. It’s horrible crime.

Jim Minchin: I was very lucky. I was able to draw from him such expressions of a coherent political vision based on the welfare of the whole society. Not racially…. I mean, obviously, a Chinese-educated man is going to have his biases. But the perverse racism of today’s Singapore is not really controlled by the integrity… Another person that had that same integrity was Tang Liang Hong, who was accused of all sorts of chauvinism and so on. And it was manifestly absurd. I got to know Liang Hong very well. That’s the biggest hurt that was inflicted on him, to make out that he was some kind of low-grade Chinese chauvinist. Lim Chin Siong clearly had a vision for Singapore that was inclusive of everybody, and wanted to see everybody flourishing. I can’t tell you how impressed I was by him. For all that I could see the signs of fragility and weakness. But that kind of interview fired me up to keep working. I feel an inexpressible debt of gratitude to him. It was a very difficult project. And part of the reason I didn’t want to do a PhD—I was offered the opportunity, because the quality of what I’d already done in my preliminary work suggested that I could handle a PhD, but I didn’t want to cohabit with Lee Kuan Yew for any longer than I had to, mentally, because it was such a disturbing experience. At times quite buoyant and resilient, because he could see a vision much bigger than most people would ever have for the future of Singapore, but a vision so affected and damaged by his own personal extraordinary views and preoccupations.

PJ Thum: I’d never thought about it that way. That to study someone, you inhabit their mind, and then that can be a profoundly disturbing experience.

Jim Minchin: It was, and still is in some respects.

PJ Thum: So, when was the Chin Siong interview?

Jim Minchin: I don’t remember exactly. I think it was in the mid-70s.

PJ Thum: This is the whole period when you’re gathering all this information. You’re coming back to Singapore…

Jim Minchin: Regularly. Spending time in the Malaysia-Singapore collection in Singapore and Malaya, meeting all these people. It all went in tandem as I went along. By the time the thesis was finished, there was no really significant departure from the findings of my thesis, from between that and the publication of the book. But considerable reinforcing. The more I looked into the different sectors of Singapore society or perspectives coming out of the legal system, or the electoral system, or whatever it might be, these all reinforced, rather than contradicted, what I’d already found. And the capacity to marginalise people who had been central before, now proving more and more isolating for Lee himself.

PJ Thum: So you’re saying it works both ways. That as he became more powerful and shaped the country to his image, it also isolated him more and more? Is that what you’re saying?

Jim Minchin: Yes.

PJ Thum: That’s interesting. I never thought about it that way.

Jim Minchin: Because people like Goh Keng Swee, for instance, they had quite serious differences. I’m not sure if it’s in the update, but a subsequent piece I wrote, the ’87 arrests were seen very much in isolation. And, in fact, the ISD, when it had its exhibition a couple of years ago, there was no mention of those detentions. I thought they were highly significant. And what I discovered was that Goh Keng Swee had proposed that most Singaporeans wouldn’t have the moral ballast to develop citizenship by themselves. They needed something like a religion, and he saw religious knowledge is quite helpful. He himself came from a lapsed background of Christianity in Melaka, in his family. And so they promoted religious knowledge as a compulsory subject at school in 1982. And Lee was never very happy about it. But in 1987, that was the year when all that religious access to the armed services, to the schools, to prisons, everything was brought undone. The arrest and collapse of the New Testament church, a Taiwan church in early 1987, which depicted Lee Kuan Yew as the devil, the arrest of some Malay extremists in April, I think it was, that year, the detention of the 22 people in May and June 1987, the investigation of, the corrupt practices investigation of a Pentecostal church as the year went on, and then at the end of the year, the destruction of the Christian Conference of Asia. So that marked, in a sense, the end of Lee’s willingness to give Goh Keng Swee a chance to start his own stuff on the Singapore stage. And Toh Chin Chye by then was already marginalised and was very bitter about the situation.

PJ Thum: Because Goh Keng Swee retired from cabinet in ’84. So I guess his retirement also marks the end of that policy in many ways.

