This has been a dark week for Singapore.
The light that has guided us all these years has been extinguished. We have lost our founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who lived and breathed Singapore all his life. He and his team led our pioneer generation to create this island nation, Singapore.
Mr Lee did not set out to be a politician, let alone a statesman, as a boy. In fact, his grandfather wanted him to become an English gentleman! But events left an indelible mark on him. He had been a British subject in colonial Singapore. He had survived hardship, danger and fear in the Japanese Occupation. These life experiences drove him to fight for independence.
In one of his radio talks on the Battle for Merger many years ago, in 1961, Mr Lee said: “My colleagues and I are of that generation of young men who went through the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation and emerged determined that no one – neither the Japanese nor the British – had the right to push and kick us around.”
Mr Lee championed independence for Singapore through merger with Malaya, to form a new Federation of Malaysia. He worked tirelessly to bring this about, and succeeded. Unfortunately the merger did not last, and before long, we were expelled from Malaysia. Separation was his greatest “moment of anguish”, but it also proved to be the turning point in Singapore’s fortunes.
From the ashes of separation he built a nation. The easiest thing to do would have been to appeal to Chinese voters alone. After all, Singapore had to leave Malaysia because we were majority Chinese. Instead, he went for the nobler dream of a multi-racial, multi-religious nation. Singapore would not be based on race, language or religion, but on fundamental values – multi-racialism, equality, meritocracy, integrity and rule of law. Mr Lee declared: “This is not a country that belongs to any single community; it belongs to all of us.”
He checked would be racial chauvinists, and assured the minorities that their place here was secure. He insisted on keeping our mother tongues, even as English became our common working language. He encouraged each group to maintain its culture, faith and language, while gradually enlarging the common space shared by all. Together with Mr S Rajaratnam, he enshrined these ideals in the National Pledge.
He kept us safe in a dangerous and tumultuous world. With Dr Goh Keng Swee, he built the SAF from just two infantry battalions and one little, wooden ship, into a well-trained, well-equipped, well-respected fighting force.
He introduced National Service (NS), and personally persuaded parents to entrust their sons to the SAF. He succeeded, first because he led by example – his two sons did NS just like every Singaporean son, and in fact my brother and I signed up as regulars in the SAF on scholarships. Second, people trusted Mr Lee, and believed in the Singapore cause. Hence today we sleep peacefully at night, confident that we are well protected.
Mr Lee gave us courage to face an uncertain future. He was a straight talker, and never shied away from hard truths, either to himself or to Singaporeans. His ministers would sometimes urge him to soften the tone of his drafts – even I would sometimes do that – to sound less unyielding to human frailties. He often took in their amendments, but he would preserve his core message. “I always tried to be correct,” he said, “not politically correct”.
He was a powerful speaker – moving, inspiring, persuasive, in English and Malay, and by dint of a lifelong hard slog in Mandarin and even Hokkien. MediaCorp has been broadcasting his old speeches this week, have reminded us that his was the original Singapore Roar – passionate, formidable and indomitable.
Above all, Lee Kuan Yew was a fighter. In crises, when all seemed hopeless, he was ferocious, endlessly resourceful, firm in his resolve, and steadfast in advancing his cause.
Thus he saw us through many battles: the Battle for Merger against the communists, which most people thought the non-communists would lose; the fight when we were in Malaysia against the communalists, when his own life was in danger; separation, which cast us out into a hazardous world; and then the withdrawal of British forces from Singapore, which threatened the livelihoods of 150,000 people.
Because he never wavered, we didn’t falter. Because he fought, we took courage and fought with him, and prevailed. Thus Mr Lee took Singapore and us all from Third World to First.
In many countries, anti-colonial fighters and heroes would win independence and assume power, but then fail at nation building because the challenges of building a nation and growing the economy and improving peoples’ lives are very different. But Mr Lee succeeded at nation building, together with his team of ministers.
Just weeks after Separation, he boldly declared that “10 years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!” And indeed he made it happen. He instilled discipline and order – ensuring that in Singapore, every problem gets fixed. He educated our young. He transformed labour relations from strikes and confrontation to tripartism and cooperation. He campaigned to upgrade skills and raise productivity, calling their effort a marathon with no finish line.
He enabled his economic team – Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen, Lim Kim San – to design and carry out their plans to attract investments, grow the economy, and create prosperity and jobs. As he said, “I settled the political conditions so that tough policies … could be executed”.
However, Mr Lee was clear that while “the development of the economy is very important, equally important is the development of the nature of our society.” So he built an inclusive society where everyone enjoyed the fruits of progress. Education became the foundation for good jobs and better lives. HDB new towns sprung up one after another – Queenstown, Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio, to be followed by many more.
