Lee Kuan Yew's Cabinet meetings an 'open, interactive, dynamic process'

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, at the launch of The Parliament in Singapore History Exhibition on March 23, 2016.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, at the launch of The Parliament in Singapore History Exhibition on March 23, 2016.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
PM Lee with past and present parliamentarians at the Chamber of the Old Parliament House, now called The Arts House, yesterday, A spray of yellow hybrid orchids named Aranda Lee Kuan Yew was aptly placed on the seat Mr Lee had occupied - a bitterswee
PM Lee with past and present parliamentarians at the Chamber of the Old Parliament House, now called The Arts House, yesterday, A spray of yellow hybrid orchids named Aranda Lee Kuan Yew was aptly placed on the seat Mr Lee had occupied - a bittersweet reminder of his long years building up Singapore.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Speaking at start of weekly Cabinet session, PM Lee recounts how his father ran things

It was an unusual start yesterday to the weekly Cabinet meeting.

To mark the first anniversary of the death of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the first 10 minutes of the usually closed-door meeting was streamed live on the Facebook page of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. It showed him addressing the Cabinet as he gave an insight into the way Mr Lee mentored the younger ministers.

When he was the prime minister, Mr Lee kept an eagle eye on every aspect of Singapore, said PM Lee.

"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 (Zedong). One had to focus on the important things and build a team," PM Lee recounted.

Mr Lee also made an enormous effort to ensure that those who came after him succeeded in the running of the country, he added.

The Prime Minister pledged that his Cabinet ministers would hold firm to the ethos and values Mr Lee had stood and fought for as they face new challenges in a changing world.

PM Lee was wearing a badge with the phrase "follow that rainbow", used by Mr Lee in 1996 to urge Singaporeans to chase their dreams.

The Cabinet then observed a minute of silence.

 

PM Lee spoke in the very room where the late Mr Lee had chaired or attended meetings for four decades. He said: "This Cabinet room was Mr Lee's command tent, where issues were examined and debated, decisions were taken, instructions given and progress tracked."

He added that Mr Lee's Cabinet meetings were an "open, interactive, dynamic process".

After Mr Lee stepped aside as prime minister in 1990, he continued to attend Cabinet meetings as senior minister until 2004, and then as minister mentor until 2011.

"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."

Mr Lee would recount the history and considerations behind the topics at hand so that the Cabinet was aware of the context when making fresh decisions, PM Lee said.

"He was mindful that before removing a fence, one had to understand why it had been put there in the first place," he added.

But Mr Lee also encouraged ministers holding different views to argue their cases and he was prepared to make hard decisions.

To illustrate this, PM Lee cited the decision to cut Central Provident Fund contribution rates in 1985, when Singapore suffered its first recession since independence.

Mr Lee had systematically raised contributions to 50 per cent of wages during a period of rapid growth, PM Lee recounted.

But the Economic Committee - which PM Lee had chaired at the time when he was minister of state for Trade and Industry - concluded that costs had got out of line and a reverse in policy was needed to jump-start the economy. His ministry proposed cutting the rate from 50 per cent to 40 per cent.

"Then to our surprise, he (Mr Lee) 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," PM Lee recounted.

This was a lesson "not just in economic management but in political leadership", PM Lee said.

It was through such lessons that three generations of younger ministers have "benefited from Mr Lee's experience and insights, his views and concerns, and increasingly, his thoughts for Singapore's future".

PM Lee said: "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 the values that he stood and fought for.

"These will guide us as we, in 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2016, with the headline 'Lee's Cabinet meetings an 'open, interactive, dynamic process''. Print Edition | Subscribe