Yesterday, was 50 days since LKY moved on. Here’s something to mark the date.
“[T]he thing that most impresses … is how quickly a life can go utterly off the rails, spiralling from stability to disaster in only a few years. A bit of bad luck, a couple of bad decisions, and a person such as Mr Shaikh can suddenly lose everything, including his life.” The writer was describing what had happened to a British man executed by the Chinese authorities for drug trafficking. He had for years lived a normal life.
Reading this, one can understand how the likes of Lee Kuan Yew perceive the world: one avoidable misstep (say the Opposition wins one more vote) and it’s downhill on the steepest of a most slippery slope.
Sigemund Warburg, another control freak, and visionary genius, was described thus: “He walks through life like a character in a Greek tragedy, forever expecting the worst to happen, the last man in the dead centre of a hurricane, continually amazed that he is still alive. The frightful sound of the Erinyes [ancient Greek personifications of Fate] is always in his inner ear — especially when all goes well. That, he feels is the moment when one must watch out for the danger signs.”
Doesn’t this sound like LKY? Always concerned that something would go wrong. Warburg (a partner in a family owned merchant bank) fled Germany in the 1930s when he realised that Hitler wanted to kill the Jews. Lee Kuan Yew, educated in S’pore at RI, the training ground for clerks that would work for the British and where the students were taught that the British ruled by divine right, saw the British surrender S’pore to the Japanese.
Were LKY and Sigemund Warburg wrong to be pessimists?
Thirteen years after his death in 1982, SG Warburg, the UK merchant bank Sigemund Warburg founded was sold to Swiss Bank Corporation for a pittance. When he was running it, it was the top UK investment bank. It was not as though he had dumb successors (people like Goh Chok Tong, Wong Kan Seng, Mah Bow Tan, Yaacob and Raymond Lim), the place was a meritocracy with people the equilvants of Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San and Tharman. Though he had officially retired in the 1970s and was living in Switzerland, he still retained a personal secretary to draft correspondence and “assist” with the operations of the firm. He was a bit like our very own Senior Minister and then Minister Mentor.
The world of finance had changed, and his successors had a run of bad luck when carrying out their chosen strategy. This is not to say that the strategy was right: in hindsight they should have become a boutique, not a full service, investment bank. But that’s with perfect hindsight.
The irony is that the rich-kid cousin Sigemund Warburg looked down on as a dilettante and bum did better than he did in terms of legacy. Two investment banks connected to the cousin (one he co-founded, the other he returned to) are today independent, thriving and still retain the Warburg name.
Life is fragile. And Lee’s pessimism about S’pore, self-serving though it may be, could be right. S’pore is changing. He foresaw one major change but could do bugger-all about it.
Mr Cheong Yip Seng (LKY’s favourite newsman, ex-ST chief editor) told us of an incident which showed that LKY was aware of the impact of new media. One November evening in 1999, Mr Lee telephoned Mr Cheong. He was troubled by a new information phenomenon, which was threatening to overwhelm the traditional media industry: eyeballs were migrating from print newspapers to cyberspace. Mr Cheong said that LKY was anxious about how the information revolution would impact the Singapore traditional media.
“He was anxious to find a response that would enable the mainstream media to keep its eyeballs. He wanted us at Singapore Press Holdings to think about the way forward.”
Well SPH, and the rest of constructive, nation-building media didn’t do what they were ordered to, did they? That despite throwing serious money and other resources at the problem.
And just because S’pore is changing in ways he may not like, doesn’t mean that all will be well either.
(Above’s a reworking of one of my earliest posts.)