Jim Minchin: Yes. But the two went hand in hand. Lee didn’t hesitate. For instance, a Methodist who was appointed Minister of State for Education was not able to become a full minister because he was a Methodist, and considered to be… a number of people told me that that was the main reason, because the prime minister didn’t want to be seen to be promoting people with religious affiliations. And the promotion of Buddhist evangelical groups from Japan and Taiwan to counter the influence of Christian evangelists. Having religious knowledge when English has become your main language for education gives wonderful access to Christian groups. And, of course, by derivation with the Muslim groups, they have, at last, a legitimate way of influencing their clientele.

PJ Thum: We’re kind of jumping all over the place here. I guess we come back to the question, at what point after you finished the thesis, did you immediately decide to turn into a book?

Jim Minchin: By then my conviction was, if this is to be of any great use, I hated having all this information. If I talked about Singapore in Australia after two or three sentences, the subject would be changed because most people weren’t interested. They already knew Singapore as a pleasant tourist destination. They didn’t want to know about all this. It was seething inside me because, for a relatively straightforward Australian male with Christian convictions growing up at that time, and a growing awareness of the importance of politics, it was unthinkable that anyone in Australia could get away with that. Some had tried, but they couldn’t succeed because there were too many checks and balances. Lee had successfully mastered almost all of the checks and balances and turned them into his own account.

PJ Thum: So you finished around, was it 1980?

Jim Minchin: I submitted the thesis then, yes.

PJ Thum: But the book then comes out in ’86. So you spent the next six years sort of doubling the volume of what you had.

Jim Minchin: Yes, but by concentrating, as I said, on different aspects of Singapore society. The book was really focused on the period up until the late ’70s. But then, subsequently, there were a lot more developments going on, particularly the drawing together of all the streams of control. It had already been extensively, after ’65, when Lee had such uncontested power in the party, and increasingly in the nation. These streams of political organisation, and bureaucratic fulfilment, and the legal system, and all the rest of it. They were increasingly managed by him in an almost tactile way. And his reliance, from the moment he took power in ’59, on intelligence services had been profound and that was given a strange kind of freedom to exercise itself. One other paradoxical thing that I put it as, he’s a bit of a shock, but one of the things I noticed was Lee’s phenomenon of marking someone as intelligent and capable. And bringing him close to Lee himself, and then deciding after a period of time that there were deficiencies. And it happened with so many people, with Tjong Yik Min in the Internal Security Department. It happened with George Yeo. Many others were praised by Lee, and then found, when they got close to him, to be wanting in some respect. Maybe too liberal, maybe too intelligent in a very limited way, and not capable of perpetuating the vision. And the decision, eventually, to prepare Lee Hsien Loong for the prime ministership, I don’t think was based on any dynastic plan, because the old man was very sceptical of all dynasties. It was based on the fact that Hsien Loong was so fully prepared by his education and training.

PJ Thum: This is really interesting to talk about because right now we are seeing, of course, only the second transition in Singapore from a prime minister from the Lee family to someone else. But you were there in Singapore during the time when the succession from the first prime minister of the Lee family to the first non-Lee prime ministers was happening What was that like to observe up front? You have a lot of observations in your book, but one of the things that really strikes me is how Lee openly says Tony Tan is the best candidate. But then, actually, openly criticizes Goh Chok Tong and says he needs to see a psychiatrist at some point. And then in 1988 election, campaigns for the new generation by criticising them on the stump. So it seems to be a very, what’s the word, schizophrenic approach, or maybe a sort of tough love approach, to succession. But what was your impression?

Jim Minchin: My sense was that he was pretty convinced that dynastic succession didn’t automatically work. So he was determined that Hsien Loong should not come to the prime ministership, even though he turned out to be the best qualified. It was not totally without reserve on the old man’s part, and that came very much to the fore in the years before his death. He didn’t want Hsien Loong to succeed with the power handed to him on a platter. At the same time, he didn’t want to appoint someone as prime minister who would be so effective that the role of prime minister would henceforth remain the only model of leadership. He didn’t need any other titles, then, being prime minister, because you already had all the power he wanted, gained by both democratic means and by non-democratic means. The important thing about Chok Tong, as I’ve said, at some point in my writing, he should be neither too good nor too bad. And there was a contingency plan, long-term plan, that even if Chok Tong, for instance, had not done very well, there could be an argument to switch to an executive presidency. One of the criticisms Lee always had of cabinet government, is that you’re too dependent on your cabinet colleagues, who may not be given to you by your own choice. And he was well aware of what he saw as the flaws in all his cabinets, but by and large they got on well with each other.