We had roofs over our heads, and became a nation of home owners. With Devan Nair in the NTUC, he transformed the union movement into a positive force, cooperating with employers and the Government to improve the lot of workers.
Mr Lee cared for the people of Singapore whom he served. When SARS struck in 2003, he worried about taxi drivers, whose livelihoods were affected because tourists had dried up, and pressed us hard to find ways to help taxi drivers. Mr Lee also cared for the people who served him. One evening, just a few years ago, he rang me up. One of my mother’s WSOs (woman security officers) was having difficulty conceiving a child, and he wanted to help her. He asked whether I knew how to help her to adopt a child. He was concerned for people not just in the abstract, but personally and individually.
Internationally, he raised Singapore’s standing in the world. Mr Lee was not just a perceptive observer of world affairs, but a statesman who articulated Singapore’s international interests and enlarged our strategic space. At crucial turning points, from the British withdrawal “East of Suez” to the Vietnam War to the rise of China, his views and counsel influenced thinking and decisions in many capitals.
In the process, he built up a wide network of friends, in and out of power. He knew every Chinese leader from Mao Zedong and every US president from Lyndon Johnson. He established close rapport with President Suharto of Indonesia, one of our most important relationships. Others he knew included Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Schmidt, George Shultz, as well as President Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, who we are honoured to have here with us this afternoon. They valued his candour and insight. As Mrs Thatcher said, “(Mr Lee) had a way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our times and the way to tackle them. He was never wrong.” Hence despite being so small, Singapore’s voice is heard, and we enjoy far more influence on the world stage than we have any reason to expect.
Mr Lee did not blaze this path alone. He was the outstanding leader of an exceptional team – Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Othman Wok, Hon Sui Sen, Lim Kim San, Toh Chin Chye, Ong Pang Boon, Devan Nair, and quite a number more. They were his comrades, and he never forgot them. So it is very good that Mr Ong Pang Boon is here today to speak about Mr Lee.
Mr Lee received many accolades and awards in his long life, but he wore them lightly. When Mr Lee received the Freedom of the City of London in 1982, he said: “I feel like a conductor at a concert bowing to applause, but unable to turn around and invite the accomplished musicians in his orchestra to rise and receive the ovation for the music they have played. For running a government is not unlike running an orchestra, and no Prime Minister ever achieves much without an able team of players.”
Because he worked with a strong team and not alone, because people knew that he cared for them and not for himself, and because he had faith that Singaporeans would work with him to achieve great things, Mr Lee won the trust and confidence of Singaporeans. The pioneer generation, who had lived through the crucial years, had a deep bond with him. I once met a lady who owned a successful fried rice restaurant. She told me: “Tell Lee Kuan Yew I will always support him. I was born in 1948, and I am 48 years old (this was 1996). I know what he has done for me and Singapore.” She and her generation knew that “跟着李光耀走不会死的” – if you follow Lee Kuan Yew, you will survive.
Mr Lee imbued Singapore with his personal traits. He built Singapore to be clean and corruption-free. His home was spartan. His habits were frugal. He wore the same jacket for years, and patched up worn bits instead of buying new ones. He imparted these values to the government. Even when old and frail, when MPs celebrated his 90th birthday in Parliament (in 2013), he reminded them that Singapore must remain clean and incorruptible, and that MPs and ministers had to set the example.
He pursued ideas with tremendous, infectious energy. He said of himself: “I put myself down as determined, consistent, persistent. I set out to do something, I keep on chasing it until it succeeds. That’s all.” Easy to say, very few do it. This was how he seized opportunities, seeing and realising possibilities that many others missed.
So it was he who pushed to move Paya Lebar airport to Changi. It was he who rejected the conventional wisdom then that multi-national corporations (MNCs) were rapacious and exploitative, and wooed foreign investment from MNCs to invest in Singapore, to bring us technology, overseas markets and jobs.
He was not afraid to change his mind when a policy was no longer relevant. When he saw that our birth rates were falling below replacement, he scrapped the “Stop at Two” policy and started encouraging couples to have more children. That was almost 30 years ago. Having upheld a conservative approach to supervising our financial sector for many years, he eventually decided the time had come to rethink and liberalise, but to do so in a controlled way. This was how Singapore’s financial centre took off in a new wave of growth, to become what it is today. He was always clear what strategy to follow, but never so fixed to an old strategy as to be blind to the need to change course when the world changed.
