The Passing of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew – A Legend in His Own Lifetime

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and its first Prime Minister was already hospitalised when my wife and I were away on a two-week cruise on 9th March this year. We monitored his illness while at sea whenever we could and we were dismayed to learn that his condition had deteriorated and the latest hospital announcement had warned that the worse might happen quite soon.

A couple of days before our returning home to Singapore on 22nd March, we were shocked and deeply saddened to learn form a reputable foreign TV station that Singapore’s founding father had just passed away in hospital at the age of 91. Fortunately, our sadness soon turned into temporary joyful relief when the same station later retracted its earlier broadcast that the news of Mr Lee’s demise was a hoax announcement, purportedly coming from the Prime Minister’s office.

On our first morning back home, we shared the profound grief of our fellow Singaporeans when we heard the television announcement early that morning that Mr Lee had passed away peacefully at 3.18 am that morning at the Singapore General Hospital at 91.

A poignant tribute from an emotional Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong soon followed. He said he was “grieved beyond words” to tell the nation that the first of our founding fathers is no more. He inspired us, gave us courage, kept us together, and brought us here. He fought for our independence, built a nation, where there was none and made us proud to be Singaporeans. We won’t see another man like him. He then went on to say that “to many both at home and abroad Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore. Singapore was his abiding passion. He gave of himself, in full measure, to Singapore”. As he himself put it towards the end of his life and I quote “I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life”.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The PM ended his tribute by declaring that there would be seven days of national mourning. This would be in three stages. There would be two days of private wake at Sri Temasek, the official residence of the Prime Minister, for his relatives, close friends, associates, and foreign dignitaries, followed by four days of lying in state at Parliament House for the public to pay their last respects and a state funeral service at the National University Cultural Centre where many foreign representatives are expected to be present. Thereafter, there will be a private family cremation service at the Mandai Cremation Centre, where Mr Lee’s ashes will be interned next to his wife’s. She died in 2011 after a happy and loving marriage that lasted 58 years.

As soon as Mr Lee’s death became imminent, large crowds of people, young and old, had begun to gather outside the hospital to pay tributes to him for his immense contributions to make tiny Singapore what it is today and to wish him a speedy recovery. Their emotional attachment towards him was both moving and palpable for all to see.

Following his demise, the public mourning and grief was overwhelming as tens of thousands of Singaporeans and many foreign residents converged on Parliament House during the day and throughout the night to file past Mr Lee’s casket, draped in the national flag, to catch a last glimpse of their beloved founding father. A kilometre-long queue of mourners were there every day, and, at its peak hours, many had to line up for upwards of ten hours. To make it more comfortable for the large crowds and to shield them from the blazing sunlight and periodic rains, tents were erected for their benefit. In addition, a Priority Queue segment was later set up to cater to the elderly folks and those with infirmities. A number of public-spirited corporations in the vicinity also provided free drinks and refreshments for the waiting crowd or lend them free umbrellas to ease their physical strain. To reduce the unrelenting crowd pressures there, 18 community centres in different parts of Singapore were designated tribute centres to give everyone an opportunity to bid Mr Lee a fond farewell. Several members of my own family and extended family members were among those who made special efforts to be there, some in very early morning with shorter queues before proceeding to work near Parliament House.

Throughout the six days of national mourning, more than 1.2 million Singaporeans, other local residents and many ordinary people from the neighbouring countries had paid homage to our founding father. This is in addition to the several foreign dignitaries, including the Sultan of Brunei, The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib, President Ma of Taiwan and the number one tycoon of Hong Kong Lee Ka-Shing who came to the private wake at Sri Temasek. Scores of other foreign leaders also turned up at the Parliament House lying in state mourning period. In addition, expatriate Singaporeans in different parts of the world also held memorial services to honour Mr Lee. Some Singaporeans living in other countries even made special trips home just to join the long lines of mourners at Parliament House to express their gratitude to their founding father for giving all Singaporeans and their children a better life. Numerous condolence messages were sent by other foreign leaders from all over the world in praise of Mr Lee’s accomplishments for Singapore during his premiership and even later on.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

An equally emotional and touching scene came into public focus, more sharply captured on the television screen, on Mr Lee’s funeral procession on 29th March along a seven-kilometre route commencing from Parliament House to the National University Cultural Centre. Tens of thousands of mourners braved the torrential rain, and numerous of them were soaking wet unprotected by rain coats or umbrellas, were lining up, some four or five deep, as their ultimate opportunity to bid a heart-rending farewell to the founding father of the nation. Many had waited in the queues for upwards of four hours in order to gain a vantage position, some with young children in tow. Despite the heavy rain, Mr Lee’s cortege left Parliament House promptly shortly after 11 am, accompanied by family members and a long line of Mr Lee’s close associates and other public body representatives who walked behind the coffin. Mr Lee was honoured with a 21-gun salute as the funeral procession was passing the Padang, an open field which has become a prominent landmark of the Republic where many of its past National Day parades were held. In the procession in a prominent position right behind the family members was a very frail looking and wheelchair-ridden Mr Chiam See Tong, who was a long time more gentle opposition leader in parliament. Despite his past political differences with Mr Lee, he made a moving effort to be part of the funeral procession in the rain, helped by a family member with an umbrella over his head, on his way to attend the state funeral service. Mr Chiam’s warm gesture and admiration for Mr Lee’s contributions to the state must have won him approbation and deep sympathies from the huge turnout there.

A very solemn state funeral service was held in the early afternoon of 29th March, attended by a select invited group of Singaporeans of different walks of life as well as close to 30 foreign countries’s representatives from around the world. Among them were kings, sultans , heads of state, prime ministers and other senior government leaders. Two prominent and familiar personages among them were the former US President Clinton and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, aged 91 and a life long close personal friend and staunch admirer of Mr Lee. They also paid their respects to Mr Lee in Parliament House, immediately after their arrival in Singapore despite an exhausting 24-hour flight from Washington DC. Several heart-felt tributes were delivered at this ceremony by Mr Lee’s youngest brother, an Old Guard Cabinet Minister, a younger Second Generation Cabinet colleague , a veteran trade unionist and a grass-roots leader from Mr Lee’s own parliamentary constituency where he served as their MP for 56 years until his death.

From the University Cultural Centre Mr Lee’s cortege departed on his final journey to a public crematorium for a private family funeral service, where more heart-warming tributes from his children and grandchildren were movingly delivered which gave a hitherto un-revealed insight into the softer side of Mr Lee, the loving and caring father and the doting grandpa to his grandchildren. He was later cremated in this crematorium and was, once again, reunited with his beloved wife in death in fulfilment of their final wishes.

Casting my mind back to more than 53 years ago, I can still recall vividly my two personal encounters with the more youthful and stern-looking Mr Lee, who became the first Prime Minster of the self-governing Singapore in 1959. The first occasion was at the beginning of 1962 at the opening of the new Legal Year, which was well attended by members of the Judiciary, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, other Legal Service officers and members of the Bar. Mr Lee wanted to meet some latest recruits into the Legal Service and I was one of them. We were then introduced to him by the High Court Registrar. He looked at us and then asked us collectively why we had opted for the public service instead of the potentially more lucrative private practice. After a short pause, one of the more nimble minded among us replied to the effect that he regarded a public service career to be more meaningful and satisfying and hence his choice. He gave a look of approval and then walked away.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The second encounter was some years later when my wife and I were among the 30-odd guests at the Prime Minister’s informal dinner party at the Istana Annexe, where his office was located. Mrs Lee took turns to sit with the guests at different tables. When she found out I was legally trained in England, she asked me what Chinese dialect group I came from. When I said I was a Hakka and was fluent in it, she turned to her husband in the nearest table and told him I was a fellow Hakka. Mr Lee then turned around and told me in rather stiff Hakka, ‘zi jia ren’ meaning ‘my fellow clansman’. These two personal encounters with Mr Lee have remained deeply etched in my memory after a lapse of more than five decades.

The spontaneous outpouring of deep sorrows by Singaporeans and others who had paid tributes to the founding father of Singapore at so many different locations throughout the world were so overwhelming and exceeded all expectations. It was unprecedented since the passing of such towering historic figures as epitomised by India’s Mahatma Ghandi, China’s Supremo Deng Xiaoping and South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela.

Lee Kuan Yew’s contributions to Singapore’s political development and economic prosperity are well documented and there is no need for me to delve on the various stages of these. So also are his personal and family background.

