Lee Kuan Yew’s sharp words on the world, himself

By on March 24, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew, the autocratic founder of modern Singapore who died Monday, never shrank from expressing his views bluntly. He was known as much for his tough talk as a pithy turn of phrase in campaign speeches, press interviews and parliamentary debates. Here are some of his oft-quoted comments:

Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac. That’s the way I had to survive in the past. That’s the way the communists tackled me. (Speaking about his harsh treatment of opposition politician J B Jeyaretnam in “Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas,” 1998)

I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think. (The Straits Times, April 20, 1987)


Repression, sir, is a habit that grows. I am told it is like making love – it is always easier the second time! The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course with constant repetition you get more and more brazen in the attack. All you have to do is to dissolve organizations and societies and banish and detain the key political workers in these societies. Then miraculously everything is tranquil on the surface. Then an intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they’re conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict. (Addressing colonial-era prime minister David Marshall as an opposition Peoples’ Action Party member in the Singapore Legislative Assembly, Oct. 4, 1956)

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. (Speech at a rally in Raffles Place, Singapore in 1980)

You call me a dictator. You are entitled to call me whatever you like, but that doesn’t make me one . . . do I need to be a dictator when I can win, hands down? (Quoted in an interview with the New York Times at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 1999)

I’m very determined. If I decide what something is worth doing, then I’ll put my heart and soul to it. The whole ground can be against me, but if I know it is right, I’ll do it. That’s the business of a leader. (Lee Kuan Yew, “The Man and His Ideas,” 1998)

The Americans should know the character of the men they are dealing with in Singapore and not get themselves further dragged into calumny. They are not dealing with Ngo Dinh Diem or Syngman Rhee. You do not buy and sell this government. (Quoted in a New York Times article reporting the CIA’s attempt to bribe him with $3.3 million in 1965)

I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless. (“The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew,” 1998)

Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave, and I feel something is wrong, I will get up. (Speaking at the 1988 National Day Rally)