Lee Kuan Yew, the general who plotted victory for Singapore

Colleagues,

One year ago today, Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away. The week of national mourning that followed was a landmark in our nation building, and in developing a Singapore identity.

Time passes quickly, and we're now at the first anniversary.

We are marking this day by celebrating Mr Lee's life and looking forward. Many groups all over Singapore are holding events to commemorate his values and his life work. We are all rededicating ourselves to Mr Lee's lifelong passion - Singapore.

As we begin our Cabinet meeting today, let us take a moment to remember Mr Lee and what he stood for and did over the years, especially in this very room.

The PAP came into power in 1959. At first, the Prime Minister's Office was at the City Hall. In 1971, Mr Lee moved his office to the Istana. Cabinet meetings were held in this room. Every week for 40 years, Mr Lee chaired or attended Cabinet here to discuss the issues of the day, and make decisions that set the course for Singapore.

There is a Chinese saying that the general sits in his command tent, devising strategies and plans that bring his armies victory a thousand miles away in the field. This Cabinet room was Mr Lee's command tent, where issues were examined and debated, decisions were taken, instructions given and progress tracked.

 
This was a collective endeavour. Mr Lee was primus inter pares - first among equals. But the ministers took active part in the Cabinet deliberations. Many know Mr Lee's public face - his leadership style, his approach to problems, his record of achievements. But few have had the privilege of his Cabinet colleagues, including quite a number of us here today, who worked directly with him, and experienced up close how he ran his Cabinet and his Government. It was an open, interactive, dynamic process, an unforgettable experience for all those who participated in it.

Now we are a new team, dealing with a changed world in new ways, but always inspired by Mr Lee's example and his memory, and holding firm the ethos and values that he stood and fought for. These will guide us as we in our turn follow the rainbow that Mr Lee himself chased all his life - to build an exceptional nation and to improve the lives of all Singaporeans.

Mr Lee would usually have clear views on the matter under discussion. He would recount the history and the considerations that led us to where we were, so that we kept sight of the context as we made fresh decisions. He was mindful that before removing a fence, one had to understand why it had been put there in the first place. Though he often gave his views up front, he would encourage ministers with different views to argue their case, and listen to them with an open mind.

One example I remember well was our decision to cut CPF (Central Provident Fund) contributions in 1985. During a phase of rapid growth, Mr Lee had systematically built up CPF contributions, eventually raising them to 50 per cent of wages. He had defended this in his usual robust way, against critics who wanted to reduce the CPF to cut costs. Then we ran into a severe recession. I chaired the Economic Committee, which eventually concluded that our costs had got out of line, and that we did indeed need to reverse policy, to cut the CPF to make the economy competitive again. Dr Tony Tan, who was the Minister for Trade and Industry, agreed. MTI put up a Cabinet paper proposing to cut the CPF contribution rate from 50 per cent to 40 per cent.

Mr Lee listened to our arguments. Then, to our surprise, he said, if you are going to do it, do it properly. Forty per cent is neither here nor there. Make a decisive move, and cut it to 35 per cent. Furthermore, cut only the employer's contributions. Do not cut employees' contributions to increase take-home pay. That may sweeten the package, but it will do nothing to make us more competitive. It was bitter medicine, and we had to work hard to sell it to the unions and workers. But it worked, brought us out of the recession and brought jobs back. It also was an important bonding experience for the younger ministers and population. We learnt a lesson not just in economic management but in political leadership.

 

As Prime Minister, Mr Lee kept an eagle's eye on every aspect of Singapore, whether it was the health of our economy, the state of our foreign relations, the trees along the East Coast Parkway, or the cleanliness of the Singapore River. He left nothing to chance.

Yet he knew that he could not control everything personally, and that even more so another Prime Minister would have to govern in a different way. He advised us that one could not use 10 fingers to catch 10 fleas, quoting Mao. One had to focus on the important things and build a team.

He himself made an enormous effort to ensure that his successors succeeded. Even after he stepped down as Prime Minister, he continued to attend Cabinet meetings as Senior Minister and Minister Mentor. Most remarkably, three generations of younger ministers benefited from his experience and insights, his views and concerns and, increasingly, his thoughts for Singapore's future. So for nearly half a century, here in this room, we had a level of discussion and decision-making that would have been exceptional in any Cabinet room in the world.

Now we are a new team, dealing with a changed world in new ways, but always inspired by Mr Lee's example and his memory, and holding firm the ethos and values that he stood and fought for. These will guide us as we in our turn follow the rainbow that Mr Lee himself chased all his life - to build an exceptional nation and to improve the lives of all Singaporeans.

We have so much to be grateful for. Let us observe a minute of silence together.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2016, with the headline 'Mr Lee, the general who plotted victory for S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe