Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: A life devoted entirely to Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew was obsessive about securing Singapore's success, and compulsive in demanding every ounce of effort from himself and others in shaping its destiny

When Singapore split from Malaysia, one major matrimonial asset required more than a little time to divvy up: their joint Malaysia-Singapore Airlines.

The day finally came seven years later in 1972, when Singapore Airlines (SIA) was ready to take to the skies.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had taken a personal interest in the process. But when he spoke to the Singapore Air Transport Workers' Union on the eve of SIA's formation, there was no nationalistic cheerleading.

The airline was not a prestige project, he told them. If they could not turn in a profit, "we should have no compunction in closing a service down", he warned. "The future of Singapore Airlines depends more on the reality SIA leaves behind on their passengers than on their advertisements."

Three decades later, with SIA famed as one of the world's top airlines, Mr Lee refused to be swept off his feet by its glamorous image.

Intervening in 2004 over a dispute between its pilots and management, he told them he would not allow anyone to endanger SIA. "Both management and unions, you play this game, there are going to be broken heads."

Recalling similar squabbles in 1980 when he intervened personally, he declared: "This is a job that has to be finished and I'll finish it."

This was vintage LKY. Cutting through the fluff. Setting no-nonsense targets. And leaving no room for doubt that any "games" would be tolerated - other than the one he had decided was in Singapore's best interests.

The histories of former colonies are replete with politicians who shone in the independence struggle but stumbled in office, when the enemy was no longer the distant imperialist but dysfunction within - corruption, poverty, ethnic or religious conflict.

Mr Lee was a rare case of a leader who never cut himself or his team any slack even after the job appeared done. Perhaps this was because of the unforgiving circumstances the People's Action Party (PAP) found itself in, with freedom first secured as part of an uneasy federation in 1963, followed by unceremonious expulsion in 1965.

He brought to each situation a voracious appetite for information to feed his rational calculations. He knew the value of having differing views within government, which partly explains his obsession with creaming off the most intellectually able to staff the public sector. At the same time, he expected no obstruction from individuals or institutions outside of government.

Not surprisingly, therefore, how people view his political style depended a lot on where they stood - within or outside the trusted establishment.

Former ambassador Chan Heng Chee was among those who had regular lunches with him. Her lunch group included two other top diplomats, Prof Kishore Mahbubani and Prof Tommy Koh. She recalls Mr Lee bouncing off his ideas, eager for a robust exchange. "He looked like he was fighting in court... a little stern, but I think that was his natural look," she said. "He wanted people to come back to disagree with him, so that he didn't think that everything, that his ideas were all absolutely correct."

That was one side of him, willing to be challenged and contradicted. There was another that would brook no contest. In his political opponents, he saw only one way to meet them: their total defeat.

"Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac. That's the way I had to survive in the past. That's the way the communists tackled me."

While this was an instinct honed by experience, those who remember Mr Lee in his late 20s and early 30s recall a young man hungry for information, to abandon or augment an argument, before closing his case. He and his closest confidants gathered a group of young and restless minds straining at the leash of British colonialism, to plot their political moves in his basement dining room at 38 Oxley Road.

In 1954, they founded the People's Action Party to "represent the workers and the dispossessed" and "show up the rottenness of the system and the present political parties", he wrote in his memoirs.

His and his associates' dalliance with more radical leftists demonstrated his political acumen. He was willing to harness their power to mobilise the masses against British rule, even if he had no intention of subscribing to their programme.

Depending on whom you ask, this was either betrayal or pragmatism of the highest order.

The other ill-fated union was the merger with Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah that enabled Singapore to free itself from colonial rule. Mr Lee had battled for that moment, but the marriage lasted all of 22 tumultuous months before he was forced to appear on television to announce that it was all over.

That marked one of the most extraordinary independence days in 20th-century history, for it was a sovereignty neither desired nor celebrated. Mr Lee and his Old Guard colleagues were painfully aware of the economic and security risks faced by the tiny island state. A sense of vulnerability became the leitmotif of his leadership.

They may have felt weak and at a loss, but Mr Lee's PAP, if anything, over-compensated in their determination never to be treated lightly. His political style, he would later say, was shaped by the school of hard knocks.

"We had formed and shaped our political strategies and tactics during our struggles as the opposition party from 1954 to 1959, and in government from 1959 to 1965," he said.

"The skilful and tough methods of the unyielding communists, followed by the equally ruthless communal methods of the Umno ultras, were unforgettable lessons on political infighting. Street fighting with them was like unarmed combat with no holds barred, in a contest where winner took all."

He was helped by what he described as the leftists' "costly mistake" of walking out of Parliament in 1965, eventually ceding to the PAP every seat in the House. From 1968, the PAP commanded full control of the chamber and made a clean sweep of the next three general elections.

In 1981, the Anson by-election broke that stranglehold but still PAP dominance remained largely impervious to assault.

Mr Lee ensured such control by widening the PAP's appeal to straddle as broad a middle ground as possible. "I intended to leave the opposition only the extreme left and right," he once said.