Nothing exemplifies this better than water security, which was a lifelong obsession of his. He entrenched the PUB’s two Water Agreements with Johor in the Separation Agreement, he personally managed all aspects of our water talks with Malaysia. He launched water saving campaigns, built reservoirs, and turned most of the island into water catchment to collect the rain to process and use. He cleaned up the Singapore River and Kallang Basin. He dreamed of the Marina Barrage until finally technology caught up and it became feasible, and it became a reality. And he lived to see it happen. When PUB invented NEWater, and when desalination became viable, he backed the new technologies enthusiastically. The result today is Singapore has moved towards self-sufficiency in water, become a leader in water technologies, and turned a vulnerability into a strength.
It is perhaps appropriate that today the heavens opened and cried for him.
No issue was too small for him. On travels when he came across trees or plants that might grow well here, he would collect saplings and seeds and hand carry them back to Singapore. He used the Istana grounds as a nursery, and would personally check on the health of the trees, not just in general but particular trees. Singapore’s Prime Minister was also the Chief Gardener of the City in a Garden.
He had a relentless drive to improve. He continued to learn well into old age. At 70, to write his memoirs, he started learning how to use his computer. Every so often he would call me for help – sometimes late at night – and I would give him a phone consultation, talking him through the steps to save a file, or find a document which had vanished somewhere on his hard drive. And if he could not find me, he would consult my wife.
He made a ceaseless effort to learn Mandarin over decades – listening to tapes of his teacher in the morning while shaving at home, and in the evening while exercising at Sri Temasek. He kept up his Mandarin classes all his life. Indeed, his last appointment on Feb 4, before he was became gravely ill early the next morning, was with his Mandarin tutor.
He inspired all of us to give our best.
He was constantly thinking about Singapore. He declared at one National Day Rally (in 1988) that “Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.” And he meant that. And indeed, even after he left the Cabinet, he would still occasionally raise with me issues he felt strongly about.
During the Budget Debate two years ago, MPs hotly debated the cost of living, public transport and other matters pre-occupying Singaporeans. Mr Lee felt that we had lost sight of the fundamentals that underpinned our survival. He emailed me a draft speech and said he wanted to speak in the Chamber, to remind Singaporeans of these unchanging hard truths – what our survival depended on. But I persuaded him to leave the task to me and my ministers. And he took my advice.
His biggest worry was that younger Singaporeans would lose the instinct for what made Singapore tick. This was why he continued writing books into his 90s – Bilingualism, Hard Truths, One Man’s View of the World, and at least one more – guided by him and still being written – on the history of the PAP. So that a new generation of Singaporeans could learn from his experience, and understand what their security, prosperity, and future depended on.
One of Mr Lee’s greatest legacies was preparing Singapore to continue beyond him. He believed that a leader’s toughest job was ensuring succession. He systematically identified and groomed a team of successors. He made way for Mr Goh Chok Tong to become Prime Minister, but stayed on in Mr Goh’s Cabinet to help the new team succeed. He provided stability and experience and quietly helped to build up Mr Goh’s authority. He knew how to guide without being obtrusive, to be watchful while letting the new team develop its own style and its own authority. He described himself as a “mascot” – everyone knew how special this mascot was, and how lucky we were to have this mascot.
It was likewise when I took over. Mr Goh became Senior Minister and Mr Lee became Minister Mentor, a title he felt reflected his new role. Increasingly he left policy issues to us, but he would share with us his reading of world affairs, and his advice on major problems that he saw over the horizon. Some other Prime Ministers told me that they could not imagine what it was like to have two former PMs in my Cabinet. But I told them it worked, both for me and for Singapore.
For all his public duties, Mr Lee also had his own family. My mother was a big part of his life. They were a deeply loving couple. She was his loyal spouse and confidante – going with him everywhere, fussing over him, helping with his speeches, and keeping home and hearth warm. They were a perfect team, and wonderful parents. When my mother died, he was bereft. He felt the devastating loss of a life partner, who as he said had helped him to become what he was.
My father left the upbringing of the children largely to my mother. But he was the head of the family, and cared deeply about us, both when we were small, and long after we had grown up. He was not very demonstrative, much less touchy feely, but he loved us deeply.
After my first wife Ming Yang died, my parents suggested that I tried meditation. They gave me some books to read, but I did not make much progress. I think my father had tried it too, also not too successfully. When his teacher told him to relax, still his mind and let go, he replied: “But what will happen to Singapore if I let go?”
When I had lymphoma, he suggested that I try meditation more seriously. He thought it would help me to fight the cancer. He found me a teacher and spoke to him personally. With a good teacher to guide me, I made better progress.
In old age, after my mother died, my father started meditating again, with help from Ng Kok Song, whom he knew from GIC. Kok Song brought a friend to see my father, a Benedictine monk who did Christian meditation. My father was not a Christian, but he was happy to learn from a Benedictine monk. He even called me to suggest that I meet the monk, which I did. He probably felt I needed to resume meditation too.