PJ Thum: I like how he’s aware of everyone else’s flaws, but he doesn’t seem to be very aware of his own flaws.

Jim Minchin: No, he doesn’t, because this is where the analysis I put in Chapter 12 of my book. I call him a messianic narcissist. That is, he’s totally preoccupied with his vision, which he’s developed and implemented. And it’s really a kind of archetypal extension of himself. But at the same time, he’s very wary of whether other people will truly subscribe. And he was always afraid that the situation would collapse. And so I say he’s messianic because he offers trust in him as a way forward. There is no alternative in Singapore. We can’t afford opposition parties. We can’t afford others. They’ll mess with your future. We’ve taken control of your money, to a large degree. We’ve taken control of providing housing and all these good things. This is the basis for the society, and you need to repose your trust in us. We’ll prove trustworthy, but you’ve got to see this as the only future for Singapore. And he was somewhat afraid what would have happened if Tony Tan had become prime minster. Goodness only knows, I don’t suspect it would have been very much better, different from what happened. But he wanted to make sure that when Hsien Loong succeeded to power, either as prime minister, or perhaps into the future as an executive president, he would have the best counsel he could draw on from outside the Parliament, not just cabinet ministers. The way he’s built up the bureaucracy has been quite extraordinary. And even then, there’d been favourites and people who have fallen out of favour. But the importance of having him, and then having your political leaders also well-equipped… As it turned out, Chok Tong was neither too good, nor too bad. That was fulfilled. But there was no reason [for the executive presidency], especially after Devan Nair’s presidency had been discredited by Lee himself on the spurious grounds of alcoholism. The whole movement towards an executive presidency, who had the political presidency, thus far had been people like Yusaf Ishak or Benjamin Sheares. People of no political ambitions at all. And to move to a powerful figure… it came unstuck again with Ong Teng Cheong, wanting to know much more than he was supposed to know. So that model of executive president disappeared. But with it the capacity, publicly, to draw on figures from outside the government sector or the bureaucracy, to give advice, and counsel, and so on, had been replaced instead by Ho Ching, who has a special place in the scheme of things. And I’ll be happy to talk about that if there’s time.

PJ Thum: Maybe we’ll come back to that. But I want to focus more on the ’80s and what you witnessed. You were there on the ground and…

Jim Minchin: From time to time. I wasn’t living in Singapore but I visited every few months.

PJ Thum: You were interviewing people, and I think that that kind of insight most people don’t have, because we tend to see the old Guard as these gods. And they trod among us for awhile and now they’re gone. But these were just men and women… mostly men, like you and I, and the overwhelming impression I’m getting is just how many of them were so disappointed or dissatisfied, and left in such unhappy ways. From Toh Chin Chye downwards, and you mentioned Kenny Byrne. And we’ve talked about Goh Keng Swee and Devan Nair. It seems like everyone who came up with Lee and helped him build Singapore was almost destined to fall out with Lee and end up bitter about everything.

Jim Minchin: One of the most extraordinary things that happened after the first edition of my book came out, I had contact from number of cabinet ministers who said, how on earth did you find this material that you’ve got in your book? I wish to God they’d come forward earlier. But I met with them, and a couple of them had been home affairs ministers. They told me extraordinary stories of how they felt mistreated, or they, or their dear ones, had been mistreated by Lee Kuan Yew. And they’d not been able to talk about it. One extraordinary interview at the old A&W restaurant between Bukit Timah and Tanah Merah Road.

PJ Thum: Yes, I remember that restaurant.

