Lee Kuan Yew and Oz
24 Mar 2015|

Mr Lee Kuan Yew with the Federal Treasurer, Mr Harold Holt, during a visit to Parliament House, Canberra, 1965.A useful history of Australia’s actions, apprehensions and aspirations in Southeast Asia over the last 75 years could be written using Lee Kuan Yew as actor and commentator.

As a young translator, working for the Japanese during WWII, Lee remembered seeing the Australian POWs being marched through the streets. He wrote in his memoirs: ‘The capture of thousands of their soldiers by the Japanese Imperial Army will forever be seared into Australia’s national memory, a disaster second only to Gallipoli. But Singapore is nearer home and strategically more relevant to Australia.’

In the decades that followed, Australia might not have figured large for LKY, but it did figure. And all the things that shaped or drove the Singapore leader resonated for Australia: Japanese conquest, the end of Britain’s Asian role, the US as regional security guarantor, the challenge of Communism, the difficult birth and early struggles of Asian independence, the evolution of regionalism, the Asian economic miracle, the rise of China and the coming of the Asian Century.

During Confrontation with Indonesia, for instance, Lee judged Australia’s diplomacy as steady and deft. Australia didn’t abandon Malaysia and Singapore, he wrote, but ‘was careful not to upset the Indonesians or make them feel that they were being ganged up against.’

Come forward three decades, and Lee wrote that Canberra’s response to the East Timor crisis in 1999 reflected Australia’s sense of guilt over Timor, but became a ‘defining moment’ for Australia’s role in the region: ‘Whether or not it was wise to have proposed self-determination for East Timor, Australia did right in leading INTERFET into East Timor to put a stop to the inhumanity being perpetrated. While no Asian leader voiced support for Australia as it led INTERFET troops into East Timor, all knew that Australia was saving an ugly situation from getting worse. It was an operation costly in political and economic terms for Australia, a task no country in the region would have undertaken. If Australia had not acted after the part it had played leading to the vote for independence, it would have earned its neighbours contempt.’

Contempt for Oz wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling for LKY. He found Gough Whitlam ‘quick-witted but also quick-tempered’, and was glad to see the end of the ‘acerbic’ Labor leader: ‘It was a relief when their Governor-General removed Whitlam…’

Whitlam’s return shot: ‘In frequent meetings with Lee I became used to his forceful arguments against change before it occurred and his serene rationalisation of change after it had occurred.’

The big clash between Lee and Whitlam was over Australia’s initial reluctance to take too many of the Vietnamese boat people. In 1975, LKY taunted that the boats should keep sailing to ‘salubrious’ Australia, where refugees should ask for Whitlam, ‘a very sympathetic Prime Minister who believes the White Australia policy is most deplorable and damnable and here is his chance.’

In the effort to create APEC in 1989, Singapore was Australia’s strongest backer within ASEAN. At the second APEC ministerial, held in Singapore in 1990, Lee commented: ‘APEC was only a concept. Australia’s good timing and skilful diplomacy brought it into fruition.’ Conversely, when Kevin Rudd floated his proposal for a new Asia Pacific Community (PDF) in 2008, Singapore headed the successful ASEAN campaign to kill the idea. In the words of one senior Indonesian analyst, Rudd’s Community was, ‘kicked to death by Singapore.’

Australia was at its most important as an influence on LKY’s destiny in the unsuccessful attempt to marry Singapore to Malaysia. In the efforts to negotiate with Malaysia’s leader, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Lee paid tribute to Australia’s High Commissioner, Tom Critchley. The Australian diplomat, he wrote, knew how to ease the Malaysian leader slowly towards big decisions. And that included not beating him at golf or poker: ‘Critchley might lose a few hundred dollars to him at poker over the months – not big money, but not tiddlywinks either. The Tunku liked winning, or rather did not like losing. It was part of his royal upbringing.’ When LKY trounced the Tunku in one golf match, the British High Commissioner ‘took me to task for being tactless.’

Lee said it was the British ‘with the help of the Australians’ who persuaded the Tunku to admit Singapore to the federation in 1963. In 1965, as the pressure mounted over Singapore’s place inside the federation and Confrontation with Indonesia boiled, Lee visited Australia for an 18-day tour that took him all over the country. Lee felt that Australia’s Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, carried more weight with the Tunku than the British Prime Minister: ‘Unlike Harold Wilson, Menzies was a conservative and had always supported the Tunku. The Tunku had spoken of him in warm terms and if Menzies would now urge him to seek a solution for Malaysia through political accommodation and not force, he was more likely to succeed than if Wilson did so.’

When Lee wrote to Menzies that disaster loomed between Malaysia and Singapore, he saw the Australian PM’s reply as supportive but carefully balanced. Menzies wrote that a sensible settlement was still possible and urged LKY to have ‘patience as the constant companion of your unquestioned abilities.’

The military dimension of Australia’s relationship with Singapore has always been more intimate than any other nation in Southeast Asia. The old yet still beating expression of this is the Five Power Defence Arrangements, created in 1971 to guarantee Malaysia and Singapore; the newer version, in bilateral guise, is the fact that the numbers of Singaporean military who train in Australia each year (4,000) are bigger than those who come here from the US.

An LKY history of Oz has at its centre his most famous line about us: the warning that Australians risked becoming ‘the poor white trash of Asia.’ The comment came out of that 18-day tour in 1965. As a typical Lee shaft, it was designed to hit and hurt, to be heard and heeded.

When first uttered, Singapore was muttering about the White Australia policy (thus White Australia to white trash) and starting to rage against Australia’s high tariff protection. Trust LKY to boil a complex argument down to the sharpest of points: if Australia wanted to stay rich and prosperous, it would have to open itself to the big new economic game unfolding in Asia, and open its immigration doors as well.

‘Poor white trash’ is the sort of line no journalist can resist. In interviewing LKY over the years, I asked him about it several times and always got a good headline about how far he was prepared to recant. His basic response was the warning was right in the 1960s, but Australia had heard and heeded and changed. Here is Lee on the trash issue when I put the question to him in March 2007:

‘No you have changed, I mean the Australia I came to in 1965 was a very different Australia, you were a white Australia, there was the Asian exclusion act, and in 1960s the US changed their rules and in 1967 or 68 you changed yours, and Canadians followed suit and we lost a lot of talent. And today we’ve not only lost Malaysians and others who used to come to Singapore, in your last census there were 50-thousand Singapore born persons now in Australia, and more will come over time because they find when they can’t make the top jobs and it’s easier living here.’

The unstated assumption in the trash line needs to be highlighted. Here was LKY, even in 1965, talking about Australia as part of Asia. And that was Lee’s default position on Oz: we should and could be ‘the odd man in, in Asia’ (Richard Woolcott’s phrase). That view of Australia’s role in Asia put LKY on the other side of the fence from the other Asian values champion, Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir, who was equally sharp in stating that Australia did not have a natural or even proper place in Asia.

Lee Kuan Yew was consistent over the decades in the view he expressed in his memoirs: ‘Australia’s destiny is linked more to Asia, than to Britain or Europe.’

When a new MP, Pauline Hanson, was raging against Asianisation of Oz, Lee dismissed it as an ‘egregious aberration’ and said Australia had to go through with its long journey, moving from being Eurocentric to Asiancentric.

No white trash, us. We listened to LKY.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia.