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A lasting legacy

VISIONARY: Mr Lee during a PAP rally at Hong Lim Green, ahead of the 1959 General Election.


    Mar 24, 2015

    A lasting legacy

    SINGAPORE'S founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, has died, leaving behind the unlikely nation he and his colleagues built over five decades as his lasting legacy.

    A brief statement from the Prime Minister's Office early yesterday morning said: "The Prime Minister is deeply grieved to announce the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore. Mr Lee passed away peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) today at 3.18am. He was 91."

    A second statement two hours later said a week-long period of national mourning would be observed, with state flags flown at half-mast until Sunday. A two- day private family wake will be held at Sri Temasek in the Istana, followed by his body lying in state in Parliament until Saturday, for the public to pay their last respects. A state funeral will be held on Sunday at 2pm, followed by a private cremation.

    Mr Lee had been in SGH since Feb 5 with severe pneumonia, prompting an outpouring of good wishes as an anxious nation awaited updates on his deteriorating condition, hoping for a recovery.

    He outlived several other titans from Singapore's tumultuous founding years: Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San, S. Rajaratnam, Devan Nair, Toh Chin Chye, Eddie Barker and Hon Sui Sen. Sadly, he will be greatly missed on Aug 9, as Singapore marks the 50th anniversary of the Republic he played so critical a role in shaping.

    He leaves his two sons, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 63, and Lee Hsien Yang, 57, daughter Lee Wei Ling, 60, daughters-in-law Ho Ching, 61, and Lee Suet-Fern, 56, seven grandchildren and two siblings. His wife, Kwa Geok Choo, died in 2010 at the age of 89.

    He was widely regarded as the man most instrumental in shaping this country, from the time he and his People's Action Party (PAP) colleagues pushed for self-government in the 1950s to their quest for merger with the Federation of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form the new nation Malaysia in the early 1960s, and their efforts to secure the Republic's survival after independence was thrust on it on Aug 9, 1965.

    He famously wept on TV announcing the "moment of anguish", when Singapore was "severed" from Malaysia. Not only had he believed deeply in a unified Malaysia as a multiracial society, but he must also have sensed the enormity of the task for the new city-state to make a living in an inhospitable world.

    He would lead a pioneer generation of Singaporeans to overcome a series of daunting challenges, from rehousing squatters in affordable public housing, to rebuilding the economy after the sudden pullout of British forces and the oil shocks of the 1970s, and a major economic recession in the mid-1980s. Through it all, he exhorted people to "never fear", as they looked forward to a better life.

    "This country belongs to all of us. We made this country from nothing, from mudflats...Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!" he thundered at a grassroots event in Sembawang in September 1965.

    He delivered on this promise, earning the trust of voters who returned his party to office repeatedly over the decades. He represented Tanjong Pagar for 60 years, since 1955, when he was first elected as the area's assemblyman.

    He stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990 after 31 years. He chose to hand over the premiership to Goh Chok Tong while still in robust health at the age of 67, and took on the role of Senior Minister, serving as guide and mentor in the Cabinet.

    Noting this unusual willingness to relinquish power, Time magazine said in 1991: "What really sets this complex man apart from Asia's other nation-builders is what he didn't do: He did not become corrupt, and he did not stay in power too long. Mao (Zedong), Suharto, (Ferdinand) Marcos and Ne Win left their countries on the verge of ruin with no obvious successor. Lee left Singapore with a per capita GDP (gross domestic product) of US$14,000, his reputation gilt-edged and an entire tier of second-generation leaders to take over when he stepped down in 1990."

    It added that as an elder statesman, his "views continue to be sought by statesmen and commentators who travel from all over the world to pay court to him in Singapore". Indeed, in a White House statement yesterday morning, United States President Barack Obama called Mr Lee "a true giant of history who will be remembered for generations", and joined Singaporeans in "mourning the loss of this remarkable man".

    When his son became Prime Minister in 2004, Mr Lee became Minister Mentor, taking a further step back, spending his time pondering the longer-term challenges facing Singapore.

    His decades in office were not uncontroversial. Having survived life-and-death battles with the communists and communalists in Singapore's troubled early years, he made plain that he was not averse to donning "knuckle-dusters" to take on and "demolish" his political adversaries.

    He refused to be swayed by popular sentiment or opinion polls, believing that voters would come round when they eventually saw the benefits of policies he had pushed through.

    As he said in an interview for the book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas: "I'm very determined. If I decide that something is worth doing, then I'll put my heart and soul to it. The whole ground can be against me, but if I know it is right, I'll do it. That's the business of a leader."

    He was both a visionary and a radical thinker, and was instrumental in a host of major policies that have shaped almost every aspect of Singaporeans' lives, from promoting public housing, home ownership, racial integration in public estates, and later estate upgrading, to adopting English as a common language for the disparate races in Singapore.

    He made multiracialism and meritocracy, as well as economically sound and corruption-free government hallmarks of the Singapore way. He carried over his own frugal ways to the business of government and was relentless in his fight against the "cancer of corruption", making plain that no one was beyond being investigated and ejected from office if they strayed. He pushed for ministers and senior civil servants to be paid salaries pegged to private sector rates, despite that being controversial, believing it was necessary if Singapore was to continue to enjoy good, clean government.

    And if this city gained a reputation worldwide for also being one of the cleanest and greenest, it was because the Prime Minister himself took a personal interest in enhancing the island's greenery, parks and waterways, long before such environmental consciousness became fashionable.

    Mr Lee soldiered on with his public duties after retirement, and even after the loss of his wife of 63 years, whom he mourned deeply but mostly in private. They had married secretly as undergraduates in Cambridge in 1947, and Mr Lee is said to have instructed, in a note to his children, that when the time came, their ashes should be mixed so they might be "joined after life as they had been in life".

    His two-part memoirs, The Singapore Story, revealed how he and his colleagues believed that Malaysian leaders anticipated the day when an independent Singapore would fail and be forced to appeal for readmission to the Federation, on Malaysia's terms.

    "No, not if I could help it," he once declared. "People in Singapore were in no mood to crawl back after what they had been through. The people shared our feelings and were prepared to do whatever was needed to make an independent Singapore work. I did not know I was to spend the rest of my life getting Singapore not just to work, but to prosper and flourish."

    Asked once in an interview if he would have done things differently if he could live his life over, he replied: "All I can say is, I did my best. This was the job I undertook, I did my best, and I could not have done more in the circumstances. What people think of it, I have to leave to them. It is of no great consequence. What is of consequence is I did my best."

    The writer is editor of The Straits Times.