Jim Minchin: And one former home affairs minister met me, and he sat right at the back, so no one could be behind him. And he kept watching the entrance the whole interview, and I sat facing him. And he told me the most extraordinary story, of things that he felt sure had been done in his family life that troubled him greatly. I was just astounded that he felt able… But he recognised that I’d had access to people that I couldn’t possibly name. Most of them I couldn’t name, I did name a couple in the book with their permission. These people who knew damn well how the government operated. One of the first things I learnt about Lee Kuan Yew, operationally, he never gave written instructions if something was to be slightly untoward. For instance, at one stage there was a drought, and he sent up planes to seed the clouds to produce rain, and then say, oh, this is all the work of the PAP. It didn’t work. But there were no written instructions. And I gathered from that moment, from that time early on in his prime ministership, he refused to write any instructions. My friend, the psychiatrist who treated Lim Chin Siong. Kenny Byrne, the incident with the European voice. And his instructions to the chief justice, or how he wanted law cases adjudicated when there are political implications. They were never given in writing.

PJ Thum: In his own autobiography, he talks about all the things he learned from the Communist underground. Not putting things in writing is one of them. Fixing the results of meetings and of votes beforehand is another. The structure of the party, to create a Leninist structure for the PAP, was something else, although he does credit it to the Vatican instead. And, of course, that’s disputed because Toh Chin Chye says he’s the one who came up with it. Well, there’s a lot of dispute about origin stories all the time. But there’s no doubt Lee admits he learned so much from how the MCP [Malayan Communist Party] underground operated, and applied that to his own governing.

Jim Minchin: And he learned so much after ’65, particularly, from Israel. One of the most extraordinary moments in my journey…I was writing, I think it was after the first edition of the book had come out. I was sitting at my friend Lee Swan’s study at the NUS, where he was master of the college there. I was reading Noam Chomsky’s book The Fateful Triangle. And there, in a substantial footnote, somewhere in the middle of that book, there was this so-called research done by the Israeli Labour Party, which is predominantly European Ashkenazi, citing a framework for understanding superior and inferior races. And it was almost word for word what Lee Kuan Yew was also mouthing.

PJ Thum: And, of course, it really undermines this whole notion of meritocracy in Singapore. I mean meritocracy itself is a very controversial…

Jim Minchin: It’s a pathetic, a pathetic measure. Because the first generation of meritocrats will appoint their own choice of successors, who almost certainly will not be meritocrats. They will be there not on the basis of their merit, but on the basis of their agreeability.

PJ Thum: Yes. It feels like we have passed on so many talented people, from Ho Kwon Ping, who… Look at him today. He’s built up this huge…the Banyan Tree and everything, he’s fabulously wealthy. He’s clearly intelligent and very talented. Singapore could definitely have used someone like that, right? All the way till today, Tharman, of course, now, as of this recording, just left the CEC. Another wonderfully talented man.

Jim Minchin: By far the most talented member of the cabinet.

PJ Thum: Yes. And yet, increasingly, we are appointing people on the basis of loyalty rather than talent.

Jim Minchin: Or some kind of army connection or whatever other shallow measure is used.

PJ Thum: Yes. Michael Barr put it in his book that the number one determinant of elite status in Singapore is some sort of pre-existing connection of the Lee family. So there is a very strong correlation there. So how do we see the succession going today, then? Things have not been going well. We both agree, I think… It’s widely accepted that Lee Hsien Loong’s premiership has been very poor and now has to handover to… But it sounds like Lee went to extraordinary lengths to set up a long runway for Lee Hsien Loong to prove himself. And what we’re seeing is that Lee Hsien Loong is basically a failure given all the advantages he had and even in his own way attempting to set up a long runway for his successor has also failed because none of his chosen candidates inspire any sort of confidence, confidence in themselves, let alone to levels of what I think people must have seen Lee Hsien Loong with in the ‘80s. It’s not even there.

Jim Minchin: I think the succession is very problematic. It’ll be fascinating.

PJ Thum: So if we can take a step back. You released the book in ‘86 and this is after you’ve actually got access from James Fu, from Lee Kuan Yew and surely the book was not what they expected.

