The Dec. 12, 2005, cover of TIME Asia
By Lily Rothman
March 22, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister and the man credited with creating modern Singapore, was involved in the country’s politics since Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965.

Just as Singapore has felt his presence as a constant throughout the years, so too has his office. When TIME’s Zoher Abdoolcarim, Simon Elegant and Michael Elliott visited with Lee over the course of two days in the fall of 2005, they observed that he had occupied the same rooms since the 1970s.

But that didn’t mean that Lee Kuan Yew was stuck in the past. In fact, during that interview he offered up his views on some of the most newsworthy issues of the day, from the rise of China to the threat of radical Islam. And though he admitted some faults — he should have fostered free enterprise more, he said — he was defiant in the face of other criticisms: “I’m not guided by what Human Rights Watch says. I am not interested in ratings by Freedom House or whatever. At the end of the day, is Singapore society better or worse off? That’s the test. What are the indicators of a well-governed society? Look at the humanities index in last week’s Economist, we’re right on top,” he told TIME.

And no matter what one thinks of Lee’s record, it’s hard to argue that he didn’t earn the right to his opinion. As TIME pointed out:

Lee can be forgiven for lifting his eyes to the horizon. Once the subject of withering criticism from human-rights groups for his authoritarian ways and intolerance of dissent, he is now widely acknowledged as Asia’s most respected senior statesman. Others may pen lengthy memoirs and seek to use their years on the world stage to tout their punditry and powers of prediction. Some can even lay claim to having guided far larger countries or served as leaders for longer than Lee. But Lee is unique. It is not just that his cold-eyed, totally nonideological analysis has set him apart from other observers of Asia. There is another factor that is just as important an explanation of Lee’s influence. From his days as a clerk and a black-market broker during the brutal Japanese occupation of Singapore — which he was lucky to survive — through his years as an agitator for independence from Britain, from his time spent talking to the Americans during the Vietnam years to his role as a confidant of China’s leadership, Lee has seen it all. He has been a participant observer of the most significant historical shift of our times — the steady ascent of Asia, home to 60% of the world’s population, from the twin shames of Western colonialism and poverty to its coming economic and political dominance. Everyone who lives in Asia today thinks they are watching history being made; Lee Kuan Yew is one of those who can say, without fear of contradiction, that he helped make it.

Read the full interview with Lee Kuan Yew, here in the TIME archives: Lee Kuan Yew Reflects

Read TIME’s take on the interview, here in the TIME archives: The Man Who Saw It All

Write to Lily Rothman at


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