Letter to Mr S. Rajaratnam, my mentor and teacher, Singapore News & Top Stories – The Straits Times

Jan 20, 2019By Kishore Mahbubani

Dear Mr Rajaratnam,

You have been a strong and silent source of inspiration for me all my life, pushing me to go beyond the normal boundaries and comfort zones that we would like to wrap ourselves in.

Your enormous political courage was the biggest source of inspiration. You displayed it most fiercely when you took on the virtual mission impossible of riding the communist tiger, with your political comrades, especially Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee. This dangerous alliance with the communists in Singapore was necessary in the struggle to free Singapore from British colonial rule. The risks were formidable. Until then, virtually all the non-communist parties who rode on the communist tiger ended up being eaten by the tiger.

You saw what happened in Eastern Europe in the 1950s. Bulgaria’s Nikola Petkov, whose Agrarian party was part of the Fatherland Front coalition that included the Communist Party, was executed in 1947 after the communists took control. In Czechoslovakia, the communists had forced other parties out of the coalition government by 1948.

The Hungarian Communist Party led by Matyas Rakosi famously used “salami tactics” to get rid of the non-communists in the coalition government. No wonder your wife Piroska, who was Hungarian, was constantly worried for your safety throughout your long-drawn struggle against the communists in Singapore.

Future historians will marvel that the only party to have ridden the communist tiger and ended up eating the tiger, instead of being eaten by it, was the People’s Action Party (PAP) led by Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and you. All three of you risked your lives. But you believed in a cause and were ready to sacrifice yourselves for a greater cause. That took raw courage.


Courage is also contextual. When I accompanied you to attend the Non-Aligned Summit in Havana, Cuba, in September 1979, we knew that we were walking into a lion’s den. We went there to oppose the Soviet-supported Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978. The Vietnamese had installed a quisling regime led by Heng Samrin. Castro and Cuba were among the staunchest allies of the Soviet Union. Hence, ignoring all rules of procedure, Castro installed the Heng Samrin delegation as the legitimate representative from Cambodia. We protested.

Castro cleverly engineered a small meeting when he filled the room with presidents and premiers who were staunch allies of the Soviet Union, including Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi. You were only a humble foreign minister surrounded by heads of government. The atmosphere in the room was downright intimidating.

Any normal person would have been intimidated at being so outgunned and outnumbered. Yet, not once did you flinch. You fought like a lion and stood your ground, earning the grudging respect of Fidel Castro and his Soviet team. And your courage paid off. Even though the Heng Samrin delegation had been legitimised in the 94-member Non-Aligned Movement, it failed to gain the Cambodian seat of the UN General Assembly barely a month later. Your fierce and undaunting courage in a white-heat moment has inspired me to occasionally stand alone and fight against the conventional wisdom of the time.


If anyone had met you in person then, he would have been surprised to hear of this fierce streak. In person, you were never intimidating. Your kind and gentle temperament, making everyone around you feel at ease, was truly remarkable.



Your ruthless realism was based on one key principle: never shun away from the truth, even if that truth proves to be painful and inconvenient. There was one point you repeated to us constantly: “Never tell me what you think I want to hear. Always tell me what I ought to hear.”



You showed similar courage in fighting for the multiracial ideal of a Malaysian Malaysia after Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963. The Malay elite in Malaysia was determined to preserve its political dominance. Hence Singapore’s eviction from Malaysia in 1965 could have been anticipated.

But you didn’t give up the cause. You continued to believe in a society which treated all races as equals. Hence, the most shining contribution you have made to Singapore is the drafting of the Singapore Pledge, which captures your ideas so forcefully:

We, the citizens of Singapore,

pledge ourselves as one united people,

regardless of race, language or religion,

to build a democratic society

based on justice and equality

so as to achieve happiness, prosperity

and progress for our nation.

It’s significant that the word “democratic” is firmly emplaced in the pledge. You believed that the one-man-one-vote system, despite its flaws, is basically sound, although some of your colleagues disagreed with you. As you said: “I believe in democracy. Here Kuan Yew and I don’t agree… Lee Kuan Yew says you cannot trust democracy. I believe you can and you must.”

Lee Kuan Yew could be very forceful and intimidating when he expressed his views. Yet you never wavered from your belief in democracy.