Jim Minchin: No, I’m quite sure that… an interesting story, my fairly naïve publishers, they had this manuscript vetted by lawyers in Australia and I told them that’s not going to be enough, but the book was typeset by Singapore national printers and about two-thirds of the way through the typesetting, the MD who’d been Perm Sec in Home Affairs before, the MD of Singapore National Printers took the manuscript home to read. And the next day the whole lot was sent back free to Allen and Unwin. They had to get it typeset in Hong Kong and it soon became clear that the permission they’d had to use a photograph of Lee Kuan Yew, official photograph, which is very charming photograph, on the front cover of the hardback, the in papers which depicted Singapore in 1959 and 1985, they had to be removed. And there all sorts of other complaints. Nothing legally actionable, but obviously if the book had been released in Singapore, the retailers, the wholesalers, printers, the publishers would have been taken to the cleaners, because the different system prevailed. And in fact Allen and Unwin, after they tried to sell the book, selling the book worldwide, both the first edition, they handed over the second edition without my permission to Crescent Books in Malaysia because none of their education books, the bread and butter of their publication could be sold in Singapore while my book was on their list. So the Singapore government’s capacity to queer the pitch of dissident publishers or so is endless. Every trick has been worked out and just as the electoral system has been fine-tuned and I think Singapore’s electoral system is absolutely fantastic because it’s compulsory. The one saving grace about Australian politics is it’s compulsory. We have a bad enough time making sense of that, but Singapore, because it’s compulsory and first past the post, no preferential system, the capacity of the PAP either through GRCS, supposedly in the name of keeping but limiting minority races or by the press, or by using the lack of preferential system… First past the post, you just introduced another candidate into the race where you’ve got a good opposition figure and still a good possibility and with Chee Soon Juan they reached the point where they put him into a single member constituency because they were sure they’d done enough damage to him, they thought to destroy him but it didn’t work out. Soon Juan keeps bouncing back.

PJ Thum: Of course, there’s now much more… I mean since the ‘80s, but definitely played up a lot more recently is the whole town council and how that is a mechanism for and punishing. Lee Kuan Yew used the word “repent”. So, all the lawsuits and the allegations being thrown around about Aljunied Town Council has shown that that itself is also a mechanism for punishing voters who vote in opposition. So your book was not sold in Singapore, never been sold in Singapore then. But it’s never also been officially banned in Singapore.

Jim Minchin: That’s the cleverness of the policy. Yet those involved in the selling of the book know very well the risks.

PJ Thum: Yes. Punish the sellers, the distributors, but don’t outright ban the book. Right, right. But then you were able to still come back to Singapore regularly for a long time until 2012. So what happened there? You gave an interview to…

