Lee Kuan Yew and Chris Patten rarely saw eye-to-eye, as detailed in two books released this year by Patten and former Singapore minister George Yeo.

Patten’s book, “The Hong Kong Diaries”, discusses his tenure as the last British governor of Hong Kong from July 19, 1992 to June 30, 1997, while Yeo’s book, “Musings”, touches on various aspects of his life including his Chinese ancestors, his childhood, his time as Singapore Foreign Minister, Minister for Trade and Industry, Minister for Information and the Arts as well as his memories of the late Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of independent Singapore.

Before taking up his post as Hong Kong governor, Patten visited Singapore from July 6 to 9, 1992, as mentioned in The Hong Kong Diaries. According to an entry on July 7, 1992, Patten wrote, “I had meetings with the Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, and with the senior minister, Lee Kuan Yew, with whom I had conversations a couple of times before.”

“With its skyscrapers and neat streets, I recalled again how much Singapore reminds me of Rex Warner’s satirical novel from the 1930s The Aerodrome, just as the senior minister reminds me of the Air Vice-Marshal in the book. It gives a marvellous view of some of the social engineering consequences of mostly benevolent authoritarianism,” Patten wrote.

That novel by Warner, an English writer, features an aerodrome, hence the name of the book, which was an organization run on ruthless efficiency by an Air Vice-Marshal.

“Mr Goh is a perfectly friendly fellow, though rather low on charisma, and conversation was a bit of a struggle. On the other hand, talking with Lee is no problem at all. He hits a lot of shots, and one doesn’t often get much of a chance to hit the ball back. He is highly intelligent. He and his whole family are decorated with double firsts from Cambridge,” Patten recalled.

Patten was not totally accurate. Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter Wei Ling graduated with top marks from Singapore University (now NUS) medical school, not Cambridge University like her mother, father, and brothers Hsien Loong and Hsien Yang.

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Patten said of Lee Kuan Yew, “He speaks very eloquently, using precise words to convey what he means, so for example, he spoke of the danger of implosion in China rather than explosion. His main message was that he was pretty confident about the next 10 to 20 years in China and in Asia as a whole.”

On that score, Lee was right. Asia, especially China, generally boomed from the 1990s to 2010, notwithstanding some financial crises in between.

Lee told Patten that the Chinese were unlikely ever really to trust Britain, according to The Hong Kong Diaries. “They would always think that we were attempting to make off with all the booty. He is impassive, shows little emotion, but delivers all these views with considerable force.”

In his book, Yeo remembered Lee telling Singapore ministers about his suspicions of Patten around the time of Patten’s meeting with Lee in Singapore. Yeo recalled, “Lee Kuan Yew did not want to be associated with whatever Patten was going to do, which he knew would be disruptive.”

Speech at Hong Kong University

Later in 1992, Lee Kuan Yew openly criticized Patten’s policy in a speech he gave at the University of Hong Kong, said Yeo’s book. “Patten, who was seated next to him, took it all with a stiff upper lip, but he was livid inside and took pot-shots at Singapore after he stepped down as Governor.”

Patten’s book contained a photograph of Lee speaking at a hall at Hong Kong University, while an unsmiling Patten looked at him in a hostile manner. The caption of the photograph said, “Lee Kuan Yew trying to be unhelpful, Hong Kong University, December 1992.”

The Hong Kong Diaries gives Patten’s version of the event, “Lee Kuan Yew was giving a lecture at Hong Kong University in the main hall and as Chancellor, I agreed to preside. The hall was full, and he delivered a rather dull speech – read word for word – comparing Singapore and Hong Kong as great Asian cities. As the audience were warming up to questions, I asked him one about the process of decolonization, which he uses to attack democracy in general and Britain in particular. He then received a question from a professor in the audience about the most autocratic leader in Asia sitting next to the most democratic Governor, and who went on to ask whether the prosperity of Hong Kong means that it now deserves democracy. Lee Kuan Yew had obviously prepared himself for a question like this and he delivered a real blast – his answer was longer than the lecture.”

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“He comprehensively rubbished the proposals I have put forward, and this from the man who not long ago was advising me to fill in the grey areas in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. Most damagingly, he asserted that the proposals were part of the plot directed at China to create havoc through democratization. Apparently, we have planned all this with the Americans. This is exactly the sort of conspiracy theory which they believe in Beijing,” Patten added.

“Altogether, it was a seriously tiresome performance… I thanked him and noted that I looked forward to the right of reply in Singapore after 1997. I got a burst of applause from the audience,” Patten wrote.

Other incidents

On November 18, 1994, former US State Secretary Henry Kissinger told Patten that Lee “did not speak disdainfully of my intellect even though he strongly criticizes my views on life and politics,” Patten said in his book. Kissinger told Patten, “At least he doesn’t think you’re stupid.”

Lee understood China well and was good at predicting things about China. When Lee visited Patten in Hong Kong on October 10, 1992, Lee told the Governor that he suspected Zhu Rongji was going to be promoted to executive vice premier of China, which would in effect take away much of Premier Li Peng’s power, especially on economic affairs, said The Hong Kong Diaries. Sure enough, Zhu was appointed first vice premier on March 29, 1993, and subsequently premiered on March 17, 1998. In these two posts, Zhu shifted China away from the conservative policies of Li Peng towards greater economic liberalization, which played a large part in the huge economic rise of China.

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Patten described another meeting with Lee on June 25, 1997, in Hong Kong as “rather unpleasant”. Lee berated Anson Chan, the first Chinese Chief Secretary of Hong Kong under British rule, for her interview with Newsweek magazine which suggested Tung Chee-hwa did not know very much about the way the Hong Kong government worked, said The Hong Kong Diaries. Tung succeeded Patten as the leader of Hong Kong after the territory reverted to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997. Chan was Chief Secretary under Tung till April 30, 2001.

“Anson is regarded by the public as the main custodian of their liberties and the standards and integrity of government… I increasingly wonder whether Lee would know a civil liberty if it hit him over the head with a truncheon,” Patten wrote.

Mixed reviews

Patten expressed mixed feelings about Lee and Singapore.

Patten said of Singapore’s founding father, “There is no doubt that he is clever, no question that he is interesting, nor that he has created in Singapore a considerable success story for a certain kind of social engineering in a fairly small community. As for the other qualities usually thought desirable in an amiable and courteous human being, it’s a matter of taste, I suppose.”

On July 8, 1992, in Singapore, the then British High Commissioner to Singapore, Gordon Duggan, and his family took Patten and his family to a Singaporean family restaurant for supper.

“It was huge, throbbing with noisy and cheerful families, and with delicious food,” Patten recounted.

He added, “I admire a lot about this city-state, but I think I would need a lobotomy to live here.”

Toh Han Shih is the chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consulting firm