Singapore in Grief at Loss of Founding PM Lee Kuan Yew
Like him or hate him, a grateful and undivided Singapore will unhesitatingly acknowledge that the little red dot will have remained just that and not an affluent and peaceful First-World country that it is today but for the stern, visionary leadership of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away this morning at age 91..
Call it a stereotype or a cliche, that is the truth! Singapore became an independent nation on August 9, 1965, after then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman decided on the separation less than two years after the union of the two. Racial tensions resulting in serious violence and deep political differences forced the exit of Singapore from the Malayan Federation.
The expulsion left Mr Lee Kuan Yew in anguish and made him weep at an event that was televised. His tears were a spontaneous expression of sorrow at Singapore having to go it alone.
A Shimmering Future: Not many gave Singapore a chance to succeed on its own, leave alone a shimmering future that it went on to attain. Even Tunku Rahman is said to have nurtured the hope that Singapore would fail and return to Malaysia on its terms. That only turned out to be wishful thinking.
Mr Lee was made of sterner stuff, an appropriate Shakespearean expression that best defines his grit and determination, and not cowed down by the challenges on his hand – secret societies, drug peddling, organised Ah Kong crime gangs and the growing popularity of communism (Barisan Sosialis).
His sadness at the separation soon turned out to be tears of joy for Singaporeans who gained from the stellar role he played in transforming the country from a kampung with little natural resources (except rubber plantations that were done away with) into a vibrant economy driven by technology and brain power.
An Asian Tiger: If today it is an economic powerhouse and an Asian Tiger (with South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan), enabled by rapid industrialisation, the nation owes it to the stewardship of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, rightly called the Father of Modern Singapore.
All his ministers were handpicked by him, based on their individual credentials. They were top-end professionals, not mediocre, unlettered politicians that we see in a third-world democracy. A scholar himself, Mr Lee was a student at the London School of Economics before he went on to get a first-class honours degree in Law from the University of Cambridge.
Top Lawyer: Mr Lee was a highly successful lawyer before he entered politics with the People’s Action Party and went on to become the first Prime Minister of independent Singapore. He ran his law firm, Lee and Lee, that he had founded with his brother and wife, Kwa Geok Choo.
His office used to be located at the Capital Towers where I had worked for five years when I was with Cisco Systems. Mr Lee was not active in law then and I was not fortunate enough to see him even once though I had heard he would visit the office occasionally.
Despite the presence of high-profile leaders at the building, business was normal without any fanfare or unusually tight security. Mrs Lee had predeceased him in 2010, the year I had lost my father, the year I quit Cisco!
Could He Have Done Better?: While Mr Lee was unquestionably the architect of Singapore’s phenomenal success, he is also known for his iron-fisted rule and intolerance for criticism that included bankrupting key opposition leaders over allegations that they could not prove. Freedom of expression was thus a casualty. It prevented talented people from joining the ranks of the opposition or coming up with anti-government statements.
He was even called a benevolent dictator for being tough on those he thought could impede Singapore’s progress. There were no personal gains to be realised, driven only by his love for the country!
In a general sense, people can do away with some freedoms in the interest of the nation. Too much freedom always hinders growth. The leeway to express different opinions and oppose certain ideas can only scuttle development as has happened with countries like India.
Speakers’ Corner: A developing nation cannot afford such stumbling blocks. With Singapore having now become a peaceful, prosperous country with an intelligent population, the lost freedoms can be back. In fact, the opening of the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park a few years ago was a step in that direction.
But, in retrospect, could he have done better and, if he had not led the nation with a strong hand, would Singapore have succeeded the way it has? Perhaps not, though I think it can be silly to hypothesise! Nonetheless, I would have liked it if there had been some magnanimity towards the opposition leaders. But Mr Lee had explained himself very clearly when he said that trouble-makers would have to be politically destroyed.
Respect for India, China: Mr Lee had love for both India and China. I remember decades ago when, in a TV interview with Prannoy Roy, he lauded India’s decision to finally open up the economy through reforms initiated in 1991 by then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Dr Mahmohan Singh. He, however, felt it was a crowded market. His idea was that most other countries were then jumping into the reforms bandwagon, so India was a little late.
Mr Lee had respect for Mr Rao and called the latter a statesman when he visited Singapore. At a conference that Mr Rao addressed, Pakistan’s Ambassador to Singapore sought to raise the Kashmir issue but I remember Mr Lee immediately intervening and silencing him. That was not a platform for raising polemical issues.
World’s First Smart Nation: The Singapore of 2015 is vastly different from the Singapore of 1965. It was then a Singapore that Mr Lee had to build from scratch. Now it is a powerful economy that the world cannot take lightly
So the same policies may not work now. Singaporeans are a highly educated lot now and their views should be made to count as the country is all set to become the world’s first smart nation.
SG50: It is sad that we lost Mr Lee during Singapore’s Golden Jubilee year at age 91. Singaporeans will have loved to see him present at the SG50 National Day celebrations on August 9, 2015. It is sad that we will remember 2015 as the year we lost Mr Lee more than as Singapore’s Golden Jubilee year.
In one of the National Day rallies before he handed over the baton to Mr Goh Chok Tong in 1990 through what was efficient succession planning, Mr Lee had declared: “Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.”
His love for and commitment to Singapore went beyond words! They were his life!
G Joslin Vethakumar