In a lengthy interview with the media, former dissident turned local tycoon Ho Kwon Ping, founder of the luxurious hotel chain Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, raised plenty of eyebrows when he sang praises about the Singapore government and the late Lee Kuan Yew.
Despite Ho's history of biting criticism for the Singapore government, Ho was all about "reconciliation" during his interview with reporters after completing his stint as the first S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore.
As a young journalist in the 70s, Ho was once jailed in the US and detained under the Internal Security Act in Singapore in 1977 for his anti-government activities. He was later forced to do a televised confession of his crimes before his release that year.
Asked if he was bitter about his detention, Ho says that he bears no "bitterness" about the episode, and even sang praises of the iron-fisted former prime minister. He does maintain however that he was "wrongfully detained".
"With all due respect to the government and to (the late) Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who I deeply respect and admire… I do not believe Mr Lee Kuan Yew was correct. I was not a communist, but what I do believe was that he honestly believed that I and other persons that he arrested were a threat to Singapore, for whatever reasons. I do not believe he detained me for his own personal gain, because he was corrupt and I was going to expose him, like 1MDB. He detained me because he thought he had to do it."
“In retrospect now I think he… well, he would never admit it, he’s not the kind of person that would ever admit it, but the fact that after that he was quite nice to me, the fact that he asked me for dinner, for lunch many times, the fact that we had a lot of discussions, the fact that he asked me to join the board of GIC and all these other things, is a man who’s basically said, ‘I’m never going to say sorry but look, would you like to help us out?’ and so on.
"Again, I would do the same thing too. We all have our own face and so on. And I think to his mind, quite frankly, his mind would be ‘Why do I have to say I’m sorry? I did what I had to do. And you’re not what I thought, so okay, I come back to you now and ask you would you like to serve the country.
"So I only have the utmost respect for him as a person, not necessarily if you look back now that he’s dead, but I got to know him much better in the later years. He was never a man who ever did a single thing for himself. He could be really excessive, he could be paranoid, a lot of things, and that’s why a lot of young Singaporeans I think realise when he died that he never did anything for himself. And so that’s why I bear absolutely no bitterness.”
Points for trying to defend the impossible. But that's not all.
Ho threw in a few lengthy explanations praising the former
dic founding father for creating a culture of "incorruptibility" in Singapore.
“Somebody said it quite correctly that Lee Kuan Yew was never corrupt because he was too intellectually arrogant. Corruption was below him. Only lesser mortals would be corrupt. And I think that’s partly true. To him, corruption was never a temptation. He never cared about material things. He wanted power, and he had almost absolute power, but lesser mortals would want absolute power to create wealth. He wanted absolute power to create the Singapore that he wanted to create.”
“In terms of his legacy I think to me the main legacy is not about, well of course there’s the obvious legacy of creating the country and all that kind of stuff… But what he has left behind is if you look at Southeast Asia and the rest of the world, Singapore is a true exception — is this culture of incorruptibility…
And this is where I kind of think the Western media in some way is somewhat insulting to Singaporeans when they say that we Singaporeans are so stupid, we’ve tolerated this authoritarian government. I think Singaporeans have made a social contract. They basically have said ‘yeah, we know you’re authoritarian, we know you’re this sort of stuff, but you’re doing it for us and we can see you’re not corrupt.’ I think Singaporeans are very strong-minded, and the minute the PAP is corrupt they’ll throw it out. So this culture of incorruptibility is probably his strongest legacy. And he demonstrated it in incredible ways.”
When asked if he was ever invited for tea with the former PM, Ho says with a smile that he was asked "several times" in the 80s.
Perhaps his change of tone should not come as a surprise. Over the years, Ho has since become an unlikely poster boy of success under the Lee Kuan Yew system.
Besides running Banyan Tree, Ho now sits on the board of the powerful Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) and several other major government bodies, including the Civil Service College, MediaCorp, Singapore Airlines, Singapore Tourism Board, among a host of other organizations. He helped found the Singapore Management University and still chairs its board of trustees to date.