FEATURE

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Challenge-Tribute-Lee_Kuan_Yew-7 Photograph by Tara Sosrowardoyo, National Museum of Singapore Collection.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew died on March 23, 2015 at the age of 91. In his long years as Singapore’s first Prime Minister, he spearheaded policies that not only changed the country but also shaped the Public Service to be what it is today. As a tribute to the man and his ideas, the Challenge team has produced a special edition to commemorate his impact on the Public Service. pdf-icon-32x32 Download the Commemorative Publication (2.1MB). Below are excerpts from the publication:

Challenge-Tribute-Lee_Kuan_Yew-3 Mr Lee Kuan Yew touring Jurong Industrial Estate in 1965 with his son Lee Hsien Loong (third from right).
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

For Mr Lee, if something was worth doing for Singapore and Singaporeans, it was worth doing it very well.

“As a young civil servant, Mr Lee’s leadership left a deep impression on me and I had the great privilege of watching, from close up, the way he handled many important issues, such as relations with major countries, in both good and bad times. For Mr Lee, if something was worth doing for Singapore and Singaporeans, it was worth doing it very well. We saw this, for example, in his dedication to the cause of the trade unions, so that workers can have a share in the fruits of the nation’s progress; his promotion of home ownership so that every Singaporean has a stake in the country; his personal attention to the greening of Singapore which he saw as a means of gifting to every Singaporean, no matter his station in life, a very conducive urban environment. The list is endless. As we mourn the passing of a great leader, an astute statesman and an exceptional Singaporean, let us seek to emulate his passion and dedication in serving Singapore and Singaporeans. Let that be Mr Lee’s legacy to the public service.”

~ Peter Ong, Head of Civil Service.

 

Challenge-Tribute-Lee_Kuan_Yew-1 Mr Lee at the opening of the Upper Peirce Reservoir in 1977.
Source: PUB, the national water agency

Mr Lee embedded in us the psyche of survival and security when it comes to water, and it has been our guiding principle in PUB ever since.

“Mr Lee embedded in us the psyche of survival and security when it comes to water, and it has been our guiding principle in PUB ever since. I recall the most critical afternoon meeting with him (in 2002) when my officer and I had to persuade him that our water master plan with NEWater is the answer to our water challenge. In the midst of the discussion, he fell strangely silent for some time, deep in thought. Suddenly he turned to me and pointedly asked me, as if cross-examining me in a court of law, whether we could deliver on our plan to wean Singapore out of water dependency on imported water. After spending so many afternoons with him, listening to his intense concern for water, how else could I respond except to give him a resounding “Yes”. A man of his vision and passion demanded and deserved nothing less. I remembered so well his reaction. He fell back into his chair, became silent again for a long while, and then to my amazement, he gave a smile the likes of which I have never seen before from him. With that, he rose and left the meeting. I knew he had decided we could make it. I was left in awe at the very calculated way he weighs the risks and takes a firm decision with no turning back.”

~ Tan Gee Paw, Chairman of PUB, joined the Public Works Department in 1967 and was Permanent Secretary of the Environment from 1995 to 2001.

 

Challenge-Tribute-Lee_Kuan_Yew-2 Mr Lee planting a mempat tree at Farrer Circus on June 16, 1963. This launched Singapore’s islandwide tree-planting campaign, which has continued till today.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

“George, give them the money. If I put a polythene bag over your head, you will suffocate!”

“Mr Lee was pragmatic and realistic. His view is that nothing could be done without adequate funds. In 1978, Mr Lee called a big meeting at the Istana, attended by several Permanent Secretaries. George Edwin Bogaars was then Perm Sec for Finance. After a lengthy talk about the Garden City, Mr Lee suddenly said, “George, give them the money. If I put a polythene bag over your head, you will suffocate!” Mr Lee was referring to the Parks & Recreation Department (PRD)’s extensive work at the time to install perforated concrete aeration slabs to cover up the tree bases, so that people walking over such areas would not cause compaction. Compaction would ‘suffocate’ the roots by preventing air and moisture going into the root environment of the trees. Incidentally, it was difficult to get money from the Ministry of Finance for the annual budget, but after that meeting, it was easy to get money for annual budget and to increase staff of the PRD.”

