Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues refused to appeal to exclusive racial and religious identities in Singapore's early days, choosing instead the more difficult path of creating a "Singaporean Singapore", said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.
Today, Singapore is a harmonious, multiracial country in large part because of Mr Lee's determination to weave multiracialism into its very foundation, said Mr Teo yesterday.
Singapore's first Prime Minister understood the need to inculcate a sense "that we are all Singaporeans, first and foremost, regardless of race", he told 2,000 people at a memorial organised by community groups.
Those present included leaders of community groups, representatives from the business sector as well as teachers and students.
Also present were Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his wife Ho Ching and Cabinet members.
The event was held at Kallang Theatre, where Mr Lee gave his last National Day Rally speech as Prime Minister in 1990.
Mr Teo, who is also Home Affairs Minister, paid tribute to Mr Lee's legacy and "hard-fought gift" of multiracialism, which Singapore must never take for granted. The late Mr Lee valued the contributions each community could make, and recognised their uniqueness and differences, he said.
But Mr Lee was "conscious of the real dangers of chauvinism, whether (based on) language, race or religion", said Mr Teo.
He added that Mr Lee had seen how these differences were exploited during Singapore's early years as an independent state, which led to conflict.
"He knew that if each community pushed for more and more, others would similarly push back. And each community and our entire country would end up with less," said Mr Teo.
Mr Lee recognised that harmony rested on a delicate balance based on give and take, mutual trust and understanding, and treating everyone fairly, regardless of race, religion or creed, added Mr Teo.
He enshrined it in policies such as having national schools not segregated by race, and bringing people together through public housing rather than have them living separately in ethnic enclaves.
He also encouraged the spirit of community self-help, now seen in groups such as the Chinese Development Assistance Council, Mendaki, the Association of Muslim Professionals, Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda) and the Eurasian Association.
Leaders from the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian communities also spoke of how Mr Lee's policies helped strengthen their communities and Singapore's multicultural fabric.
Speaking in Malay, former Singapore mufti Shaikh Syed Isa Semait said the Malay/Muslim community has benefited from the establishment of institutions such as the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), the Syariah Court and the Registry of Muslim Marriages.
Sinda's Dr N. Varaprasad said the Indian community, itself an amalgam of many sub-communities, is indebted to Mr Lee for giving them equal opportunity, something they did not have even in their homeland.
The Eurasian Association's president, Mr Benett Theseira, paid tribute to how Mr Lee and several Eurasian pioneers worked together to build Singapore's world-class civil service.
Chinese community leader Chua Thian Poh said he was touched by Mr Lee's interest in setting up a fund to strengthen bilingual education.
Mr Lee even personally donated $12 million to the Lee Kuan Yew Bilingual Fund.
Tearing up, Mr Chua said in Mandarin that Mr Lee was already in his 80s when he approached him with the idea to set up the fund.
The ceremony ended with representatives from each ethnic group presenting condolence letters to PM Lee and his wife.