279. Intelligence Note From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to Secretary of State Rusk 1

No. 652


  • Prospects for Lee Kuan Yew’s Visit to the US2

In mid-October Lee Kuan Yew will make his first visit to the United States as Prime Minister of independent Singapore.3 His primary purpose will be to make personal contact with the leaders of a great power he now regards as vital to Singapore’s future economic stability and security. While he is anxious to maintain Singapore’s non-aligned foreign policy and can portray this visit as balanced by his own 1966 trip to Eastern Europe and that of his deputy to Moscow in 1965, he will nevertheless hope that his visit will eventually pay off in concrete benefits for Singapore.

Lee’s Attitude Towards the US; Aloof but Friendly. In the first days of Singapore’s independence, Lee Kuan Yew, who had a reputation for [Page 619]being pro-British but unfamiliar and somewhat contemptuous of Americans, was acidly critical of the United States to the press, revealing in the process a 1961 CIA effort to penetrate the Singapore police. This public, bitter anti-American phase (to which family problems then probably contributed) was shortlived. Before the end of 1965, Lee and his principal cabinet advisers were convinced that, for economic survival, an independent Singapore must expand its exports to the United States and attract American capital to develop new export industries.

Lee also recognized the importance to Singapore’s stability of the American effort to forestall Communist aggression. In private talks with important American visitors, Lee has supported the US position in Vietnam,4 although not all our tactics, particularly the bombing of North Vietnam; in public, he has said that the fate of Asia for years to come will be decided by what happens in South Vietnam and that holding the line in South Vietnam against Communist expansion is essential to Singapore’s stability. In addition to recognizing the strategic importance of the US role in Vietnam, Lee and his government appreciate the economic benefits accruing from purchases in Singapore for US forces in South Vietnam and from Rest and Recreation expenditures there.

Lee has also been led to reassess his attitude towards an American security role in the area by his gradual acceptance of the fact that the British are going to withdraw militarily from the Malaysia-Singapore area by the mid-1970’s except possibly for small forces to fulfill the UK commitment under the mutual defense treaty. He has suggested publicly that, under certain circumstances, an American military presence might become necessary.

Lee’s Principal Objectives. Lee probably does not expect to obtain specific commitments from the United States during the course of his visit. Rather he probably hopes to establish a climate in which he can obtain sympathetic understanding of Singapore’s problems and of his own views as to how the United States can contribute to their amelioration. Defense arrangements, economic problems, and Singapore’s role in the area will probably be foremost among his preoccupations.

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Lee may raise the question of US willingness to cooperate with the UK in guaranteeing the external defense of the area. In the light of Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s interest in diverting their trade away from Singapore and the economic effects of the British military withdrawal, he may hint that the US should make especially favorable conditions for Singapore exports. He may suggest that the US contract with Singapore to have some of its ship repair work done in Singapore. He will want to convince us that Singapore’s population is primarily oriented to Singapore not China, and he will assure us that Singapore is willing to bear its share of responsibility for effective regional cooperation.

Possible Results of Lee’s Visit: A Good Public Image in the US but Friction in Southeast Asia. The Lee visit will probably command considerable American press attention. Lee’s already scheduled public appearances at the National Press Club in Washington and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York may well be supplemented by others and by TV and radio interviews. All of this will be gratifying to Lee and may well increase the sympathy and respect with which he is now inclined to view the United States. On the other hand, to the extent that Lee is widely publicized by the American press and built up as an Asian intellectual leader, his visit may antagonize the Malaysian government, particularly Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Finance Minister Tan Siew Sin, who have not themselves attracted wide publicity in the US. While Lee’s American visit may enhance his prestige as an Asian leader and Singapore’s status among other Southeast Asian countries, too much and too favorable publicity for Lee, an ethnic Chinese, could also be resented by non-Chinese leaders of other neighboring states who also crave the limelight as Asian leaders. This possibility, together with Lee’s disinclination to take public positions that will compromise Singapore’s non-aligned status, may lead him to curb his natural instinct for publicity during his American visit.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 7 SINGAPORE. Confidential.
  2. The Department of State indicated in telegram 763 to Kuala Lumpur, March 24, repeated to the Consulate in Singapore, that a Lee visit to the United States “is clearly in our interest and our future relations would benefit from a maximum exposure to the intellectual, social, and cultural aspects of American life about which Lee is clearly inadequately informed.” (Ibid.)
  3. His only previous visit was in July 1962 when he made a brief stop in San Francisco and attended a UN meeting in New York. [Footnote in the source text.]
  4. On June 29 John P. Roche of the NSC Staff sent President Johnson a summary of Lee Kuan Yew’s off-the-record remarks to the Institute of Strategic Studies in London. One of Lee’s three themes was that the United States must resist Hanoi’s aggression (Lee’s characterization). Johnson saw the memorandum from Roche. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Singapore, Vol. I, Memos, 8/65–7/67) A CIA [text not declassified] Report, [text not declassified], which was retyped in the White House, reported on a private conversation with Lee and a colleague in which the Prime Minister said he supported American intervention in Vietnam and feared that, if it failed, Communist subversion would slowly spread through all of Southeast Asia. There is no indication on the retyped copy that the President saw it. (Ibid.)