HOW SINGAPORE GOT HERE

'Do not call me Mr Prime Minister'

In his Malay speech at the National Day Rally, PM Lee Hsien Loong recounted how, in a 1965 press conference, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said, "Please do not address me as 'Tuan Perdana Menteri' (Mr Prime Minister)... It is not necessary. I am n
In his Malay speech at the National Day Rally, PM Lee Hsien Loong recounted how, in a 1965 press conference, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said, "Please do not address me as 'Tuan Perdana Menteri' (Mr Prime Minister)... It is not necessary. I am not a Syed... I am a common man". Yesterday, PM Lee said the remark set the tone for an egalitarian society in Singapore.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Two days after Singapore became an independent nation in 1965, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew held a press conference with Malay journalists.

Before asking his first question, a journalist addressed Mr Lee as "Tuan Perdana Menteri" - Mr Prime Minister.

Mr Lee immediately replied: "Please do not address me as 'Tuan Perdana Menteri', but just as usual, 'Saudara Lee' (Comrade Lee).

"It is not necessary. I am not a Syed, like Syed Jaafar Albar. I am a common man, a small man." The late Syed Jaafar was an ultra who whipped up Malay emotions against Mr Lee.

Yesterday, in recounting the anecdote in his Malay speech at the National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the late Mr Lee's remark "set the tone for our society in Singapore".

"That we will be equal, egalitarian. That we will work side by side, that we will build Singapore together," PM Lee added. "That is how our journey began."

PM Lee also recalled an earlier press conference on Aug 9, 1965, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew had promised all Singaporeans they would have an equal chance to progress.

The late Mr Lee had said: "We are going to be a multiracial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation, this is not a Chinese nation, this is not an Indian nation.

"Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion."

Fifty years on, PM Lee said Singapore has become "a harmonious, multiracial society, egalitarian and successful".

Zakir Hussain

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2015, with the headline ''Do not call me Mr Prime Minister''. Print Edition | Subscribe