Mr Lee, my mentor - after my maiden speech, he sent a note

One year after the death of Singapore's founding Prime Minister, former MP Koo Tsai Kee shares his memories of Lee Kuan Yew

This March 23 marks one year since Mr Lee Kuan Yew left us. The pain of his departure has lessened with the passage of time, but his absence does not make us miss him less. How do we remember him when he does not wish to be immortalised?

There are no portraits, monuments and obelisks for anybody to honour him anywhere in Singapore. The best way to remember him is to carry on where he left off. The work of building Singapore is never done.

Nevertheless, the world remembers LKY as a global statesman. Singaporeans remember LKY as our fearless founding Prime Minister. Residents of Tanjong Pagar remember LKY as our beloved Member of Parliament. Many of us remember Mr Lee as our teacher and mentor. I remember him for all of these roles.

A GLOBAL STATESMAN

When I was a graduate student in London in the 80s, an erudite English gentleman asked me where I came from. "Singapore," I replied. A curious look came over him. I raised my voice and said: "Lee Kuan Yew." He nodded. Yes, he knew Mr Lee Kuan Yew. For a long time, the world knew Mr Lee Kuan Yew before they knew Singapore. Letters from the United Kingdom often went to China first before they were redirected to Singapore. Like the postal workers, the Englishman thought Singapore was in China. In the 80s, China was a very poor country. The English gentleman was too polite to ask if I was a Chinaman.

How times have changed. Mr Lee's model of political governance has transformed Singapore from Third World to First World in one generation. LKY made a nation and make us proud to be called Singaporeans.

His style of government and governance has become a school of thought. On an official visit to Israel, the then Foreign Minister of Israel, Mr Shimon Peres, remarked that Lee Kuan Yew was not just a name but a "concept of government". LKY has become an "ism" - LKYism has become a serious course of study for political and economic scientists.


Mr Lee on a thank-you tour of Tanjong Pagar GRC in January 1997 with fellow MPs-elect. On his right is Mr Lim Swee Say and on his left, Mr Koo and Mr Ow Chin Hock. Mr Lee used to invite small groups of MPs to lunch and discuss matters big and small. "We called these lunch sessions 'tutorials'," said Mr Koo. Sometimes these sessions finished up with homework. The MPs had to write papers for him to justify their views or positions.  ST FILE PHOTO:

In the week of LKY's death, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Tony Abbot, moved a motion in the Australian Parliament to grieve the loss of a great leader and friend of Australia. He said Singapore under Mr Lee had grown richer than a rich country like Australia. In 1965, the gross domestic product per capita of Singapore was about one-third that of Australia's. Today, our GDP per capita is twice that of Australia. When I was a student in Sydney, the Aussie dollar fetched three Singapore dollars. Today, they are almost at parity.

Mr John Howard, the most successful prime minister of Australia post-Sir Robert Menzies, had a ringside view on Singapore's progress. His very first overseas trip as a young man was to Singapore on July 24, 1964 - one year before Independence - to visit a relative. He came in the middle of the race riots. He witnessed Singapore's incredible metamorphosis from chaos to order and from poverty to affluence. Like so many great world leaders, Mr Howard is a fan of LKY.

FOUNDING PRIME MINISTER

My father-in-law was a Malaysian, an Ipoh boy. He was a bright student from a poor family. He worked hard and obtained a state scholarship and came to Singapore to study medicine in the 1940s. His study was interrupted by the Japanese invasion, and he finished it only after the war. After completing his housemanship, he went back to Malaysia to practise medicine, until the racial riots of 1969 forced him to make a decision to relocate overseas.

It was a privilege and opportunity to work with and for him. We could not have had a better mentor and teacher. The Chinese have a saying, "Yi ri wei si, zhong shen wei fu". The meaning is lost in translation, but it loosely translates, "To be a teacher is to be like a father".

He had two choices: return to Singapore, or leave for Australia, to settle in Melbourne. My mother-in-law was Singaporean. She wanted to come back to Singapore. But my father-in-law had no faith in Singapore. He saw the extreme poverty in Singapore when he was a student and thought Singapore had no future.

He was mistaken. LKY proved him wrong. It was a mistake which my mother-in-law regrets to this day. My father-in-law was in Ipoh so he did not hear Mr Lee's 1965 fiery speech: "Here we make the model multiracial society. This is not a country that belongs to any single community - it belongs to all of us. This was a mudflat, a swamp. Today, it is a modern city. And 10 years from now, it will be a metropolis - never fear!"

