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Personal reflections on a nation builder like no other
AS my wife and I stood in line outside Parliament House waiting to pay our last respects to Lee Kuan Yew, I recognised clearly why we were here. Just as why we went to the Singapore General Hospital; just as why we signed condolence cards at the Istana.
I made my first visit to Singapore as an adult more than 20 years ago. It was a day trip from New York City where I was a derivatives banker with a major investment bank. I arrived at 6am and departed from Singapore that same evening. I spent the entire day in meetings. Dinner was at Duxton Hill, then the buzzy part of town. After dinner, I went directly to the airport. Simple, straightforward, uncomplicated and unstressed. But something significant resonated within me.
On my return to New York, I approached my boss, the then global head of derivatives, and said: "I want to move to Singapore." Fred, my boss, who I still admire greatly, was surprised and asked: "Why on earth would you want to live in China?"
I laughed at his misconception, and so did others to whom I have narrated this story. That was exactly the point. Singapore, then a pretty staid city-state, was on the cusp of greatness. There was plenty happening and more was on the way. I wanted to be part of the story. Singapore had everything going for it. Why? This was a country built on trust and I had no doubt that a country built on trust would prosper. Later I learned that this was one of Mr Lee's most important tenets.
Six months later, I had moved to Singapore to set up the bank's regional derivatives business. In the process of setting up home and office, many of my beliefs were validated. My driver's licence took a mere five minutes and was presented with a smile. The same process in New York had taken me half a day while being subjected to a rude and arrogant NYC public servant whose salary I knew I was paying!
A few days later I had to go to the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority. I had a slightly out of the norm request. The lady behind the counter politely asked if she could discuss my request with her supervisor. Three minutes later my request had been granted. Amazing! In New York City, where I had lived for a decade, and Bombay where I grew up, this would have been nigh impossible. Mr Lee had built a nation where the main focus was to serve its people, and where the people could be trusted to do the right thing.
On one occasion, I left my mobile phone in a taxi. I tried calling the number several times but there was no response. Most people would have immediately called the mobile company. By then I had learnt that I could trust the system enough not to call the mobile phone company to discontinue my service. It turned out that the elderly cab driver did not know how to answer the phone so he drove to the nearest police station. On my next call, a polite policeman answered the call. Twenty minutes later my phone was with me. This would be inconceivable anywhere else in the world. This was Mr Lee's Singapore.
My time in Singapore made me realise how privileged I would be to become a citizen of this nation and when I was invited to do so, I accepted unreservedly. I also knew that I must give back to this nation that had been so good to me. I did and continue to do so. I have invested in businesses, encouraged local artists, encouraged the best and brightest to move here, hired overseas fellow Singaporeans from US business schools, encouraged women to come back into the workplace, written to the NParks to continue to preserve our trees, reprimanded construction workers for littering at construction sites, improved productivity in my businesses. I'm sure there is more. Mr Lee would have expected no less.
Over the years, we have made many friends across the entire spectrum of ethnicities in Singapore. Both at work and at play. Our neighbours are caring, my business associates are incredibly bright and helpful and have become friends.
As the country matures, we discover new challenges and issues. We discuss and debate them, but above all, we all agree that what we have here in Singapore is extraordinary and unparalleled in the history of nation-building. (Having lived in the US and India, both great countries but generally dysfunctional, I speak from experience!) We are a global "super city" with the heart of a small community. Mr Lee wanted to preserve that sense of community.
So, thank you, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. You have left behind a caring and trusting society, you have built a country led by strong leaders and able businessmen, a nation built on harmony and multi-ethnicity, a nation that continues to try and preserve its environment and affords a lifestyle that is the envy of the world. And above all, you nurtured a people that continue to work for the good of the nation. Our foundations are strong. RIP.
- The writer is a private equity investor and an independent director
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