You are here
It's been an honour, Mr Lee
WHEN Lee Kuan Yew stepped down from the Cabinet in May 2011 in the immediate aftermath of a general election, it set off yet another round of musings on the future of Singapore "post-LKY".
The former Prime Minister, after all, defined Singapore. His dominating influence and hand in Singapore policies remained intact long after he handed over the leadership in 1990, when he took a backseat advisory role in government as Senior Minister and later, Minister Mentor. But the man himself rejected even any "statesman" label, telling journalists just a few years ago, in his own inimitable way, that "anybody who thinks he's a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist".
He had been asked, in an interview for the 2011 book Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, if he hoped to be remembered by young Singaporeans as perhaps a great statesman, one with tremendous guts. "No, I don't," he said brusquely. "First of all, I do not classify myself as a statesman. 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. That's how I perceive myself. Not as a statesman. It's utter rubbish."
One doesn't "become a statesman", according to him, and he would not have been one at all, he said. "It was circumstances that created me: the defeat of the British, the complete collapse of morale, the Japanese brutality, the re-occupation, the struggle for power between the communists and us as the British were withdrawing. That's what created what I am."
What he wanted was to be a lawyer. "Except that had I not chosen politics, who would run this country and what law will you apply?"
A lifelong passion
That early conviction and resolve - to free Singapore of its colonial masters, achieve self-rule and build up the tiny island state - became a lifelong passion and commitment to ensure its continued success. Through his twilight years, even after the Republic had, in the eyes of the world, attained cult status as a 20th century economic miracle, he continued to fret over its vulnerability and risks of annihilation, particularly with each new generation of Singaporeans growing up not knowing "from whence we came". For him, Singapore was "an ever-going concern", foremost in his heart and mind alongside his family. "Singapore is my concern till the end of my life," he declared in Hard Truths.
Indeed, the very survival and well-being of Singapore defined his life. His strong sense of purpose, self-belief and decisive judgement - traits that marked his political career - were apparent early on. As he related in The Singapore Story, the first volume of his memoirs, he became de facto head of his family while still in his teens as his mother looked to him, the eldest of five children, rather than his father, on all important family matters.
His drive and determination were evident too as a student gunning for academic honours - he was "disturbed and upset" upon finding himself beaten to second place in English and economics at Raffles College, "way behind a certain Miss Kwa Geok Choo", whom he would later pursue and marry. Mrs Lee - whom Mr Lee described as "a tower of strength", his source of "constant emotional and intellectual support", died on Oct 2, 2010.
But if the socio-economic climate of the day, the trauma and hurly-burly of war and post-war economic depression in 1930s and 1940s Singapore marked his political awakening and shaped his outlook, the three and a half years of Japanese occupation were, for him, the most significant. The period gave him "vivid insights into the behaviour of human beings and human societies, their motivations and impulses" and informed his appreciation of governments and "understanding of power as the vehicle for revolutionary change", he said in The Singapore Story. The 23-year-old who sailed to England to read law at Cambridge University returned four years later a revolutionary fighter; he and fellow politically active Singapore and Malaya students left England with not only their degrees but also anti-colonial nationalist credentials.
Back home, Mr Lee soon made a name for himself representing striking workers in industrial actions, and found in the trade unions the mass support base he and his political comrades needed. And when their People's Action Party (PAP) - launched in November 1954 - won 43 out of 51 seats in the 1959 general election, he became, at 35, prime minister of a self-governing state.
Nuts and bolts
But if he had been "uneasy" about taking power, with "no experience of administration", not even in his own law firm then, his anxiety and the weight of his burden were the greater when he found himself suddenly in charge of a newly independent Singapore on Aug 9, 1965, responsible for the lives of two million people.
Still, with great vision and boldness, he and his Cabinet got down to the nuts and bolts of governing Singapore. Foremost among his many pressing concerns was to gain international recognition for Singapore's independence and domestically, to build up a defence force, keep law and order and not least, create a viable economy out of an island with no natural resources. And in housing a population then clustered in shanty towns and slum digs, he saw home ownership as a means to forge national belonging.
"After independence in 1965, I was troubled by Singapore's completely urban electorate. I had seen how voters in capital cities always tended to vote against the government of the day and was determined that our householders should become home owners, otherwise we would not have political stability. My other important motive was to give all parents whose sons would have to do National Service a stake in Singapore their sons had to defend," he said in his memoir From Third World To First. "I believed this sense of ownership was vital for our new society which had no deep roots in a common historical experience."
And in searching "for some dramatic way to distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries", he decided that - apart from adopting English as the first language here - a clean and green Singapore would be a competitive advantage: A well-groomed city with tree-lined expressways would signal to investors that Singapore was a disciplined nation that cared about maintenance and order.
But of all the policies and institutions he created, the most difficult that he had to implement as Prime Minister was bilingualism as he had proceeded on the wrong assumptions, he said in an interview in 2009. He had been mistaken, he conceded, in assuming that one could be equally fluent in two languages, and in equating intelligence with language ability.
