Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

MPs pay tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew in special sitting of Parliament

SINGAPORE - Parliament on Thursday, March 26, sat in a special session to pay tribute to the many achievements of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who died on March 23 at the age of 91.

The House was packed with MPs mostly dressed in black and white and wearing a black ribbon or a white flower. A bouquet of white flowers was placed on Mr Lee's vacant seat.

Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob started the session by saying: "With a heavy heart, I wish to place on record the demise of Mr Lee Kuan Yew."

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She noted that Mr Lee did not set out to be a politician - he was driven to assume office by conviction.

Quoting Mr Lee, she said: "We must make no mistake. In this chamber, we are playing for keeps, the future of Singapore is no joke."

Mr Lee took his parliamentary duties seriously, even in his old age and when ill, she said. She added that Mr Lee reminded the country that nobody believed that it could make it, but it has.

But, she added, Singapore will continue to make it only if there are "tough-minded people who know the difference between froth and substance".

In an emotional speech after Madam Halimah, Leader of the House Ng Eng Hen said of Mr Lee's death: "We in this House weep with Singaporeans here and abroad".

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He noted that in Mr Lee's first election in 1955, he chose Tanjong Pagar to contest, not Tanglin. This was because he wanted to represent workers and wage earners, not landlords.

Mr Lee did not have time for flattery or silver-tongued politicians, he said. His acid test for any idea was whether it would make Singapore better.

Many of Mr Lee's early policies were painful and unpopular, as the MPs on the ground knew, Dr Ng, the Defence Minister, said. Crushing labour unions, extending work hours and conscription were among these policies.

He noted how in 1968, Mr Lee said: “If we were a soft community, then the temptation would be to leave things alone and hope for the best."

He also shared personal encounters with Mr Lee which have left lasting impressions. One was how in 2009, Mr Lee asked to excuse himself so that he could speak on the phone to Mrs Lee, who was then unwell.

In a speech in Mandarin, Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Seng Han Thong, a former journalist at Lianhe Zaobao, said he had travelled with Mr Lee on his trips to UK, China and India.

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On these trips, he learned this from Mr Lee: if a small country governs itself well, it will have foreign influence.

Opposition leader of the House Low Thia Khiang, the secretary-general of the Workers' Party, was next to speak.

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Dressed in a dark blue shirt, he paid tribute to Mr Lee but added that the interests of some Singaporeans were "sacrificed" in the nation-building process.

"Mr Lee was also a controversial figure in some people's eyes," he said.

Speaking in Mandarin, he described Mr Lee as "an extraordinary political leader" who took Singapore from Third World to First.

Mr Lee was able to build mutual trust with Singaporeans and take them in a common direction, he said.

"This is the main reason why Singapore can leap from third world to first in one generation... Not just his fighting spirit and tenacity, but his sincerity."

But the People's Action Party's one-party rule was not the key to Singapore's transformation, said Mr Low.

Many Singaporeans were sacrificed in the process of development and "society has paid the price for it."

Mr Lee crafted policies based on the situation then, making rational choices in the interests of the country. Yet policy-making should not just be rational, but also humane and compassionate, said Mr Low. "Only in this way can policy-making avoid harming people and creating resentment."

But he gave Mr Lee credit for being reasonable and open-minded and commended him for managing the interests of different groups in Singapore's early days, uniting and building a multicultural Singapore.

"This is an achievement that is now possible without Mr Lee. My deepest respect goes to founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew," Mr Low concluded.

Former deputy prime minister Wong Kan Seng said "this is one of the saddest days of my life".

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He said Mr Lee mentored younger ministers and brought them on overseas trips to give them exposure to international relations.

Even before he stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, Mr Lee would encourage the younger ministers to make decisions "because he felt that we would have to implement them and be accountable to the people".

"When issues of critical importance were discussed at Cabinet meetings, Mr Lee would express his views and explain his thinking, sometimes vigorously," he recalled.

"But at the end of the discussion, he would say: 'You, the younger team, are in charge and it is your decision to make. I have stated my views'."

Nominated MP Thomas Chua, representing the business community, said the prosperity of Singapore cannot be delinked from Mr Lee's persistence.

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Speaking next, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Senior Minister of State for Home and Foreign Affairs, spoke in Malay and said Singapore's multi-racial society was Mr Lee's most precious legacy, and that had helped their progress while protecting the minorities.

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Speaking in Tamil, MP Vikram Nair said Mr Lee's government systemically improved people's lives. His firmness on no racial discrimination was especially important to minorities. For example, even though Indians only form 10 per cent of the population, the Tamil language remains as one of the official languages, he pointed out.

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Minister of State, Ministry of Education & Ministry of Communications and Information, Sim Ann spoke next in Mandarin.

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Mr Lee Kuan Yew was important for women's rights in Singapore, said Ms Sim, adding that he encouraged girls to go to school when the society was still unequal.

The Women's Charter protects women in Singapore, and women are not afraid to walk alone at night. With his devotion to Mrs Lee, he saw women as equals to men, said Ms Sim.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew also left a legacy in Singapore's billingual education system, said Ms Sim. It was painful when the billingual system was implemented, but it made Singapore a viable global economy. Mr Lee's bilingual policy preserves our cultural ballast, and ease of interaction with the world, she said.

Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong remembered Mr Lee Kuan Yew as an icon in her growing-up years.

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She is convinced that if she were born in Singapore in an earlier era or another Asian country, she would not have been able to go to school, enter a profession and serve the community as a "girl with a disability coming from a poor family with no connections".

Mr Christopher de Souza, MP of Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, who represented the Eurasian community, spoke next. He said that Mr Lee Kuan Yew believed that no one race should pin down another, but that all races should work together to bring about a united future.

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Mr de Souza added: "Although Eurasians are the smallest minority group in Singapore, they have made their way in the nation with opportunities on merit."

The last MP to speak was Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah. Ms Indranee is an MP at Mr Lee Kuan Yew's Tanjong Pagar GRC.

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"I once asked him why he chose Tanjong Pagar. He said it was because the people there were very poor, the conditions bad and the place much in need of improvement," she said.

Tanjong Pagar and Singapore today are a far cry from what he described. Both have been completely transformed through his vision and efforts. He kept his promise to the people of Singapore and the bond was cemented.

Ms Indranee said there has been a tremendous outpouring of love for Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the past few days.

"What is the essence of the man that inspires such a reaction? Some might say it was his vision, his drive, his intellect. But these alone would not have been enough to generate this wellspring of emotion," she said.

"The real secret of his enduring bond with Singaporeans is that we all fundamentally understood that the vision, the drive and the intellect were all powered by one thing - he cared."

Ms Indranee ended her speech with: "His journey has ended. He is now at rest. Rest well, Mr Lee."

The MPs rose for a minute of silence as a mark of respect to Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Speaker Halimah then adjourned the parliamentary sitting and the MPs proceeded to file past Mr Lee's casket in the Parliament House.