On LKY's 90th birthday, conference speakers recall his big ideas and caring touch

The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy held a conference titled "The Big Ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew" at the Shangri-La Hotel on Sept 16, 2013. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy held a conference titled "The Big Ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew" at the Shangri-La Hotel on Sept 16, 2013. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Speakers at a conference to mark the 90th birthday of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew described him as a man devoted to big ideas like multiracialism and the rule of law - but who also cared for those around him.

The speakers include former president SR Nathan and and former senior minister S. Jayakumar, who told personal anecdotes to paint a more vivid picture of the man.

Professor Jayakumar recalled how Mr Lee, when he was prime minister, once told the transport minister at a Cabinet meeting to relay to Singapore Airlines that it did not reflect well on Singapore if there were no non-Chinese air stewardesses on their flights. He was concerned that foreigners would form an impression of Singapore as a Chinese country.

He also recounted how thoroughly Mr Lee would debate with his lawyers all the merits of any defamation suit before embarking on it - debunking the myth that he believed judges would be partial towards him.

The one-day conference on Monday, titled "The Big Ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew", is organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and is happening at the Shangri-La hotel.

Former president Nathan said he appreciated Mr Lee's efforts to point out to the big powers that Singapore, while small, would not be a lackey to any country.

During his first visit to China in 1976, he rejected a gift from premier Hua Guofeng, a book on the Sino-Indian War because it was China's one-sided version of what happened. Mr Nathan, who was present in the room, noted how the Chinese Foreign Minister put away a paper he was holding as "a sign of displeasure".

But Mr Lee could also be a caring, fatherly figure to those who worked with him.

Mr Nathan remembered how in 1967, he was sent as a junior officer to take notes in a meeting between Mr Lee and the Thai foreign minister. In his hurry to get to the venue, his tie was out of place.

Mr Lee adjusted the tie and said, "almost with a paternal touch": "Nathan, you must remember you are no longer in the labour movement."

"I was moved beyond words," said Mr Nathan on Monday. "I had grown up without a father or an elder brother. Here was the Prime Minister himself coming down to my level to do what they would have done for me. "