Mr Lee, who found his own inability to speak Mandarin and Chinese dialects a big disadvantage early in his political career, made a determined effort to learn the language. In November 2011, he launched what he said was the most important book he had written - on his personal lifelong struggles to master the Chinese language and reclaim his Chinese heritage - and started at the same time a fund to help Singapore children become bilingual early.
Most of his philosophies and policies have become hallmarks of the Singapore ethos and system - a highly efficient, clean public service; meritocracy; competitive salaries for ministers; the rule of law; train and bus seats free of sticky chewing gum. His strategies of industrialisation, urbanisation, computerisation and globalisation have propelled Singapore, indeed, from Third World to First within four decades. But he had also been against building casinos in Singapore early on, and initially had grave doubts about going into the life sciences because of a lack of brainpower then.
And he did have his share of controversial beliefs and measures, including a number of pronouncements related to women. He once said that "attractive and intelligent young ladies" should go to finishing colleges so that they will be "marvellous helpers of their husband's career" and declared, on another occasion, that "we shouldn't get our women into jobs where they cannot, at the same time, be mothers". Many women here also remember the shock at hearing him once say that he regretted "allowing" Singapore females to be highly educated, when the trend emerged in the mid-1980s that the more-educated women were not marrying and producing babies - a problem that persists today.
The "Stop At Two" population policy of the 1970s and the "graduate mothers scheme" that gave the children of graduate mothers priority entry to primary schools were two initiatives that the government eventually scrapped. But Mr Lee - who was given to being candid and matter-of-fact, sometimes to the point of impolitic frankness - held firm certain core beliefs. One was on the subject of nature versus nurture, at one point a topic of debate in Singapore.
As recently as July 2011, he said: "From my empirical observation of people and leaders, I believe 70 to 80 per cent of a person's capability, his proclivities, his temperament, is genetic. The day you were conceived, at least 70 per cent was already fixed in the womb. If you are bound to be a capable person, you will grow into a capable person. If you are bound to be slow, you will be slow. Nothing can change that. You can't choose your parents."
He did not believe, for instance, that leadership could be taught. "I think you are a born leader or you are not a leader. You can teach a person to be a manager but not a leader. They must have the extra drive, intellectual verve, an extra tenacity and the will to overcome," he said. "So, I would say . . . 70 per cent of what I am, I was born with it. Twenty to 30 per cent was what I learnt to be what I am."
Singaporeans, who mostly knew him as a stern, no-nonsense leader, did get glimpses of some of his personal quirks - his disciplined lifestyle, regime of daily swims or bike spins, the cartons of Evian bottled water that were a staple on his work trips, his penchant for air-conditioning.
In a 2001 documentary about his life, he named the air-conditioner as the greatest invention of the century, and once wished that someone invented air-conditioned underwear. Describing it to The Asian Wall Street Journal in early 1999, he said that it could be "a light polyester air-conditioned undergarment, enclosed around the neck, wrists and ankles, and battery-operated". He added: "Everyone can then work at his optimum temperature and civilisation can spread across all climates."
And the softer, stoic side of the man emerged in his distress over Mrs Lee's illness, when he spoke about talking and reading to her every night as she lay inert in bed in her last two years.
Age did catch up with him. Mr Lee - who had a pacemaker installed in December 2008 - confronted his own mortality, wondering when the "last leaf" would fall, "grateful to be still around", and could laugh at himself. As he told The New York Times in an interview published in September 2010: "I'm reaching 87, trying to keep fit, presenting a vigorous figure, and it's an effort, and is it worth the effort? I laugh at myself trying to keep a bold front. It's become my habit. I just carry on."
But engage or challenge him on regional geopolitics or a subject close to his heart, such as Singapore's future, and he'd be back to his vigorous, feisty self. Indeed, he kept up a travel schedule even after retiring from the government in May 2011, taking on the role of a "special envoy" who continued to promote Singapore's interests abroad. And in early November 2011, when it was revealed that he was battling a neurological disease that made it difficult for him to walk, he said that one "learns to adjust", adding: "I have no doubt at all that this hasn't affected my mind, my will nor my resolve."
The man whose name is synonymous with Singapore among foreigners, and whom Singaporeans respect and appreciate for his extraordinary vision and lifelong commitment to the country's well-being, certainly also had more than his share of detractors. But as he told NYT's Seth Mydans in an interview published in September 2010, "I'm not saying that everything I did was right . . . but everything I did was for an honourable purpose."
The honour, Singaporeans would say, is entirely Singapore's - to have had him as its leader.
- Modern Singapore mourns founding father
- A life rich in achievement that leaves behind a precious legacy
- A lasting legacy
- Markets calm on spirit of Lee Kuan Yew's legacy
- 'Remembering a true giant of history'
- Wake and funeral arrangements