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30 years later, Australian leaders still remember that "white trash" comment

Posted on Oct 11, 2012 5:52 PM Updated: Oct 15, 2012 10:51 AM

Remarks made by Mr Lee Kuan Yew about Australia some three decades ago got an unexpected airing in the Australian Capital on Thursday at a luncheon for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Both Australian PM Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott cited remarks made by then PM Lee Kuan Yew in the 1970s that without economic reform, Australia risked becoming the “white trash of Asia”.

The references made were in good humour as both Australians reaffirmed their country’s strong ties with Singapore.Here are excerpts of their speeches:

Australian PM Julia Gillard:

“Prime Minister, Australians respect and enjoy straight talk. And Singapore’s leaders have always given us that...

But just as Australians admire the industry and the success of Singapore’s people, we do have a certain fondness for your remarkable founder (Mr Lee Kuan Yew), not in spite all his stern words about us, but perhaps because of them.
Over the decades, we came rather to look forward to Lee’s regular visits, and we’ll always welcome him again. For us, they have resembled the arrival of a respected if rather forbidding uncle, come to awaken us from our indolence and insist that we be our best selves. We never forgot his warning that without reform we would be the “White Trash of Asia”.

They were words which haunted a generation of Australian decision makers. It is not a future that an objective observer would foresee for Australia today. Both our two nations have changed a great deal in the intervening years. We have both grown in strength and prosperity, as leaders in the region and the world. Grown also in the friendship and respect between our nations and our people, and new generations have risen to national responsibility.
Australia remains not only friends with Singapore’s people but admirers of Singapore’s leaders. No nation commands a greater reputation for hard-headed, hardworking, far-sighted government."

Mr Tony Abbott:

“As the Prime Minister Gillard has reminded us, Sir, your father once made a rather astringent remark about Australia.
This put me into a terrible state of division and uncertainty. Because at about the same time as your father had made that remark, another one of my political heroes Margaret Thatcher said of Harry Lee, that he was, quote, “never wrong”.
I am pleased to observe that your father has since recanted on his adverse judgement of Australia, and so both Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher can both once more take their place in my personal political pantheon.”

(For the record: Mr Lee Kuan Yew addressed those infamous remarks during a visit to Australia in 2007. He then said: “There are some words sometimes thrown in the heat of the argument which perhaps at that time was warranted. You have changed.”)