He was also determined to secure the political space for sound policymaking, convinced that the unruly aspects of democracy were incompatible with good governance.

He tamed labour unions and put them on a path of a cooperative symbiotic relationship with the ruling party and employers. He restructured the press to align its corporate interests with those of the establishment. And he neutered the influence that powerful Chinese businessmen could have had on the system, relying instead on bureaucrats to promote economic growth.

Of course, the PAP Government was always also a team effort and the country had what was its first A-team under Mr Lee. For the economy and industry, he had the help of Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Hon Sui Sen; for diplomacy, Mr S. Rajaratnam. To overcome the housing shortage, he turned to Mr Lim Kim San to build on an unprecedented scale. But while these individuals were men of legendary ability, it was Mr Lee who was relied on to get the politics right.

"We are willing to take unpopular steps if the long-term advantages to Singapore justify the policy," said Dr Goh in a 1984 speech. "We can do this for two reasons: first, our track record; second, the ability of the Prime Minister to carry the public on difficult and unpopular issues."

On how Mr Lee was the first among equals in a team that batted exceptionally well together, Dr Goh added: "We were also lucky to have as our skipper a man of outstanding qualities. I recall several occasions when all seemed lost. There appeared to be no answer to the terrifying dominance of the communist open front organisations in full cry. Yet he will come out with some devilish strategem to spring upon the enemy and confront them."

He did so with a combination of legislation, the seeding of an expectation of rectitude in political leadership and an unrelenting approach to crushing those he considered enemies of the PAP's project.

The party also relied on his larger-than-life presence in the political arena. When he took to the stage, it was never about telling Singaporeans what they wanted to hear, but persuading them of what he believed they needed to do. "We have never allowed ourselves to forget that popular government does not mean that we have to be popular in every act of government," he said. "It means that policies in the public interest, however unpopular, must be taken in time for the benefits to be appreciated before the next general election."

Alongside the major success stories such as the building of Changi Airport and the Singapore Armed Forces are a series of wrenching moves that were painful at the time.

He explained to Singaporeans why they needed to be uprooted from their familiar enclaves, and scattered and re-housed in high-rise buildings. He argued for English as the main language, despite the political price of alienating the strong Chinese lobby. He prodded workers to salt away part of their income in retirement savings. And he pummelled, cajoled and pushed Singaporeans into altering their behaviour, as he waged war against littering, spitting, men with long hair and singlehood.

How did Mr Lee succeed in moving and changing a people? Once, when asked about the qualities she admired most in him, his late wife Kwa Geok Choo cited "his powers of persuasion".

Former senior minister of state Chng Jit Koon, 81, who worked under Mr Lee for 28 years, remembered some bitter pills that he had to swallow as a result of Mr Lee's policies, but that he was eventually persuaded to support.

"The policy of replacing dialects with Mandarin, that was very painful," Mr Chng said. "I went on walkabouts and old ladies would scold me and slam the door in my face because we had stopped radio broadcasts in dialect. But Mr Lee said, 'For the sake of our future generations, we must be determined to carry this out.' And I agreed with him."

A former Cabinet colleague from the second-generation leadership, Mr S. Dhanabalan, corrects the perception that Mr Lee lorded it over those around him.

"He never said, 'This is what I want, do it.' He had very strong convictions, but he was very clear that he had to persuade you in a way that you would buy into what he wanted to do," Mr Dhanabalan said.

"If he couldn't persuade you, he would spend time, even postpone his decision, in order to use his arguments and persuasive powers to show you why it should be done that way.

"He almost felt it was a failure on his part if he could not persuade you to see things the way he did."

Former MP Teo Chong Tee remembers how, as a secondary school boy in the 1950s, he would cycle from one political rally to the next, in search of Lee Kuan Yew.

"I went just to listen to him speak," Mr Teo, 72, said. "He made speeches in three languages which could inspire the people to cheer and shout. The crowd stayed until the end. Nobody moved, rain or shine."

It wasn't just the words that captivated the youth. Mr Lee spoke with no script and punctuated his speeches with forceful gestures. As he spoke, he would move about constantly, punching his fists in the air, shifting in his seat, adjusting his clothes.

Later on, Mr Lee helped Mr Teo campaign in Changi constituency for the first time in 1976. "In 10 to 15 minutes, he had people cheering for me," recalled Mr Teo. "His words really carried a lot of weight."

His speeches took people beyond themselves, motivated them, helped them make sense of a Singapore suddenly propelled to Independence.

"If he said to me, 'Look, I need you to do your part to sacrifice for the country', I would drop everything and go. That was the kind of power he had," said veteran journalist and political watcher Seah Chiang Nee, 75, who went with Mr Lee on his travels overseas as a Straits Times correspondent in the 1970s and early 1980s.

And there was a combative fire in Mr Lee that could sway the crowd as he challenged his opponents with fighting words.

If he spent the first two decades after independence trying to inoculate governance from the capriciousness of politics, he next turned his attention to the challenge of reproducing good governance.

