Paul Volcker

Jeremy Grant

Lee Kuan Yew on March 20 (Chris McGrath/Getty)

Lee Kuan Yew on March 20 (Chris McGrath/Getty)

Sightings of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s former prime minister, are rare these days. He is 89, physically frail and was hospitalised briefly in February.

But on Wednesday he popped up at a conference organised by Standard Chartered bank in the city’s Shangri-la Hotel, taking part in a “fireside chat” with Paul Volcker, the 86-year old former US Federal Reserve chairman.

Most people in the audience, which included the finance minister of the Philippines, were probably just as interested to see how the architect of modern Singapore looked, as in what he might have to say.

The last time I can remember seeing him in any public setting was last August, when he made a surprise appearance at Singapore’s national day celebrations.

The night before, taxi drivers were telling their passengers that the great man had died. His appearance silenced that gossip, but Singaporeans have been more conscious of their former leader’s mortality ever since.

Lee looked thin on Wednesday, but was dressed sharply in a dark blue Chinese silk jacket, with red cuffs. He made his way unaided to the stage and sat down. The only concession to physical decline were the sports shoes on his feet, which presumably help him walk more comfortably.

Much of what the founder of modern Singapore thinks about the big geopolitical issues of the day are well-known.

He doesn’t think that conflict between the US and China is inevitable (China needs the US export market for a good while yet); he doesn’t think that an “Arab Spring” is possible in Asia (there isn’t the vast disparity in wealth and incomes that exist in the Middle East); and Japan risks “dissolving into nothingness” if it continues to refuse taking in migrants to boost its working age population.