When Mr Lee’s PAP party scored a landslide victory to replace the ineffectual Singapore People’s Alliance Government, he was appointed the first Prime Minister of the fully internal self-governing Singapore in 1959. It became a fully independent republic in 1965. In 1959, the victors inherited a multitude of seemingly insurmountable economic, political and a host of pressing social and other problems to be tackled and resolved by his newly constituted government. Most external political observers were pessimistic about his government’s political abilities to turn the state around for a viable future.

At the outset, there was a flight of some local foreign enterprises relocating to the neighbouring fully independent Malaya as they had no confidence in the future of Singapore under the rule of a radical socialist regime. Unemployment was endemic, there was industrial unrest with strikes and unlawful work stoppages taking place all over the state, acute housing shortages, corruption in the public sector was rife and the Singapore government treasury had very limited reserves to meet the urgent needs of Singapore to preempt an economic catastrophe from happening. To put it in a nutshell. Mr Lee, assisted by his Cabinet team of highly capable and dedicated Ministers, had to get down to work immediately and to do their utmost to reverse this critical situation. The public service was the first to bear the brunt of the PAP’s government’s remedial reform measures. Their pay was significantly reduced as a first step, followed by other much-needed reductions in government expenditures, legislative reforms to stabilise labour-employer relations and a string of social and other reforms to ensure Singapore’s longer term viability. To lure more foreign investors, especially the multinational corporations, to invest in Singapore, Mr Lee offered them highly attractive tax and other incentives in order to induce them to start operations there and to transfer their technical and management skills to the Singaporean workforce. Most of the other foreign enterprises, which had earlier relocated from Singapore to neighbouring Malaya, also decided to move back to Singapore when they realised that their initial fear for Singapore’s future under a socialist government was unfounded. Through this and other astute and timely measures taken, Singapore was able to embark on other more ambitious industrialisation programmes in order to convert the state’s traditional entrepot economy into a more high-tech one in the course of time . By the beginning of 1970s, these well thought out schemes had borne fruitful results and Singapore’s economy had advanced by leaps and bounds so that its future well-being became more assured. This would not have been possible without Lee Kuan Yew, ably supported by his exceptionally talented Ministers, especially Dr Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San and Hon Swee Sen.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

From then onwards, Singapore’s economic expansion and industrialisation schemes attracted a continuous stream of different categories of more high value-added commercial enterprises and high-technology outfits to set up operations there, to the mutual benefit of both sides. The blue-chip international banks and other financial institutions also came along to tap the Republic’s growing wealth and affluence and gradually turned it into an Asian financial hub. All these overseas enterprises came because of Singapore’s stable political environment, pro business policies, a well-educated and disciplined workforce, sustained good industrial relations between employers and unions, a non corrupt and efficient public service and an independent judiciary which would dispense justice based on merits without fear or favour. These essential factors led to a rapid growth of Singapore’s economy and propelled it into becoming a so-called Asian ‘Tiger Economy’, alongside that of South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, by the 1980s. In the 1990s, Singapore’s enhanced affluence resulted in the World Bank re-classifying it a developed economy, thus leaving the ranks of the Third World country to join the ranks of the First World nation. This miraculously remarkable achievement was accomplished in just one generation, all under the stewardship of Lee Kuan Yew and his government and their successors, ably assisted by an efficient and non-corrupt public service.

During Mr Lee’s premiership of 31 years, the longest tenure in the world, he left his marks and footprints in practically all sectors of its economy and social development, in addition to those mentioned earlier. These would include Education, especially bilingual education, healthcare, public hygiene, a cleaner environment, including keeping public places litter free, transportation and improved infrastructural facilities and amenities, ridding the country of the perennial menaces of secret society gangsterism, pirate taxi operators and illegal gambling, enhancing civic consciousness and social graces of Singaporeans, extending equal pay for women in the public sector, abolishing polygamous marriages, promoting racial and religious harmony among the different races there, just to mention some of the most significant changes to uplift the life of Singaporeans. Another very enduring and fondly remembered legacy was his untiring and continuing efforts to turn the island state into a garden city from a potential concrete jungle, so typical of many cities elsewhere. The greening of Singapore, with attractive roadside trees and shrubs planted everywhere and more and more recreational parks being built, has certainly made Singapore a highly desirable place to live and work in and has won it worldwide admiration and emulation by others. From a garden city concept, Singapore is now embarking upon making it a city within a garden.