Yet, if anyone had met you in person then, he would have been surprised to hear of this fierce streak. In person, you were never intimidating. Your kind and gentle temperament, making everyone around you feel at ease, was truly remarkable.

Like Mahatma Gandhi, you exuded natural humility. You never boasted of your achievements, even though one of your short stories was selected to be included in the 1947 volume published in New York, entitled A World Of Great Stories: 115 Stories, The Best Of Modern Literature. You joined the likes of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck, in this volume. The only other Asian writer featured in this volume was Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. You had joined the A-League of global writers. Yet, in all the years we were together, from 1971 to 1991, you never mentioned this to me once.


If you were to wake up today, your ruthlessly realistic geopolitical nose would also sense we are now experiencing some of the most powerful geopolitical shifts in human history.

When I was a young man of 25, barely three years out of college, you invited me and other young officials to join your weekly ministerial meetings. Some of the best education I got in geopolitics was through my participation in these weekly meetings. This education continued when I sat with you in the car, driving you from Kuala Lumpur to visit your brother in Seremban in the 1970s, and when you visited New York, when I served as Singapore’s Ambassador to the UN from 1984 to 1989. Conversations with you were such a joy, especially after you began your first glass of whisky at cocktail hour.

Your ruthless realism was based on one key principle: never shun away from the truth, even if that truth proves to be painful and inconvenient. There was one point you repeated to us constantly: “Never tell me what you think I want to hear. Always tell me what I ought to hear.”

At our meetings, you would welcome contradictory, even dissenting, views. You did not repeat the common mistake of many leaders who surrounded themselves with sycophants. Instead, you wanted to hear a real diversity of views, even if they challenged the conventional wisdom of the time or your views.


There is no doubt that you would be pleased by the spectacular recovery China has made. You were the first Singapore leader to visit China in March 1975. In your first visit, where you called on Zhou Enlai, you saw at first hand the abject poverty of China. Beijing had no private cars. Only bicycles on the road. The people were dressed in drab uniformity. There were no skyscrapers, no neon signs.

In your fourth and last visit in 1985, you saw China take steps towards modernisation with its special economic zones in southern China. China invited Dr Goh Keng Swee to be its economic adviser. You encouraged this, saying: “I believe a modernised and prosperous China embracing some one billion people will be an economic revolution which would have positive consequences for the world.”

Hence, you would be gratified to see Beijing today. As a metropolis, it looks more like New York, the No. 1 city when you were alive. The Chinese communists, against whom you fought a life and death struggle in the 1950s and 1960s, have become among the greatest believers in free market economics.

Indeed, in some respects, the Chinese economy has become even more dynamic than most economies: in mobile payments, in e-commerce, in fast trains and even in artificial intelligence.


And how would you have advised Singapore to deal with a world when China becomes the No. 1 economy?

You would have reiterated some of the basic principles of Singapore’s foreign policy that you advocated soon after Singapore’s independence in 1965. Your advice to small states remains timeless. You said: “When a small country like Singapore aligns itself with a big power, there is no doubt as to who keeps in step with whose policies. In other words, Singapore’s foreign policy, if it is aligned, becomes a mere reproduction of the foreign policy of its more powerful partner.”

You then added: “A non-aligned policy, in fact, gives us greater freedom to make pronouncements or adopt stands purely on the merits, as we see them, of specific international issues. An aligned position on the other hand obliges us automatically to take the stand that our major and more powerful ally takes on any important issue.”

In short, you clearly warned Singapore against becoming an ally or pawn of a great power. At the same time, as Tommy Koh said in your eulogy: “He (Raja) was a realist but he was not a fatalist. He did not believe that small states were powerless.”

Tommy Koh also described well another one of your legacies: “One characteristic of the Singapore School of Diplomacy is to be realistic about the world, but not to be intimidated by some powerful states.”

These principles forged by you remain the basis of how Singapore conducts its foreign relations even till today.

One of the most unforgettable visits of my life was when I accompanied you on a visit to Moscow in 1976. It could not have been an easy visit for you. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had fallen to the communists one year earlier. The Soviet leaders knew that Singapore had sympathised with American efforts to prevent this from happening. Hence, we could have had a cold and hostile reception in Moscow.