He realised that his own generation of leaders was exceptional, and he called them "dinosaurs, an extinct breed of men who went into politics because of the passion of their convictions".

His view of human nature was such that he assumed Singapore would not be able to count on future leaders' altruistic motives.

He vested his personal reputation in arguing for a salary formula that would peg government pay to that in the private sector.

He was also convinced that, despite three decades of nation-building, the Singapore electorate was not ready to be colour-blind.

So the Group Representation Constituency was born in 1988, to ensure minority representation in Parliament.

Mr Lee was also the political entrepreneur behind the 1991 constitutional amendments that created an elected presidency with custodial powers over the nation's reserves and key appointments.

Again, this was born from a mind constantly playing out worst-case scenarios - in this case, that of protest votes installing an incompetent or, worse, rogue government.

There are other aspects of Mr Lee's legacy that have been deeply embedded in the foundations of Singapore politics.

One is the high expectations that people have of public servants, in particular Singaporeans' zero tolerance for corruption.

Former Straits Times editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng, 71, relates a story of how, when Mr Lee and his family spent holidays by the sea in Changi, his children would sometimes pluck fruit from the trees growing around the chalets. Mr Lee would insist on paying for the fruit himself.

Mr Lee's home at 38 Oxley Road was spartan and unpretentious.

"I was staggered," Mr Cheong said, after hearing the story and visiting the Lee home for the first time in 1999 with a photographer to take pictures for his memoirs. "I thought, wow, this guy is clean."

When it came time in 1986 to expose his Cabinet colleague, the late national development minister Teh Cheang Wan, for corruption, Mr Lee did not waver.

He refused Mr Teh's request to see him before the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau had completed its investigations. Mr Teh later committed suicide a few weeks after the investigations began.

Mr Lee laid the whole matter before Parliament and later agreed to opposition MP Chiam See Tong's call for a commission of inquiry.

He also famously severed ties with one of his staunchest comrades, Mr C.V. Devan Nair, the veteran trade unionist who had been with the PAP since its genesis.

Mr Nair, the founding figure behind the National Trades Union Congress, steered the labour movement through several explosive episodes - such as the 1980 dispute between SIA pilots and management.

He later became Singapore's third President but resigned in acrimony less than four years later over charges of alcoholism, an accusation he denied to his death. Mr Lee was unmoved.

In the Teh and Nair episodes, he showed how he had no compunction about cutting off even the closest of allies when he felt a wrong had been committed.

"Let me put it in a simple way," he said in the book The Man And His Ideas. "I would do a lot personally for a friend, provided what we set out together to do is not sacrificed... if you need a hundred thousand dollars, I'll sign it out of my own resources or raise the money."

But that "personal relationship cannot be transmuted into a concession that will jeopardise state interests".

"That cannot be done because that's what we're trying to establish - a system where people act in accordance with certain principles. The purpose is not just to be righteous. The purpose is to create a system which will carry on because it has not been compromised. I didn't do that just to be righteous about Teh Cheang Wan. But if I had compromised, that is the end of the system."

Mr Lee's commitment to doing an honest day's work extended to his role as a Member of Parliament.

Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee, a former senior parliamentary secretary and Tanjong Pagar GRC MP who used to run meet-the-people sessions in Mr Lee's ward, says Mr Lee was very firm on drawing a clear line between politics and government.

For instance, he gave the instruction that MPs should not ring up civil servants to discuss residents' appeals or ask for favours. "You're supposed to write in so that everything is in black and white," said Prof Koo.

The rule applied even to Mr Lee and other ministers.

"So sometimes the minister would write to his own civil servants to appeal on a policy set by him. We are very clear, we don't abuse our official position. Again, that was established by LKY. Don't mix up."

Former Speaker of Parliament Abdullah Tarmugi recalls that Mr Lee was the only MP who would always write him a note when he could not attend a sitting. "He made sure he followed the rules, you couldn't fault him."

At the time of his death, he had served as MP for Tanjong Pagar since 1955, Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, and a Cabinet minister until 2011.

In the late 1970s, when the PAP marked its 25th anniversary, Mr Lee shared in a party commemorative book what he saw to be the party's key principles to governing: Give clear signals - don't confuse people. Be consistent - don't chop and change. Stay clean - dismiss the venal. Win respect, not popularity. Reject soft options. Spread benefits - don't deprive the people. Strive to succeed - never give up.

The formula, and variations of it, continued to be passed down from cohort to cohort of Singapore leaders. What is probably impossible to bottle and imbibe, though, is the spirit behind those words.

Mr Lee was unbending, courageous and single-minded in the face of the odds. He acted like he had a dare to prove.

He was obsessive about securing Singapore's long-term success, and compulsive in demanding every ounce of effort from himself and others in shaping his country's destiny.

Asked once how he wanted history to judge him, Mr Lee replied without missing a beat: "I'm dead by then."

But he added that he stood by his record.

"I did some sharp and hard things to get things right. Maybe some people disapproved of it. Too harsh, but a lot was at stake and I wanted the place to succeed, that's all.

"At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life."

Additional reporting by Rachel Lin