One hallmark of his premiership is that he travelled continually all over the world in order to learn from others and to avoid following their pitfalls aimed at promoting Singapore as an attractive place to invest and to improve its governance and longer term well-being. His mind never stopped thinking and planning how best for his beloved Singapore to move forward in an increasingly more sophisticated and competitive ever-changing world.

After he voluntarily stepped down as PM in 1990, as his planned leadership self-renewal, he continued to serve as senior Minister and later as Minister Mentor in his successors’ cabinets. He likened his role there as that of a goal keeper to give his views only when needed or sought, and when he felt that certain proposed new policy matters may have detrimental consequences on the community, based on his life long political experiences. He took no part in the policy decision-making, leaving it entirely to the younger leaders to decide. He finally relinquished his position as Minister Mentor in 2011, but continued to serve as an elected MP in his Tanjong Pagar Constituency until he passed away. Another hallmark of his greatness was that he was not afraid to admit publicly some of the wrong policy decisions he had executed during his years in office but had the courage to remedy them before they could cause more harm to the national interest. Fortunately, these were few and far between in his three decades of stewardship over Singapore.

Singapore’s economy has continued to forge ahead under Mr Lee’s successors at a lower pace compared with the heyday of the past decades as its economy reaches a mature stage. According to the World Bank, the Republic now enjoys one of the highest GDP per capital in the world, ahead of many of the more advanced countries, and with a standard of living which is in the forefront of the developed world. It has also attained near full employment, relatively low inflation, a high life expectancy of 82 for men and 85 for women and has accumulated through fiscal prudence one of the highest foreign reserves in the word. Nowadays, Singaporeans who travel abroad will command respect and the Singapore passport brings with it privileges and visa free travels to most countries. Singapore is accorded high international respect and admiration well beyond its tiny size and small population. All these are a far cry from the turbulent days of 1950s and 1960s when it’s very survival was so uncertain. Citizens of Singapore owe much of this to the farsighted thinking and sound policies of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, and his able and loyal Old Guard Cabinet team as well as their worthy successors.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite Mr Lee’s worldwide reputation and well deserved admiration from other notable world leaders, he is not without detractors and critics both at home and abroad. The foreign media have accused him of being an autocrat who long presided over a repressive regime, highly critical of dissenting views and had suppressed freedom of the press, speech and association and would not hesitate to silence his opponents with law suits or even enacting draconian laws to detain them without a fair trial. Despite his successors having taken over as new leaders long ago, they continued to falsely assert that Mr Lee still effectively ruled Singapore with an iron fist from behind the scene. This is totally unfounded and truly regrettable.

Having had the benefit of reading and analysing their commentaries and reports on Singapore over the years, my considered opinion, for what it is worth, is that, with some exceptions, these have done Singapore and its leaders both during and post the Lee Kuan Yew era injustice by distorting its image internationally as their views are often coloured by their own perceptions of what Singapore ought to be and their repeated attempts to harm Singapore’s reputation have been consistently refuted by successive Singapore leaders and discerning members of public as unfair and uncalled for. The Western media ought to know that this little Red Dot on the world map cannot be converted into a carbon copy of a Western society, given its different history, Asian heritages and value systems, the overriding need to maintain racial and religious harmony and its other vital national goals. Be that as it may, after the country’s economic and political future had become more secured under Mr Lee, his successors could then afford to be less straits-laced than in the earlier more turbulent times in order to cater to the needs of the better educated and more sophisticated younger Singaporeans and to keep in step with an ever-changing world, in which its citizenry must have more space to articulate their views on good and more effective governance and that more avenues must be made available for them to debate and to seek redress on policies that may adversely affect them. However, in a multiracial racial and multi religious society like Singapore, the public must always be consciously aware that their utterances and actions must not offend the racial and religious sensitivities of others. Maintaining racial and religious harmony is a cornerstone of Singapore’s success and must be upheld at all times.

The resounding success of Singapore’s racial and religious harmony policy contrasts starkly with other multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries in the West, like United States, Britain and France with their unrestrained freedom of speech, which has resulted in periodic racial and religious conflicts and riots even at the present time, the most recent being in France just early this year.

