REMEMBERING LEE KUAN YEW: ONE YEAR ON

Former President S R Nathan on Lee Kuan Yew: Moved by fight for multiracialism

Many members of the public who turned up to pay their last respects when the cortege of Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed through Bukit Merah last year were overcome with emotion.
Many members of the public who turned up to pay their last respects when the cortege of Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed through Bukit Merah last year were overcome with emotion. ST FILE PHOTO
Mr Nathan with Prime Minister Lee in January 1971. Many members of the public who turned up to pay their last respects when the cortege of Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed through Bukit Merah last year were overcome with emotion.
Mr Nathan with Prime Minister Lee in January 1971. Many members of the public who turned up to pay their last respects when the cortege of Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed through Bukit Merah last year were overcome with emotion. ST FILE PHOTO

Former President S R Nathan, who worked closely with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew as a civil servant and as President from 1999 to 2011, shares his reflections on Mr Lee with Walter Sim.

One year after Mr Lee is gone, he is a memory.

But the nature of human beings is that memories are bound to fade over time. Today it is a memory, next year it will be something else.

The outpouring of emotion among Singaporeans at the state funeral last year was a sign of people recognising they are who they are today because of Mr Lee.

Many people did not know what he stood for. Some disliked him. But at his death, he became the symbol of Singapore. The entire country, even his adversaries, came to a stop with his funeral.

But in time to come, this will be just another story, that a great man passed us. The danger is that with time, stories can be forgotten.

Our young have not known failure. They have grown up amidst success, so they think this state of affairs should go on forever. It's very hard for them to imagine failure. All we can do is tell them, but they do not believe you until it happens. And when it happens, it's too late.

  • SINGAPORE REMEMBERS

Two central elements are key to Singapore: survival and success.

We succeeded in the economy, and we must succeed in the economy tomorrow. All we have are our human resources. World markets are changing, and we must be there at the next success. Continued success is the lifeblood of Singapore.

To young people, all this may seem remote. But to the generations that passed through tough times, this is real.

Two central elements are key to Singapore: survival and success.

We succeeded in the economy, and we must succeed in the economy tomorrow. All we have are our human resources.

World markets are changing, and we must be there at the next success. Continued success is the lifeblood of Singapore.

To young people, all this may seem remote. But to the generations that passed through tough times, this is real.

And so we remember Mr Lee because of the uniqueness of who we are - his deepest belief was in Singapore's continued existence.

This depended on our strength in surviving in a hostile world, and the moral fibre of our leaders.

Mr Lee went into Malaysia, believing he could change the policy of affirmative action for one race.

He tried to change it and told us that at some stage we will be equal - maybe not today, not tomorrow, but in 20 or 30 years.

I had worked in Johor Baru with the civil service, and I knew that whatever you did, no matter how good you were, there was a glass ceiling. People were nice to you, people appreciated you, but because of your race, there's a limit to what you can achieve.

Mr Lee stood for something else - that we are all equal. This struggle for multiracialism and against affirmative action had moved me.

When he cried at Separation, it was not a falsehood. It was the end of a dream, all of us had the dream. We were never Singaporeans, we were Malayans, that dream was shattered. For us, it's a long memory.

To the next generation, this is only a story. It's just retold and retold, and over a period of time, it will be forgotten. Whereas for me, it's life.

It is important for our young today to embrace multiracialism. Don't look at people by race, by language, by religion.

That has been our strength, I respect you and you respect me.

You may not like my colour, and there are prejudices, but at the end of the day, you are your brother's keeper. This is an important value Mr Lee left behind.

Since his death, there are a lot of things that go through my mind - about the time I was with him on his travels, during the struggles. He always had a strong sense of purpose.

When I went with him on his travels, whenever he saw something attractive, he would ask: Why don't we do this for Singapore?

"Maybe we can have a fountain like this in Singapore, it makes Singapore attractive," he would say. Likewise, as you look at Singapore today and see all the trees on the side of the road, you remember him because those were his ideas.

And he always spoke about the survival of Singapore when he met foreign leaders in the early years.

Historically, survival has been the preoccupation of Singapore: There was the struggle against the CPM (Communist Party of Malaya), there was Chinese chauvinism, there were Malay ultra-nationalists trying to exert themselves.

Singapore's people were all that we had. We were uneducated, or poorly educated, so the preoccupation was to strengthen human resources if we were to succeed economically. Education became his preoccupation to uplift the nation.

I also remember his kindness - both he and his wife never indulged in anything. This made an impression on me in later years when I became President.

Don't take advantage of the situation, behave correctly, so that people respect you and you will respect them. These are the memories that he left behind for me.

Now that one year has passed since his death, we can use this as a benchmark and a direction for our journey for the next 50 years.

Over the past 50 years, he set us an example that has affected all our people of all ages and stripes who were at his funeral.

Today, let us - whatever stripes we wear - eulogise him as the man who gave us the courage to stand up against formidable odds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2016, with the headline 'Moved by fight for multiracialism'. Print Edition | Subscribe