The founding Prime Minister was an extraordinary political leader born out of (a) turbulent and uncertain era. Singapore at that time was a small island and an unnoticeable city. Economically, it relied on entrepreneurial trade. Militarily, it relied on the protection from the British troops.
When Singapore was forced to leave Malaysia, I don’t think many would have believed that Singapore could survive on its own, not to mention to have imagined our achievements today. We all know that during that period the country was to be rebuilt from scratch, and there was high unemployment rate. Our neighbours were not particular friendly either.
To survive we must have a global vision, attract foreign investments and become part of the international market. However this could put Singapore in danger of becoming big countries’ vessel and the pawn in the international political arena which can be sacrificed at any time.
These internal and external challenges were a great test for Mr Lee. With outstanding wisdom and courage, he traversed among the big countries and promoted Singapore’s values to them and the potential benefits that Singapore can provide.
He had won the respect of the leaders of these major powers. Without his efforts, our economy could not have been successful and Singapore could not have achieved its status and a living space today.
For a small country to survive, besides a strong military defence, the political space is the key to maintain national interest and survival. In Singapore, fighting for independence and continuous political struggle awakened Singaporeans’ political awareness. In the process of political movements and fighting together, consensus was forged between the people and Mr Lee, as well as a common direction and mutual trust. This is the main reason why Singapore can leap from third world to first world within one generation.
The success arose not just from Mr Lee’s extraordinary fighting spirit and tenacity, but also from his sincerity. However, I don’t think that the PAP one party rule is the key to Singapore’s fast economic development, strong social cohesion and unitedness. This is because many Singaporeans were sacrificed during the process of nation building and policy making and our society has paid a price for it.
This is why Mr Lee is also a controversial figure in some people’s eyes. He crafted policies based on the situation then, and made rational judgements out of the interests of the country, however the choice and implementation of policies is not just a rational decision, it should also take into consideration human nature and the sensitivity. Only by doing so, can we avoid hurting people’s feelings, and creating resentment. If accumulated over a long time the resentment could become a potential political crisis and affect people’s unity and their identification with the country.
From my dealings with Mr Lee in Parliament, I don’t think he was an autocrat who didn’t listen. If you have strong reasons and tight arguments, and can win him over in a thought through policy debate, I think he will consider your views. I also know he was someone who hated empty-talking because he thought time was precious and there were too many things to do.
Singapore is a multiracial society and every race has its own language and culture. In the early years of nation building everyone hoped to maintain their advantages in this new country. How to manage the various conflicts of interest, unite people and build a national identity was a tremendous challenge.
Countries with similar situations as we were in the early days are still facing the same social conflict brought about by multiracialism, multiculturalism. Some even face the danger of disintegration. Singapore today is united regardless of race, language and religion. This is an achievement that is not possible without Mr Lee. My deepest respect goes to founding prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew.