SPIEGEL: You’ve been the leader of a very successful state for a long time. Returning from your time in China, are you afraid for Singapore’s future?
Mr. Lee: I saw it coming from the late 1980s. Deng Xiaoping started this in 1978. He visited Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in November 1978. I think that visit shocked him because he expected three backward cities. Instead he saw three modern cities and he knew that communism — the politics of the iron rice bowl — did not work. So, at the end of December, he announced his open door policy. He started free trade zones and from there, they extended it and extended it. Now they have joined the WTO and the whole country is a free trade zone.
SPIEGEL: But has China’s success not become dangerous for Singapore?
Mr. Lee: We have watched this transformation and the speed at which it is happening. As many of my people tell me, it’s scary. They learn so fast. Our people set up businesses in Shanghai or Suzhou and they employ Chinese at lower wages than Singapore Chinese. After three years, they say: “Look, I can do that work, I want the same pay.” So it is a very serious challenge for us to move aside and not collide with them. We have to move to areas where they cannot move.
SPIEGEL: Such as?
Mr. Lee: Such as where the rule of law, intellectual property and security of production systems are required, because for them to establish that, it will take 20 to 30 years. We are concentrating on bio medicine, pharmaceuticals and all products requiring protection of intellectual property rights. No pharmaceutical company is going to go have its precious patents disclosed. So that is why they are here in Singapore and not in China.
SPIEGEL: But the Chinese are moving too. They bought parts of IBM and are trying to take over the American oil company Unocal.
Mr. Lee: They are learning. They have learnt takeovers and mergers from the Americans. They know that if they try to sell their computers with a Chinese brand it will take them decades in America, but if they buy IBM, they can inject their technology and low cost into IBM’s brand name, and they will gain access to the market much faster.
SPIEGEL: But how afraid should the West be?
Mr. Lee: It’s stupid to be afraid. It’s going to happen. I console myself this way. Suppose, China had never gone communist in 1949, suppose the Nationalist government had worked with the Americans — China would be the great power in Asia — not Japan, not Korea, not Hong Kong, not Singapore. Because China isolated itself, development took place on the periphery of Asia first.