And to give you some context, this was a few months after the 2011 General Election. I was nearing 60 by then, and he was nearly 90. But to him I was still his son to be worried over, and to me he was still a father to love and appreciate, just like when I was small.
So this morning, before the ceremony began at Parliament House, we had a few minutes. I sat beside him, and I meditated.
Of course, growing up as my father’s son could not but mean being exposed to politics very early. I remember as a little boy, I knoew his constituency was Tanjong Pagar, I was proud of him becoming legal advisor to so many trade unions, and being excited by the hubbub at Oxley Road whenever elections happened, and our home became the election office.
I remember when we were preparing to join Malaysia in the early 1960s, going along with my father on constituency visits – the “fang wen” tours he made to every corner of Singapore. For him, it was backbreaking work week after week, rallying the people’s support for a supremely important decision about Singapore’s future. For me, these were not just Sunday outings, but also an early political education.
I remember election night in the 1960s, the crucial general election when the PAP defeated the pro-communist Barisan Sosialis. My mother sent me to bed early, but lay awake to listen to the election results until the PAP had won enough seats to form the government again. Then I fell asleep.
I remember the day he told me, while we were playing golf at the Istana, that should anything happen to him, he wanted me to look after my mother and my younger brother and sister.
I remember the night the children slept on the floor in my parents’ bedroom at Temasek House in Kuala Lumpur, because the house was full of ministers who had come up from Singapore. Every so often my father would get up from the bed to make a note about something, before lying down to rest again. But obviously he wasn’t asleep. The date was 7 August 1965, two days before Separation.
Growing up with my father, living through those years with him, made me what I am.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. We all hoped that Mr Lee would be present with us on August 9 to celebrate this significant milestone. More than anybody else, it was he who fought for multiracialism, which ultimately led to independence as a sovereign republic. It was he who united our people, built a nation, and made our 50th anniversary worth celebrating. Sadly, it is not to be.
But we can feel proud and happy that Mr Lee lived to see his life’s work come to fruition. At last year’s National Day Parade, when Mr Lee appeared and waved on the big screen at the floating platform, the crowd gave him a deafening cheer. Last November, the People’s Action Party celebrated its diamond anniversary at the Victoria Concert Hall, where Mr Lee had founded the party 60 years ago. Party members were so happy to see that Mr Lee could be there, they gave him a rousing, emotional standing ovation. Those of us who were there will never forget it.
St Paul’s Cathedral in London was built by Sir Christopher Wren. He was the architect, and he is buried in the cathedral, which was his masterpiece, his life’s work. The Latin epitaph on his grave reads: si monumentum requiris, circumspice (If you seek his monument, look around you). Mr Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore. To those who seek Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s monument, Singaporeans can reply proudly: “look around you”.
I said the light that has guided us all these years has been extinguished. But that is not quite so. For Mr Lee’s principles and ideals continue to invigorate this Government and to guide our people. His life will inspire Singaporeans, and others, for generations to come.
Mr Lee once said that “we intend to see that (Singapore) will be here a thousand years from now. And that is your duty and mine”. Mr Lee has done his duty, and more. It remains our duty to continue his life’s work, to carry the torch forward and keep the flame burning bright.
Over the past month, the outpouring of good wishes, prayers and support from Singaporeans as Mr Lee lay ill has been overwhelming, and even more so since he passed away on Monday. People of all races, from all walks of life, young and old, here and abroad – hundreds of thousands queued patiently for hours, in the hot sun and through the night, to pay respects to him at the Parliament House.
I visited the queue at the Padang. Many Singaporeans and not so few non-Singaporeans, came out of deep respect and compulsion…Many more penned messages and took part in tribute ceremonies at community sites all over the island. Thousands of overseas Singaporeans gathered in our embassies and consulates to remember Mr Lee. At the end of this funeral service, all of us – in this hall, across our island, and in far flung lands – will observe a minute of silence, say the National Pledge, and sing Majulah Singapura together.
We have all lost a father. Together, we have grieved as one people, one nation. We are all in grief. But in our grief, we have displayed the best of Mr Lee’s Singapore. Everyday Singaporeans, going to great lengths to share refreshments and umbrellas with the crowd, helping each other in the queue, late into the night. Citizen soldiers, Home Team, cleaners, all working tirelessly round the clock. Our shared sorrow has brought us together, and made us stronger and more resolute.
We came together not only to mourn. Together, we celebrate Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s long and full life, and what he has achieved with us, his people in Singapore.
Let us continue building this exceptional country. Let us shape this island nation into a great metropolis reflecting the ideals he fought for, realising the dreams he inspired, and worthy of the people who have made Singapore our home and nation.
Thank you Mr Lee Kuan Yew. May you rest in peace.”