Today this House mourns the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore. As you have said Madam Speaker, Mr Lee was our longest serving and most illustrious member. When Mr Lee was admitted to Singapore General Hospital a few weeks ago for pneumonia, Singaporeans from all walks of life, watched anxiously, increasingly worried as his condition worsened. … Despite the outpouring of deep wishes and fervent prayers – it was not to be – Mr Lee’s chair sits empty today. His loss is deeply felt. A nation cries out in mourning. No one moved Singapore as Mr Lee did – not in life, not in sickness and not in death. We in this House, together with all Singaporeans here and abroad, weep that Mr Lee is no longer among us.
Why this deep sorrow for one man? Why do tears flow uncontrollably for thousands on his passing and memory? Simply put, Singapore would not be what it is today without Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He was that bright night star that guided us all, an impoverished and fearful nation through independence. He envisioned, then drove Singapore to become a success story – as he promised, from “mudflats to a thriving metropolis” that countries all over seek to emulate. Today, Singaporeans hold their passports with confidence and pride.
Mr Lee’s vision and tenacity rallied and energised a nation to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. He coaxed, pushed Singaporeans to do what was difficult, but ultimately right and good for their long term interests. With his powers of persuasion, Mr Lee’s clarity and confidence became ours, the people’s – the mark of a great leader.
Mr Lee is no longer with us, but I believe as many do here, that each generation will discover anew his wisdom in building the sturdy foundations of a thriving Singapore. His life is like a treasure chest. Each visit through his many deeds and words …. reveals pearls of wisdom and nuggets of sound advice, as I found for this eulogy. For such a monumental life, any eulogy will fall short and I seek your pardon. But to honour his memory and remind us what his life stood for, I propose to capture the essence of Mr Lee through his speeches – the very words he used in this Parliament.
Even at the dawn of his political career, Mr Lee identified closely with the hopes and aspirations of common Singaporeans. Mdm speaker, you mentioned his first election in 1955 … he told the voters of Tanjong Pagar, that out of 25 divisions, he wanted to represent “workers, wage earners and small traders, not wealthy merchants or landlords.” This was why he “chose Tanjong Pagar, not Tanglin”.
The residents of Tanjong Pagar believed and trusted him and elected him by a handsome margin. Astonishingly, as Mdm Speaker has said, Mr Lee would be returned as their MP for 13 subsequent elections. He would serve as MP for Tanjong Pagar for 60 years – from 1955 to 2015. In fact, he is the only MP that Tanjong Pagar has ever had pre-dating out independence. I doubt this record will ever be broken in our Parliamentary history.
But Mr Lee and his Government did not get re-elected time and time again because they dispensed sweet words. Indeed, Mr Lee would often warn voters against silver-tongued politicians … He gained a fearsome reputation as one who eschewed the easier, more popular but ultimately wrong paths, as he recounted in his book, Hard Truths.
Flattery fell flat on him as did lofty but pretentious ideals. For Mr Lee, the acid test was whether the idea you are proposing would make Singapore stronger. If it weakened this country’s foundations, he would reject it, even if it was politically incorrect to say so and attracted widespread criticism. If it would make Singapore better, then no obstacles, no preconceived notions, no preset habits were too deeply entrenched to uproot or overcome. Indeed, he would attack these hindrances squarely and vigorously, to improve our circumstances. That was the Lee Kuan Yew the world knew and respected throughout his political life.
In 1968, an MP asked in Parliament, how the British withdrawal would impact Singapore. Mr Lee told Singaporeans matter of factly that the British bases made up 20% of the GNP and tens of thousands of jobs would be lost. He spoke plainly. there was more to come. He told Singaporeans they would would have “to adapt and adjust, without any whimpering or wringing of hands, as a way of life which they have been accustomed to over 30 years comes to an end.” – Truly hard truth.
When another MP followed and asked if economic aid from the British could ease the effects of the pull-out, Mr Lee’s quick and unequivocal rejoinder was that any aid should “not make us dependent on perpetual injections of aid from the outside”, that “…we cannot change our attitude to life, that the world does not owe us a living and that we cannot live by the begging bowl… The best way of meeting the problem is to go about it quietly and intelligently discussing our problems in a low key and with as little fuss and bother as possible.”
There was steel in the tone of these replies but Mr Lee revealed later in 1999 that he knew how serious the problem really was. He said: “1968 to 1971… were critical years for our young republic. We knew we either made it or we would fail. We worked hard, we worked smart, and more important we worked as a team. By the time the British withdrew in Oct 1971, we had avoided massive unemployment…”
Mr Lee said, “With as little fuss as possible”, but in those critical years would mean a fundamental overhaul of what Singaporeans had indeed become accustomed to but could not afford. To stop the rot, Mr Lee rooted out corruption, and attacked the malaise that afflicted our society and economy. What followed would remake the work environment, industrial relations, schools, skills upgrading, productivity, defence and security – the very issues we talk about in Parliament today…
He rid Singapore of unsavoury, unproductive and unsustainable habits and customs inherited from its past. A slew of legislative reforms followed in this House. Amendments were made to Employment, Industrial Relations, and Trade Unions Acts that put an end to the disruptive labour strikes. Bills were passed to build technical training institutes, forerunners of today’s ITE, Polytechnics and Universities to educate and upgrade the skills of our workforce. Work hours were extended and the number of public holidays slashed. As you can imagine, none of these bills was popular, not one.
