Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Editorial: Keeping Mr Lee Kuan Yew's legacy alive

Lee Kuan Yew was many things to Singaporeans: father figure, visionary, social disciplinarian and sage.

He was the man who played the decisive role in the creation of Singapore as the people know it today. "One day, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!" he once declared. The people believed in him, gave him and the nation's other founding fathers their support, and together they built modern Singapore.

He was astute enough to have surrounded himself with men of conviction who shared his vision. The original team of Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, S. Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen and E.W. Barker were all titans in their own right.

But as the skipper, Mr Lee gained much of the credit for the successes that were to come. He was the doer-in-chief who outlined the plans, crystallised thoughts, marshalled the talents, swayed the voters, and got things done. Singaporeans owe more than they can imagine to Mr Lee and his group of stout-hearted patriots.

He has died at the advanced age of 91, having soldiered on right to the end. He had seemed sad and somewhat withdrawn after the death of his wife, a soulmate and confidante he was devoted to. But for the better part of his post-leadership years - after giving up the prime ministership when he was at the peak of his powers - he had the satisfaction of seeing the results of a lifetime of dedication and toil. He has gone out a man fulfilled, confident in the knowledge that Singapore as an idea he crafted can endure.

Tears will still be shed at the death of a remarkable achiever and a patriot, but he would certainly not be impressed if Singaporeans became mawkish on his behalf. He was not a sentimental man, only one who was passionate about his belief in Singapore.

The Singapore of today, standing 10 feet tall despite its slight base, is a monument to Mr Lee's daring, his leadership and his capacity for self-belief. It was he who made Singapore known to the world as a byword for sensible, pragmatic governance.

What he was not was a dreamer. He was not one for grandiose speeches, elegant theories or overly intellectual discourse. His guiding philosophy, as he said often, was simply to do "what works". By almost every Singaporean's reckoning, his legacy will be this: the Singapore he led in building will endure after him.

In moments of musing, he used to say this was not yet a nation. The roots were as yet shallow, the moorings not quite firm. He was an exacting man, always worrying about the possible perils and pitfalls ahead, and seeking ways to avoid them. The values he left behind - meritocracy, racial and religious tolerance, integrity in public life, respect for the rule of law - will help secure Singapore's longevity.

Some of the self-proclaimed "knuckle-duster" methods he used to clear obstacles in his path and to counter critics - methods he said he had learnt through life-and-death struggles with communist and communalist opponents who did not believe in Queensberry rules - might be judged by some as harsh. They left even some of his admirers cold. Rightly or wrongly, he always acted in the firm belief that the fledgling nation's cause needed protecting from those whose agendas he was convinced would harm Singapore.

This tough-minded approach helped him to deliver results and improved the people's lives, thereby winning their support, respect and trust. But by the 1980s, changing times required a different approach, which he recognised and urged on his younger colleagues. His successors will have to keep pace with this evolving political landscape if they are to enjoy the same high levels of esteem and support that the people had for the first-generation PAP Government led by Mr Lee.

That there is a Singapore - secure, successful and always seeking new ways to stay relevant in an unforgiving, changing world - is Mr Lee's legacy. He would often assert that Singapore was no ordinary country. To overcome the odds and survive, this city-state and disparate society had to be "special", even "extraordinary".

Singaporeans can pay him no more fitting tribute than to strive to ensure it stays that way.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.