Jim Minchin: Vincent Wijeysingha and to this day, I like Vincent enormously and find great pleasure in him and a few times I met Jolovan when they were together… these are two of the most fascinating people I’d ever met. Vincent with his background, his father being principal of RI, and Jolovan being such a fighter in causes that he believes in. He’s done astonishing things in what had always become a fairly moribund social worker enterprise, everything domesticated. But what happened was, because at that stage Vincent was active with the SDP, doing the kind of television or video programming, interviewing people inside… He asked me to do an interview and he said, look, the situation is probably a bit more relaxed now. You can probably wear your priest, clerical collar and I’ll interview you. And I thought the interview went quite well until the moment when he said in your book you psychoanalyse Mr Lee and in whole PAP vocabulary, “psychoanalyse” is a word that should never be used about the Great Leader. And I thought “you bastard”, you know, excuse my French. But, and that was the… there was a kind of gentleman’s agreement that I would never speak publicly in Singapore about things. And they got me on two counts. One was this interview because it was released online into Singapore and the other, they tried a number of times to get me to give interviews for Straits Times reporters, I’d always refused, but they tried to… they alleged that at a meeting of Function 8 that I’d criticised the precedence of order over law, and this was straight from a quote from Lee Kuan Yew, but that I’d criticized the absence of the rule of law in Singapore and it was supposed to be a private function. But they had someone planted there, passed it on. So this interview, when it went online, immediately, there was a decision made. As I found out later, I came back a month later for my next visit to Singapore and at the immigration counter, I was stopped. No one knew why, but I was put in a little side room and I made the mistake, I didn’t read the notice and I made a quick phone call to Vincent and a friend who was going to house me for my visit to say that I wasn’t able to enter. And of course Vincent and I both knew exactly why. And that was important because afterwards I was put in the wonderfully named, or Orwellian-named of Inadmissible Passengers Lounge, which is in another terminal and was filled with 30 to 40 sex workers from Vietnam and the Philippines without the proper papers. They’re all girls. And 20 or so construction workers from Bangladesh. I was the only one on clearly political grounds. And while I was in detention, for 24 hours I was held there, I refused to sleep in the air-conditioned compartment provided for me because I said I hate echo and I’ll freeze to death. So I was up the whole time, 24 hours later I was put on a JetStar flight back to Melbourne. And the next day I was lucky enough to leave and come to Malaysia. I got a cheap flight with AirAsia, it was my introduction to them. So it was like that. But because I’d let Vincent know about it, he raised questions and The Straits Times a few days later published a picture of me doing the interview. And it was made very clear the clergy, particularly, should not interfere in Singapore politics. So my own view was it was basically to punish Vincent.

PJ Thum: Uh, just to clarify, when you say a gentleman’s agreement, how did you know this agreement existed that you would not talk about…

Jim Minchin: I was warned. I was told. People say for God’s sake, don’t say, if you’re asked to give interviews, just say anodyne nice things about Singapore, but don’t raise any political question. You have no standing. I have no standing in Singapore. I was a visitor given the courtesy of being able to visit. And of course part of that was so that ISD could check up on who I was with.

PJ Thum: I think I’ve kept you for long enough. Is there anything else that you want to talk about or want to say or you feel like anything under developed?

Jim Minchin: It’s been the most important thing intellectually that I’ve done in my life and I’ve found it profoundly disturbing. And yet I also feel very grateful to have had the chance to study Singapore politics in such detail. And whether or not I kept a good sense of proportion about that is a highly subjective matter. So it’s been the most disturbing thing in my life. It’s taken me totally out of my comfort zone, both intellectually and academically and personally, to study a man who in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined ever such a person existing.

PJ Thum: Thank you very much, Jim, for your time. Thank you. You’ve been most generous and talking with us. Thank you for your book and thank you for continuing to love Singapore so much. Even despite all of that our government has done to you…

Jim Minchin: In Singapore I’d made the most marvellous friendships in my time there for which I’ll eternally be grateful and the difficulties of writing about Lee Kuan Yew I’ve outlined. I’m still affected by that, but I hope and pray something good can come out of it in the debates and discourses that need to take place, because the present trajectory unquestioned and unchecked is not going to lead to anything very positive. It needs a lot more participation by Singaporeans.

 

Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and founding director of Project Southeast Asia, an interdisciplinary research centre on Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). He is creator of “The History of Singapore” podcast, available on iTunes. Reach him at pingtjin.thum@newnaratif.com.

Now that you're here, we have a favour to ask...

Join our movement for a better Southeast Asia

New Naratif is a movement for democracy, freedom of information, and freedom of speech in Southeast Asia (see our manifesto). Our articles report on issues that are often overlooked or suppressed by the mainstream media in Southeast Asia. We are rely on our members for their support. Every cent of your membership fee goes to supporting our research, journalism, and community organisation activities. Your support enables us to be editorially independent and to conduct hard hitting independent research and journalism. It allows us to give a voice to the powerless and to hold the powerful accountable. Our members are active participants in our movement, helping us to create content and informing us about important issues, which shapes our coverage and content. Join our movement and let us, together, build a better Southeast Asia. Please subscribe to New Naratif—it’s just US$52/year (US$1/week) or US$5/month—and it only takes a minute. If you’d like to learn more, and read more articles, please start here! Thank you!