All of us in Government and as MPs on the ground know how difficult it is to carry unpopular policies, even when they are right. Why did Mr Lee and his Government choose to persuade Singaporeans to do, again and again, what was necessary but painful? Mr Lee himself provided us the answer. He said in 1968 in this House, “If we were a soft community, then the temptation would be to leave things alone and hope for the best. Then, only good fortune can save us from the unpleasantness which reason and logic tell us is ahead of us. But we are not an easy-going people. We cannot help thinking, calculating and planning for tomorrow, for next week, for next month, for next year, for the next generation. And it is because we have restless minds, forever probing and testing, seeking new and better solutions to old and new problems, that we have never been, and I trust never shall be, tried and found wanting.”
Mr Lee spoke these words in 1968 to remind Singaporeans that unless they were willing to change and continuously adapt, even if it meant short term pain, Singapore could not rise. In return for the people’s trust and willingness to do what was needed, Mr Lee and his Government promised a better Singapore after these reforms – “more industries and more jobs…improved standards of education, health services, social amenities and housing for all.” Again the issues we talk about in our parliament today.
As prescient as these words were, it seemed an unattainable dream when Mr Lee gave these promises in 1968. Singapore’s per capita GDP then was around Myanmar today. It would take a further two decades of constant effort and continuous change, “seeking new and better solutions”, which included CPF reforms and the introduction of NS in 1967. But at the end of it, Mr Lee and his Government delivered. Cabinet colleagues remember Mr Lee, our Mentor often reminding us to under-promise and over-deliver. Say less and do more. What you promise, you must deliver and more. Mr Lee walked his talk.
Even in his twilight years, Mr Lee kept a constant watch over Singapore’s future in the World. Singapore’s well-being was his obsession, as may of us know, woe betide anyone who tried to knock it down. He was never complacent about our fundamentals and his singular passion was to make sure that Singapore remained well positioned for the future.
In 2009, Mr Lee then at 86 years, unexpectedly joined a debate on a motion about equality in this House. He said, “Sir, I had not intended to intervene in any debate. But I was doing my physiotherapy just now and reading the newspapers and I thought I should bring the House back to earth…. and remind everybody what is our starting point, what is our base, and if we do not recognise where we started from, and that these are our foundations, we will fail.”
Mr Lee went on to explain why the Constitution of Singapore “enjoins us (the Government) to specifically look after the position of the Malays and other minorities”
Our Constitution states expressly that it is a duty of the Government “not to treat everybody as equal. It is not a reality, it is not practical, it will lead to grave and irreparable damage if we work on that principle.”
Lee Kuan Yew refused to be swayed by ideology that could not work. He considered these as “highfalutin ideas that misled Singaporeans”. As a result today, many countries come to Singapore to study how we have maintained our harmony in a multi-racial society.
But while Mr Lee held constant and firm to key fundamentals, he could change his own mind if it made Singapore better. In 2005, he supported the proposal to build Integrated Resorts. He told this House why: “The old model on which I worked was to create a first world city in a third world region – clean, green, efficient, pleasant, healthy and wholesome, safe and secure for everyone. These virtues are valuable but no longer sufficient.”
“Singapore has to reposition itself in this world. …if you are in charge, if you are responsible for Singapore’s future, for its wellbeing, for its vibrancy, for the kind of life Singapore can provide its people in 10, 20 years, can you say no? That is the question you have to answer…This is your choice. Surely we must move forward and keep abreast of the top cities in Asia and the world.”
Above all, Mr Lee believed that ultimately it was in the quality of its people and leaders that determined a nation’s chances of success. …
Mr Lee never believed that physical monuments or towering edifices engendered or sustained greatness. He would brush aside these as foundations for our success. This past week we have seen the glowing tributes to Mr Lee from leaders and on the front pages of newspapers from all over the World. Ministers and MPs from Australia and New Zealand have held special sessions in their Parliaments in his honour. World leaders are disrupting their schedules to come personally to attend his funeral service. This recognition is seldom given to even leaders of great countries, let alone a little red dot. I find it befitting and poetic that for one who did not believe in monuments, that Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself became Singapore’s greatest icon. Indeed, Mr Lee has had such a monumental impact on all Singaporeans that each would have his or her own special memory of him. … Read the tributes, artwork, banners, posters beautifully crafted by tens of thousands of Singaporeans at our tribute sites. Many others will certainly remember him as an internationally renowned great leader and statesmen. For myself, two personal encounters have left lasting impressions.
