Lee Kuan Yew on Philippines | Inquirer Opinion

Lee Kuan Yew on Philippines

/ 03:01 AM September 26, 2011

The first volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs, “The Singapore Story,” tells us about his country under British colonial rule all the way to sudden independence in 1965.

His second volume, “From Third World to First,” covers the years 1965 to 2000 when he took a city-state of 214 square miles with two million people and no natural resources from a per capita GDP of $400 to more than $22,000 in just 35 years.


Henry A. Kissinger, in his foreword to the second volume, writes that “history shows that normally prudent, ordinary calculations can be overturned by extraordinary personalities. In the case of Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore’s emergence as a national state, the ancient argument whether circumstance or personality shapes events is settled in favor of the latter.”

These days we could use some “extraordinary personalities” if we are to make significant progress in our attempts to recover lost ground. It may be too much to hope for a Lee Kuan Yew to emerge from among our national leaders. But perhaps we would be able to accomplish a lot more if some of our local government units are headed by individuals with the drive, the intelligence and the integrity of Singapore’s founding father. Ten or 11 mini-Singapores throughout the country, providing similar degrees of public order and personal security, cleanliness, observance and enforcement of national and local rules and ordinances in the respective communities, would make a lot of difference for the nation as a whole.


Lee Kuan Yew visited the Philippines in January 1974. His Singapore Airlines plane was escorted by a flight of PAF jet fighters as it entered Philippine airspace. As a young lieutenant colonel, I was assigned as his aide-de-camp for the duration of the visit. One of the things he asked me was if the weather would be good for some rounds of golf.  I replied it was the best time of the year for golf.

Perhaps his game was a reflection of the way he ran his country. His drives were strong and straight with a good short game; all marks of one who in his younger days would relax by hitting 50-100 balls at the driving range and then playing nine holes, at times all by himself.

Some say good golfers make excellent executives. They exhibit the same skills: controlled strength, good coordination, great focus and concentration, sensitivity combined with just the right touch for delicate situations.

* * *

Here are some of his observations on the Philippines, its leadership during the martial law years, and what he thought was the problem.

* * *

“In Bali in 1976, at the first Asean Summit held after the fall of Saigon, I found Marcos keen to push for greater economic cooperation in Asean. We agreed to implement a bilateral Philippine-Singapore across-the-board ten percent reduction of existing tariffs on all products and to promote intra-Asean trade. We also agreed to lay a Philippines-Singapore submarine cable. I was to discover that for him, the communiqué was the accomplishment itself; its implementation was secondary, an extra to be discussed at another conference.”


* * *

He relates how on one visit, Marcos took him on a tour of his library filled with volumes of newspapers as well as volumes on the history and culture of the Philippines. His campaign medals were displayed in glass cupboards. “He was the undisputed boss of all Filipinos. Imelda, his wife, had a penchant for luxury and opulence. When they visited Singapore before the Bali Summit, they came in style in two DC-8s, his and hers.”

* * *

Outrage over the Aquino assassination resulted in foreign banks stopping all loans to the Philippines which was in hock by over $25 billion and unable to pay the interest due. “He [Marcos] sent his minister for trade and industry, Bobby Ongpin, to ask me for a loan of $300-500 million to meet the interest payments. I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘We will never see that money back.’ He added that ‘what was needed was a strong, healthy leader, not more loans.’”

Later on in Brunei, Lee Kuan Yew would say the same thing to Marcos himself. “As soon as all our aides left, I went straight to the point that no bank was going to lend him any money. They wanted to know who was going to succeed him if anything were to happen to him… Singapore banks had lent $8 billion of the $25 billion owing. The hard fact was they were not likely to get repayment for some 20 years….he admitted that succession was the nub of the problem. If he could find a successor, there would be a solution. As I left, he said, ‘You are a true friend.’ I did not understand him. It was a strange meeting.”

* * *

He said we had many able people. There was no reason why the Philippines should not be as successful as other Asean countries. “Something was missing, a gel to hold society together. The people at the top, the elite mestizos, had the same detached attitude to the native peasants, as the mestizos in their haciendas in Latin America had towards their peons. They were two different societies; those at the top lived a life of extreme luxury and comfort, while the peasants scraped a living… they had many children because the Church discouraged birth control. The result was increasing poverty.”

* * *

Culture of the Filipino people.

“The Philippines had a rambunctious press but it did not check corruption. Individual pressmen could be bought, as could many judges. Something had gone seriously wrong. Filipino professionals whom we recruited to work in Singapore are as good as our own. Indeed, their architects, artists, and musicians are more artistic and creative than ours…

“The difference lies in the culture of the Filipino people. It is a soft, forgiving culture. Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over twenty years, still be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics. They supported the winning presidential and congressional candidates with their considerable resources and reappeared in the political and social limelight after the 1998 election that returned President Joseph Estrada.”

* * *

His last line on the Philippines provided some answer to the problem: “Some Filipinos write and speak with passion. If they could get their elite to share their sentiments and act, what could they not have achieved?”

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TAGS: Asian Leaders, Lee Kuan Yew, Philippines, Singapore
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