~ Wong Yew Kwan was Singapore’s first Commissioner for Parks and Recreation in 1974, when Parks and Recreation was still a Division under the Public Works Department.

 

Challenge-Tribute-Lee_Kuan_Yew-6 Illustration by Lee Xin Li, based on a black and white photograph of Mr Lee Kuan Yew at HDB’s third estate in Queenstown, in 1965.
Source: www.facebook.com/PokPokAway

When Mr Lee saw my bare feet, he asked me ‘Isn’t it hot for you to walk on the roads like this?’

Soh Beow Koon, the longest serving caretaker in Parliament from 1954 to 2002, shared his recollection with Challenge:

Affectionately known as “Ah Koon” to decades of MPs, the caretaker’s duties included serving drinks to parliamentarians and getting them lunch. After Mr Lee became Prime Minister in 1959, the leader would walk between Parliament House and City Hall for meetings. Ah Koon often accompanied him on the walk, whenever he had to buy lunch for Mr Lee from the stalls behind City Hall (where the current Supreme Court stands). “Then, we wore shorts and went about barefoot,” said Ah Koon in Chinese. “When Mr Lee saw my bare feet, he asked me ‘Isn’t it hot for you to walk on the roads like this?’ I told him I was used to it.” Shortly after this encounter, the caretakers were issued canvas shoes and their uniform was changed to long pants. “We would get new shoes from Parliament when they wore out,” Ah Koon said with a smile. The caretaker, who watched the MPs debate and discuss national policies from the sidelines, said affordable public housing and the CPF Home Ownership Scheme introduced by Mr Lee impacted him the most. These policies helped him to buy the Clementi flat he has lived in for 30 years. “I was afraid my CPF wasn’t enough then, but it still came in useful and I was able to slowly repay the loan.”

 

Challenge-Tribute-Lee_Kuan_Yew-4 Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew at the official opening of the MRT system at City Hall station in 1988.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Even at 89, Mr Lee had a work ethic that would put many to shame, taking the book project seriously and working hard on it... he soldiered on despite hiccups which persisted throughout the hour-long interview.

“In 2012, I had the privilege of being included in a team of Straits Times journalists who provided research and editorial support to Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the writing of the book, One Man’s View of the World. Even at 89, Mr Lee had a work ethic that would put many to shame, taking the book project seriously and working hard on it. Once, his assistant saw him resting after lunch and asked if he would rather postpone an interview scheduled for that afternoon. He declined to. Another time, he soldiered on despite hiccups which persisted throughout the hour-long interview. Often, he would send emails to the team after the interview, rephrasing something he had said to express his views more clearly. In the interviews, he spoke much, for example, about our ageing population as well as the need to ensure that English remained the first language here even if China were to become a very dominant power in the region. In an age when many leaders globally fail to see past the next election cycle, here I was talking to an octogenarian thinking decades into the future, I thought to myself.”

~ Elgin Toh, Assistant Director at the National Security Coordination Secretariat, was a former Straits Times journalist who worked on Mr Lee’s book, One Man’s View of the World.

 

Challenge-Tribute-Lee_Kuan_Yew-5 Mr Lee Kuan Yew meeting Minister for Culture S Rajaratnam (second from left) and other officers during a visit to the Ministry of Culture in 1959.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

... being in the Prison system made me realise that, though the system was strict and tough, there was also humanity and rights given to inmates.

“I had my brush with the law in my younger years and was incarcerated because of this. However, being in the Prison system made me realise that, though the system was strict and tough, there was also humanity and rights given to inmates. I was given a second chance to receive my education, which made me realise how tough it was for you to bring Singapore to her current prosperity and success. Today, I am deeply honoured to serve in one of the government organisations which were built under your wise leadership. For all these, I can only pay my tribute to you, by being both a responsible and just public servant and citizen, in honour of your dedication in building our nation.”

~ shared on Cube by Nelson Ong, Executive Officer (Community Relations), SCORE


If you would like to share how Mr Lee influenced you as a public officer, do log onto Cube.

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