In 2009, Mr Lee led a delegation on an official trip to many states of Malaysia. DPM Tharman and I were part of it. The delegation was having dinner together, it was a long trip, when Mr Lee asked to excuse himself so that he could speak on the phone to Mrs Lee. Due to previous strokes, Mrs Lee could not speak but remained conscious and aware. Mr Lee had made it a routine to speak and read to her each night. He did not want to break this routine, even though he was in Malaysia on a long trip. He asked the nurse to put the phone to Mrs Lee and spoke to her. He did this every night while we were in Malaysia. We stood aside to respect their privacy, but that image of Mr Lee, hunched over the phone speaking to Mrs Lee who could not speak back, will stay with me for a very long time as a simple but pure picture of true devotion. Mrs Lee passed away in 2010 and the impact on him was visible physically. I think many people noticed this.
Mr Lee had indeed become frail as he approached his 90th birthday in 2013. He had problems in swallowing and food would go down the wrong way into his windpipe, infecting his lungs repeatedly. As eating could cause aspiration pneumonia, he needed intravenous nutrition as supplement but became progressively thinner. Parliament was sitting that year on Sept 16th, his birthday and we wanted to acknowledge his 90th birthday, an auspicious birthday. I called on Mr Lee at the Istana and told him about our plans. He said he would be in Parliament that day on Sept 16th.
Unfortunately, when that day came, a dehydrated and weakened Mr Lee had to go to hospital and be put on a drip. His doctors advised him not to attend Parliament. We were informed so we called off our plans. But just before Parliament adjourned, we were surprised when Mr Lee entered this Chamber. I found out later that he over-ruled his doctors, saying that he must attend Parliament because he had given his commitment. He wanted to walk actually but thankfully his doctors persuaded him that it would be acceptable for a 90-year-old man on intravenous nutrition to be wheeled into the chamber. That September 16th, this House had the last privilege to wish him happy birthday together. After Parliament adjourned, he stayed on as we cut his birthday cake and sang him a birthday song. At age 90, frail and dehydrated, Mr Lee kept his word to be here.
Great strength of character, determination and integrity. Lee Kuan Yew had all of these qualities and more. He kept his promises. What he said he would do, he would and more – whether it was for individuals or an entire nation.
As we honour his memory, we resolve to learn from his example to be men and women, individually and collectively as a nation, to have that great strength of character, integrity and determination. These values, as Mr Lee emphasised, would see us through difficult times. We must maintain, as he put it, “restless minds, forever probing and testing, seeking new and better solutions to old and new problems, (so) that we have never been, and I trust never shall be, tried and found wanting.”
We must aspire to these qualities that Mr Lee asked of us, because that would be the greatest tribute to the memory of Lee Kuan Yew, of what he stood for, fought against and desired for the good of Singapore and Singaporeans.
There will not be another Lee Kuan Yew who made us better than we are or could be. Mr Lee Kuan Yew founded, moved and lifted a nation. Because of his unwavering devotion and a life poured out for Singapore, he has made all our lives better and for many generations to come. Few mortals have accomplished so much in their lifetime. We in this House are honoured to have lived and served with him. His legacy will live on through us and through this nation.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew had his critics while alive. He was asked on a number of occasions how he thought history would judge him at the end. His reply would invariably be non-committal. Once he replied factually, “I’ll be dead by then”. That was Mr Lee. But today, we have the opportunity to tell Mr Lee. Mr Lee, we would like to tell him that Singaporeans have decided. Thousands upon thousands lined the streets on your journey from Sri Temasek to this Parliament House and queued for hours under the hot sun to pay their respects here. They did so spontaneously, an outpouring of gratitude and admiration for what you have done for their lives. I believe, thousands more will do so when you move from here to your final resting place on Sunday. Singaporeans shouted your name repeatedly and clapped with adulation.
Mr Lee, I am sorry that they had to wait so long. I can just hear his reprimand in my ear. My Cabinet colleagues walked through the crowds thanking our people for their patience. Singaporeans smiled, replied that the wait was little compared to what you have done for them. Employers let off workers who skipped meals to pay respects. Volunteers distributed food and drink to people in line. Parents brought their little children along determined that their children should know who had been responsible for our good lives here. Senior citizens hobbled on walking sticks or on wheel-chairs to say good-bye and thank you personally, despite their physical infirmities. Mr Lee, all these Singaporeans, young and old, whose lives you have touched – it is they who matter, as you always said, and who have pronounced the final judgement on your life’s work. It is a great work that has surpassed all expectations. It is called Singapore and filled with Singaporeans who love and revere you. Majulah Singapura. Rest in peace.