He did not crave to be popular; rather, Mr Lee Kuan Yew sought to persuade people to see his point of view. A forceful orator in part due to his legal training, his ability to sway his listeners contributed greatly to Mr Lee’s effectiveness over the years. The man shaped in the turbulent power struggles of pre-independence Singapore grasped full well the importance of being able to win over the crowd, though he refused to be led by it.
A leader concerned with being popular was a weak leader, he believed, and he preferred to be feared than to be loved. In an interview in 1975, Mr Lee said: “My job is to persuade my flock, my people, and that’s the right way ... What the crowd thinks of me from time to time, I consider totally irrelevant … The whole ground can be against me, but if I know this is right, I set out to do it, and I am quite sure, given time, as events unfold, I will win over the ground.”
His former Cabinet colleague, the late Goh Keng Swee, said of his persuasive powers: “He gets his way not, as some opposition people say, by dictating to other people, but by persuading them. He spends an awful lot of time persuading people.”
‘A LOCAL RONALD REAGAN’
Mr Lee did not mince words nor try to be politically correct. He once described himself as “a local Ronald Reagan” (referring to the charismatic former-actor-turned-United States President), able to “speak to the people over the blather of the media”, in reference to his success at defending his position against political opponents and the media.
Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, who heard Mr Lee speak to a crowd of hostile port workers at Tanjong Pagar in 1963, recounted: “Through his sheer charisma, eloquence and persuasiveness, and using a mixture of Malay and English, he was able to turn the meeting around.”
Gifts or not, communication and persuasion were something Mr Lee worked at relentlessly.
Working with the labour unions to build a political support base after his return from Britain, he learnt to speak the common people’s languages — Malay, Chinese and simplified English instead of the BBC-standard natural to him.
He took up Mandarin classes again with renewed determination in 1955 at the age of 32, and by the 1959 elections, had mastered it well enough to speak without a script. “I won the respect of the Chinese-speaking for working hard at their language,” he recollected.
For the 1961 Hong Lim by-election, Mr Lee “sweated blood to master Hokkien” — devoting an hour to learning it three to five times a week, so he could get his views across to the uneducated.
To learn a new language in his late 30s amid day-to-day work required “superhuman concentration and effort”, he recalled. “The first time I made a Hokkien speech in Hong Lim, the children in the crowd laughed at my mistakes — wrong sound, wrong tones, wrong sentence structure, wrong almost everything. But I could not afford to be shy or embarrassed. It was a matter of life and death.”
MASTER STORYTELLER AND ‘POP STAR’
Over the months of September and October 1961, Mr Lee gave a series of 12 radio talks campaigning for merger with Malaysia, explaining why it was crucial for Singapore’s survival. The broadcasts were made in Malay, Mandarin and English, three times a week each.
“It was a gruelling experience. On one occasion, Radio Singapore staff were alarmed when they looked through the studio’s glass panel and did not see me at the microphone. One of them spotted me lying on my back, flat on the floor in a state of collapse, as she thought,” Mr Lee recounted. He had, in fact, lain down “to recover from my exhaustion and recharge my batteries in between recording the three different versions of my broadcast”.
Those broadcasts showed Mr Lee to be a master storyteller, said former Singapore Press Holdings Editor-in-Chief (English and Malay Newspapers Division) Cheong Yip Seng, who was then a Senior Cambridge-year schoolboy. “Every broadcast ended with the listener in suspense and anxious for the next instalment, the way ordinary folk at that time lapped up the kung fu serials broadcast over Rediffusion by Lei Tai Sor in Cantonese.”
He could “explain complex issues in simple terms, in a way the masses, usually in the thousands and then not well-educated, could understand. His deep, powerful voice rose and fell for emphasis and effect, and he spoke with great passion, determined to convince”.
While radio had a wide reach, Mr Lee believed in also taking his message directly to the ground. After the merger referendum in September 1962, he visited constituencies to shore up support for elections the next year.
Those 10 months between December 1962 and September 1963, Mr Lee said, were the most hectic of his life: He made as many as 10 speeches a day, in Malay, English and Hokkien or Mandarin. “I became a kind of political pop star,” he said.
SPEECH THAT CHANGED HISTORY
But possibly his most important speech yet came in May 1965, nearly two years after Singapore had become part of Malaysia, when he laid out his case against communal politics. His audience: The Malaysian Parliament.
He caused a sensation addressing them in Bahasa. Former Minister for Social Affairs Othman Wok said: “I noticed that while he was speaking, the Alliance leaders sitting in front of us, they sank lower and lower because they were embarrassed this man could speak Malay better than them.”
Former Cabinet colleague, the late Lim Kim San, noted: “That was the turning point. They perceived him as a dangerous man who could one day be the Prime Minister of Malaya. This was the speech that changed history.”
On Aug 9, 1965, Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia and became an independent state.
After independence, with the People’s Action Party making a clean sweep of Parliament seats for close to two decades, Mr Lee institutionalised the practice of addressing the nation in his National Day Rally, which was broadcast on television to reach as many as possible.
Speaking in English, Malay and Chinese in the year’s most important political speech, he would give an overview of the Government’s performance, spell out the key challenges and talk about policy changes—– and, more often than not, remind his audience colourfully of Singapore’s vulnerabilities.
“With only notes, I would speak for one to two hours on the important issues of the day ... I had to learn how to hold the audience, both at the National Theatre and over television, and get them to follow my thought processes,” Mr Lee said.
He felt at his best as an orator without a script. “I had better rapport with my audience when I expressed my thoughts as they formed and flowed in my mind, whereas if I had a script, I could not get my message across with the same conviction and passion.”
He was in his element in the election hustings, delivering fiery, no-holds-barred oratory in the evenings at mass rallies in the constituencies. But particularly memorable were his speeches at Fullerton Square in the midday heat to reach out to office workers. “Sometimes there would be a heavy shower and I would be drenched while the crowds sheltered under umbrellas or took cover on the five-foot-way of offices around the square,” Mr Lee said.
Former Cabinet minister George Yeo recalled one such wet Fullerton rally in 1980. “So the umbrellas sprouted open and the crowds started fidgeting and you could sense that they would soon disperse. But (Mr Lee) did not miss a beat. He continued. He looked them in the eyes. He addressed them as if he was talking to each and every one of them personally.”
Mr Lee said: “The people stayed and I carried on. Although wet, I never felt the cold; my adrenaline was pouring out. The spoken word on television made a far greater impact than the written script in newspapers. My dominance of the public platform was my strength throughout my political life.”
His trademark combativeness and candour during the hustings, nonetheless, did not always sit well with a newer generation of Singaporeans. In the 2011 General Election, his remarks to reporters that Aljunied voters would have “five years to live and repent” if they voted in the Workers’ Party team sparked a storm. Asked about the potential backlash, he said: “I am 87. I am speaking the truth. I do not want to be hypocritical.”