When LKY published The Singapore Story, I bought the book and gave it to my father-in-law as a gift in Melbourne. He left it on his desk in his study room and never touched it for the entire week I was there. Two years later, I went down again to visit my in-laws. My mother-in-law asked me on the last day of my visit if I had brought Part 2, From Third World to First, for him. I said "no", because he did not even touch Part 1. She hurried into the studyand brought out the first book. It was filled with footnotes and underlined sentences. She said my father-in-law avidly read the book probably twice over.

He came from a generation which did not reveal its true feelings. He never quite reconciled his ideals with LKY, but he had quietly revered LKY and acknowledged that he was a great leader.

A MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT

In 1955, Mr Lee stood for election in Tanjong Pagar. At that time, he could have chosen from any of the 25 constituencies. But he picked Tanjong Pagar and he explained why. Tanjong Pagar was a largely working class area with a high proportion of workers. He was adviser to several unions and many of the unionists lived in the area. LKY told them that, if elected, he would improve their lives. Although he couldn't speak Chinese, and his opponents made this a big issue and ridiculed his Straits Chinese background, he won convincingly.

The people of Tanjong Pagar entrusted their lives to him and Singapore's modern history was made. LKY honoured his 1955 promise for 60 years. When Tanjong Pagar became a GRC, it was uncontested for five successive general elections from 1991 to 2011. No other GRC comes close to this record. Even LKY could not believe it. While preparing for the 2011 General Election, LKY asked me: "What results did we get in the 2006 General Election?" I said Tanjong Pagar GRC had never been contested. He was taken by surprise. How was that possible, he asked rhetorically. The reason is LKY.

I knew Tanjong Pagar well before I became an MP. My wife and I bought a resale flat in Spottiswoode Park in the early 80s. It is a very quiet, green and beautiful estate inside Tanjong Pagar. I was then working in the Public Works Department. I walked to work. We walked to the railway station. We walked to Chinatown. We love the place. But when I went to teach in the then Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI), we sold the flat and moved to Jurong.

In the 80s, Jurong was most inaccessible from town. There were no expressways, MRT trains or direct buses. I had early morning lectures and it took forever to get from Spottiswoode Park to NTI. So with great reluctance we moved. Never did I dream that I would return as a member of Mr Lee's GRC team to find an even more beautiful Tanjong Pagar.

Mr Lee the MP, never left Tanjong Pagar because he never forgot that it was the people of Tanjong Pagar who gave him the opportunity to become their MP, which in turn allowed him to become the Prime Minister. He was always thinking of his residents.

At a Chinese New Year dinner gathering, he sat on the stage and saw the huge greying crowd of his residents below. He asked me why there were so few young people. I said there were no new flats in Tanjong Pagar. The children of Tanjong Pagar were forced to move to new towns, and the old were left behind to fend for themselves. He then instructed that we needed a gentrification programme to bring back the young so that they could look after the old. He also wanted more energy in Tanjong Pagar. From this was born Cantonment Towers, and then later the iconic Pinnacle@Duxton.

AS A MENTOR AND TEACHER

For me, the saddest part of LKY's departure was the loss of a mentor and teacher. I remember giving the maiden speech in Parliament in 1991. He was not in the House when I delivered the speech. After my speech, a note came to my seat.

He asked to see me. He told me he heard my speech. He advised that I should speak in a direct voice, with more pauses, and that I should slow down my speech. I thought, how awesome. He was not present in the Chambers when I spoke, but yet he was listening. No wonder senior MPs warned me, albeit half in jest, that LKY was omnipotent - he knew everything and he was everywhere! It was an exaggeration, of course. But the message was clear. He was watching over us and Singapore. He was always giving MPs encouragement, advice and guidance.

LKY used to invite small groups of MPs to lunch and discuss matters big and small. We called these lunch sessions "tutorials". Sometimes these sessions finished up with homework. We had to write papers for him to justify our views or positions.

It was a privilege and opportunity to work with and for him. We could not have had a better mentor and teacher. The Chinese have a saying, "Yi ri wei si, zhong shen wei fu". The meaning is lost in translation, but it loosely translates, "To be a teacher is to be like a father".

Singapore lost LKY. But his life's work remains for eternity. He never asked to be remembered. But we will never forget. Singapore remembers. And we remember.


  • The writer was a Member of Parliament in Mr Lee Kuan Yew's constituency of Tanjong Pagar

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Mr Lee, my mentor - after my maiden speech, he sent a note'. Print Edition | Subscribe