Instead, I was struck by the warmth and graciousness of the Soviet officials who received us. The most stunning breakfast table of food I had ever seen in my life was in the official guest house in Moscow. A table 30 ft long and 10 ft wide was filled completely with food. There we also met the then legendary foreign minister of the Soviet Union, Mr Andrei Gromyko.

You made it clear to him that even though Singapore was non-communist at home, it was not anti-communist in its foreign policy. Singapore wanted to have good relations with all great powers. Hence, while Singapore welcomed American naval vessels at its port, it would also welcome Soviet naval vessels. Gromyko was also floored by your charm. I remember well the advice you gave to us when we were your diplomats: You said we had to be charming because “who will talk to you if you are not charming? Singapore is a small country”. You also taught us to dress well.

Your name will be etched in history forever as one of the five signatories of the Asean Charter on Aug 8, 1967. If, like Rip Van Winkle, you woke up today, you would also be astonished by the spectacular success of Asean. When you signed it, little did you know that it would last. Indeed, two of its predecessors, ASA and Maphilindo, died within two years. In our book The Asean Miracle, Jeffery Sng and I try to explain why Asean succeeded. I have no doubt that one reason why Asean did not die of infant mortality in its early years was because you were the foreign minister of Singapore during this period. Your quiet, modest and unassuming way set the tone for friendly discussions among the then unfriendly states of South-east Asia. You also imbued Asean with a deep culture of pragmatism that has stood the test of time.

This culture of pragmatism in Singapore’s foreign policy, dealing with the real world as it is, and not with a world we wish to have, has been one of your greatest gifts to Singapore. It’s a culture of pragmatism that was also shared by the two other key founding fathers of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee. The simple reason why Singapore has been the most successful small nation since human history began (as I documented in an essay for the Huffington Post in August 2015) is that Singapore, at its independence in 1965, was led not by one but by three exceptional and gifted leaders. This was the result of an extraordinary accident of history.

The three of you could not have been more different in temperament. Lee Kuan Yew, a brilliant thinker and debater, was fierce and intimidating. Goh Keng Swee, a brilliant thinker who spoke in a dull fashion, was also fierce and intimidating. You were also a brilliant thinker but not intimidating, even after you delivered a fierce and hard-hitting speech.


Indeed, you were even kind to your political enemies. One of the little known facts about Singapore is that even though it is a Chinese-majority state, its first chief minister was a man of Iraqi-Jewish origin, David Marshall. Marshall had fiercely opposed your political party, the PAP. It’s a rivalry that went back decades. You have told us a very funny story about one of the first encounters you had with David Marshall in the 1950s:

“And so he gave us a dinner, one of the most lavish dinners. He was a very generous man. There were lots of goodies to eat. Very expensive red wines! We were eating, and he tried to persuade us to join his party which was called the Labour Front. And we enjoyed ourselves, took advantage of his very lavish dinner, very expensive dinner, and then we started explaining very bluntly why we couldn’t join the Labour Front. Jokingly, we said, ‘Because Lee Kuan Yew is a lawyer, and David Marshall is also a lawyer. But a different type of lawyer.’ That irritated David Marshall, and he just said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you people, I’m going home.’ And he stepped out, got into his car, and never turned back. And we looked at each other, Kuan Yew and myself, and said, well, since the dinner is here, let us enjoy it! Red wine was there, and we got soaked!”

Yet, despite this long rivalry with him, you invited David Marshall to your office on May 19, 1978. David told me that he thought that you had invited him because you wanted him, as a lawyer, to draft your will. Instead, to David’s absolute astonishment, you invited him to become the Singapore Ambassador to France. As Lee Kuan Yew noted about you, “Raja harboured no grudge against old opponents and bore no abiding animosities.” Only great souls have this capacity for great forgiveness.

It is equally striking that even after having served as deputy prime minister of Singapore and having dined with the greatest leaders of the world, you never lost your common touch. For you, the belief in socialism, with the inherent desire to improve the lot of your fellow men and women, was not an abstract belief. It was rooted deeply in your soul and personality. You saw all human beings as having equal moral worth. And you treated each and every one with equal kindness and generosity.

If our world could produce more leaders like you, there is no doubt that humanity would be far better off. Thanks for being such a great role model in my life.

With warm regards, Kishore


Source: Letter to Mr S. Rajaratnam, my mentor and teacher, Singapore News & Top Stories – The Straits Times