No one could accuse LKY of being weak
When he suddenly fathered a reluctant new nation, the iron was forged in him.
LEE Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, has died at the age of 91.
He was born Harry Lee Kuan Yew on Sept 16, 1923 in Singapore. When he left England after graduating with a law degree from Cambridge University, he also left his English name behind.
In 1954, Lee formed the People’s Action Party (PAP). In 1959, at the age of 35, he won the national elections of Singapore, then still part of the British Empire, and became Prime Minister for the first time. After a brief merger with Malaysia, in 1965 the Republic of Singapore was born. Lee was PM until 1990 when he voluntarily stepped down, at age 67, to make way for a younger man.
It is a cliché, but it has to be said: the passing of Lee Kuan Yew is the passing of an era for Singapore and Singaporeans. A Singapore without LKY will take some adjusting to.
Older citizens will probably remember him with more affection and gratitude. Younger Singaporeans may attend the academic institutions and win scholarships that bear his name, but they will likely feel no particular affection or disdain, but rather, a vague admiration for the legendary leader whom they have been told was the architect of modern Singapore.
“I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind,” he once said. Perhaps he will be best remembered through his own words.
In 1980, he said, “Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him.” For him, it was in August 1965, when he suddenly fathered a reluctant new nation, that the iron was forged – from the fire in his belly to make Singapore succeed.
From that “moment of anguish”, he would “spend the rest of my life getting Singapore not just to work but to prosper and flourish.” Over the years, he would use that same steel to fight all forms of obstacles and undesirable dogma, prejudices and even personal habits.
He would go on to confront and battle challenges that included corruption, unemployment, poverty, communism, political opposition, smoking and at the end, his own deteriorating health.
His self-belief and devotion to the Singapore cause was intense and absolute: “This is your life and mine. I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this (country) and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.”
He will be remembered for his ferocious fight against corruption. He believed vehemently, “The moment key leaders are less than incorruptible, less than stern in demanding high standards, from that moment, the structure of administrative integrity will weaken, and eventually crumble. Singapore can survive only if ministers and senior officers are incorruptible and efficient.”
He will be remembered for standing up for meritocracy. A key reason for Singapore’s separation in 1965 was Lee’s belief in multiracial meritocracy. He was utterly convinced that, “If you want Singapore to succeed…you must have a system that enables the best man and the most suitable to go into the job that needs them…”
Every time a Singaporean takes a ride in a bus along a tree-lined avenue, plays with her children in a park near their flat, or enjoys a picnic in Botanic Gardens, she might just think of Lee. He launched Tree Planting Day and “set out to transform Singapore into a tropical garden city.” He was completely certain that, “Greening raised the morale of people and gave them pride in their surroundings.”
Lee’s beliefs and ideas went on to mould not just the development of a small new country with no natural resources to speak of, but also, some would argue, the personal lives of its citizens. Under his leadership, his government implemented policies and ran campaigns to compel and urge Singaporeans to save water, to keep Singapore clean, to have two children, and later, to have three if they could afford it, and to speak Mandarin, among many other exhortations.
In response to critics who accused his government of interfering in the private lives and personal behaviours of the city-state’s inhabitants, he had this to say, “It has made Singapore a more pleasant place to live in. If this is a ‘nanny state’, I am proud to have fostered one.”
He will be remembered for the power of his convictions. “I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader.” No-one could accuse Lee Kuan Yew of being a weak leader.
Of his own accord, he relinquished the position of Prime Minister in 1990, but stayed on in government as Senior Minister and then Minister Mentor in the governments of both his successors, Goh Chok Tong and his own son, Lee Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister. He retired from Cabinet in 2011 but remained a Member of Parliament.
For those who remember Lee Kuan Yew in his prime, no matter to which side of the political divide they belong, they will recall a perspicacious politician whose intellect found admirers far beyond the little red dot, a powerful orator whose words conquered crowds and carried generations of Singaporeans with him, and perhaps, most of all, a pragmatic visionary who, against all odds, made the improbable nation a reality.
Lee was known for his admiration, gratitude and devotion to his wife, the late Kwa Geok Choo. He is survived by his two sons, one daughter and seven grandchildren.
By Peggy Kek
Singaporean analyst Peggy Kek is a former director with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
Quotable quotes from Lee Kuan Yew
Here are some notable quotes from Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died Monday at the age of 91.
On Japan defeating Britain to occupy Singapore in 1942:
“The dark ages had descended on us. It was brutal, cruel.
“Looking back, it was the biggest single political education of my life because, for three and a half years, I saw the meaning of power and how power and politics and government went together, and I also understood how people trapped in a power situation responded because they had to live.
“One day the British were there, immovable, complete masters; next day, the Japanese, whom we derided, mocked as short, stunted people with short-sighted squint eyes.”
After World War II when the British were trying to reestablish control:
“… the old mechanisms had gone and the old habits of obedience and respect (for the British) had also gone because people had seen them run away (from the Japanese) … they packed up. We were supposed, the local population was supposed to panic when the bombs fell, but we found they panicked more than we did. So it was no longer the old relationship.”
As a law student in Britain:
“Here in Singapore, you didn’t come across the white man so much. He was in a superior position.
“But there you are (in Britain) in a superior position meeting white men and white women in an inferior position, socially, I mean. They have to serve you and so on in the shops. I saw no reason why they should be governing me; they’re not superior. I decided when I got back, I was going to put an end to this.”
On opinion polls:
“I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. A leader who is, is a weak leader. If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader. You are just catching the wind … you will go where the wind is blowing. That’s not what I am in this for.”
On his iron-fisted governing style:
“Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try.”
On his political opponents:
“If you are a troublemaker… it’s our job to politically destroy you… Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.”
“You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools.”
“We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.”
On his policy of matching male and female university graduates to produce smart babies:
“If you don’t include your women graduates in your breeding pool and leave them on the shelf, you would end up a more stupid society… So what happens? There will be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation. That’s a problem.”
On criticism over the high pay of cabinet ministers and senior civil servants:
“The cure for all this talk is a good dose of incompetent government. You get that alternative and you’ll never put Singapore together again: Humpty Dumpty cannot be put together again… and your asset values will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people’s countries, foreign workers.”
“I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. I neither deny nor accept that there is a God. So I do not laugh at people who believe in God. But I do not necessarily believe in God – nor deny that there could be one.”
On his wife of 63 years, Kwa Geok Choo, who died in October 2010:
“Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life… I should find solace in her 89 years of a life well-lived. But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief.”
“There is an end to everything and I want mine to come as quickly and painlessly as possible, not with me incapacitated, half in coma in bed and with a tube going into my nostrils and down to my stomach.”
On rising up from his grave if something goes wrong in Singapore:
“Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me to the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.”
Former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew waves to supporters ashe submits his nomination papers to contest in the elections in Singapore…