Sadly, the Western media were not impressed with these new developments and had, until recent years, continued, most unjustifiably, to place Singapore in the ranks of the truly authoritarian regimes elsewhere! What the Western media, in particular the US and British media, would like Singapore to do is to allow them and the public to enjoy the unbridled right to ridicule, condemn or defame its political leaders even beyond the realm of fair comment in the public interest and to get away with impunity like what they can do in their own countries or in many other major Western countries. In its latest classification and ranking of how democratic nations are, the Economist Intelligence Unit of a renowned British international journal has now included Singapore in the ‘Flawed Democracy’ category, one step up from the previous ‘Authoritarian’ grouping. Only a handful of Asian countries are considered fully democratic by its own specific yardsticks.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The reasons the Western media still relish in picking on Singapore are manifold and, I believe, the following are pertinent.

First, it has, where justified, always stood up to upholding its principles and not be cowed by strong foreign media pressures to deviate from them. The Micheal Fay episode is a classic example. When the legal caning punishment was meted out to this young American delinquent for multiple wanton acts of vandalism as it would have applied to a local offender and applauded by a good cross-section of the American public as justifiable in the circumstances, some media there, nonetheless, called it barbaric and compared it with the inhuman treatment of African-American slaves by the white American plantation owners of old.

Second, several world-renowned Western media had, over the years, been made to apologise to Singapore leaders openly and to pay substantial damages to them, which they would donate to charitable or educational bodies, for falsely and maliciously defaming them beyond the scope of fair comment in the public interest. They can’t seem to ever forgive Singapore for this self-inflicted humiliation and would look for appropriate occasions to humble it again.

Third, our late leaders Lee Kuan Yew had on many occasions spoken up strongly and cogently against certain aspects of Western policies and values as pitfalls for Asians to avoid. Also, his strong advocacy on the need to uphold certain time-tested Asian values, as being superior to those of the West, must have further alienated him to their media.

Finally, many Western journalists are convinced that the Western notions of democracy, including their interpretations of human rights, are universally relevant and applicable and seek to impose these worldwide whether other countries accept them or not.

Rudyard Kipling, a sagacious and internationally respected British novelist who knew the East intimately, had commented famously that, “nothing is more fallacious than to judge the East by the yardsticks of the West”.

Despite the Western media’s continuing disenchantment with ‘undemocratic Singapore’ by their yardsticks, their verdict has in no way dented Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s international standing as one of the greatest statesmen of the past and this century. This is clearly evident from the presence of so many top foreign leaders from near and far who came personally to pay homage and to bid him a fond farewell, and the numerous condolence messages from many other countries worldwide, so as to share the profound loss of his passing. Furthermore, Mr Lee’s views and wise counsel on Asian and world affairs were often sought and valued by noted world leaders, ranging from Presidents of United States from Nixon to Obama, to China’s supremo Deng Xiaoping and his successors, to British Prime Minister Lady Margaret Thatcher onwards, to other Western leaders and to successive Prime Ministers of Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and ASEAN nations as well as to leaders from other parts of the world.

Indeed, Mr Lee’s passing is a profound loss to Singapore and there will not be another Prime Minister of Singapore like him again.

Lam Pin Foo

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6 thoughts on “The Passing of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew – A Legend in His Own Lifetime

  1. Browsing the web, I happened to come across your blog.
    Are you the Lam Pin Foo who was in RI in the 60’s and were the elder brother of Lam Pin Kwee?
    If so, it would be great to re-connect, as I was in RI a few years below you.
    Best regards,

    Dileep Nair

  2. Dear Mr Lam,

    That was a touching writing about Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

    On his funeral day, I was in Kyushu travelling together with 15 other Singaporeans. In the bus we were moving, all of us made a silent prayer together. Then we bought one notebook and each of us wrote the tributes to Mr Lee, which was later on sent to the government section in charge of the funeral. The 15 Singaporeans and 1 Japanese became one heart in missing Mr Lee Kuan Yew at that moment.

    Best regards
    Hisaki Deguchi

  3. lovely writing, but may I ask why, like many other writers, you too did not mention Toh Chin Chye, but mentioned the orter old guards like Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San & Hon Swee Sen.. Just curious, that’s all

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