Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

President Joko Widodo conveys deep sorrow for loss of Indonesia's close friend Mr Lee Kuan Yew

JAKARTA - Southeast Asia's dominant nation mourned the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a co-founder of Asean whose good ties with Indonesia's second President, Mr Suharto, set the stage for a bilateral relationship that helped stabilise the region.

Leaders across the Indonesian archipelago and from other Asean nations paid tribute to the man they called the founding father of Singapore and credited him with playing a crucial role in realising and shaping the regional grouping that started with five members and which doubled to 10.

President Joko Widodo, who is currently making a bilateral visit to Japan, followed by China, said he would travel to Singapore for Mr Lee's funeral on Sunday. He expressed his "deep sorrow" in a statement on behalf of the Indonesian government and people.

"The late former Prime Minister is a close friend of Indonesia, and known as the founding father of modern Singapore. As a leader and a great statesman who loved his people, he was also one of the most influential politicians in Asia," Mr Joko said, reading a statement to reporters.

"Under his leadership, Singapore successfully transformed into a major economic hub in Asia, putting it on a par with other developed nations."

In Jakarta, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla told The Straits Times of his past meetings with Mr Lee, whom he described as having given "an outstanding contribution to Singapore".

"He ranks among the most influential leaders of Asia, and in Asean as well. He gave an exceptional contribution to the progress of Asean, alongside other Asean leaders of the time," Mr Jusuf said after he signed a condolence book at the Singapore embassy yesterday.

Mr Sofyan Wanandi, a prominent Indonesian business leader and the President's economic adviser who had met Mr Lee over dinner and also personally on other occasions, highlighted Mr Lee's crucial role in Asean and in Indonesia-Singapore relations.

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew is not only a leader for Singapore, but also for Asean. LKY was a Singaporean who knew Indonesia the best," he said, referring to Mr Lee by his initials.

Mr Sofyan said the Singaporean leader placed a high level of commitment to cooperation with Indonesia and considered that the stability of Indonesia, South-east Asia's largest economy, was pivotal for a prosperous Asean. He credited the success of Batam as an industrial zone to Mr Lee's ideas and support.

"If anything happened regionwide, Mr Lee always took Indonesia as a priority. He was of the opinion that if Indonesia was not stable, then Asean wouldn't be stable," he added.

Mr Sofyan recalled that before Mr Lee's health began to fail, he would visit Indonesia to meet business, religious and political leaders, as well as hold informal discussions with then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

"What's important for Indonesia is that LKY helped to set a direction of good relationships between Singapore and Indonesia. He gave guidance to young leaders in Singapore to follow in his footsteps," he said.

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, which took over as Asean chair last November, also acknowledged Mr Lee's contribution to the regional grouping, which he co-founded in 1967.

A tribute posted on the Asean Facebook page began: "Today, Asean lost one of its greatest leaders."

It added: "The country's transformation from a sleepy port town 50 years ago to now one of the wealthiest countries in the world is widely attributed to his astute leadership and effective governance."

The Singapore embassy in Jakarta saw a steady stream of visitors, who left messages in the condolence book. Among them was the Governor of Jakarta, Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.

zubaidah@sph.com.sg