Entering post-LKY era stronger and with confidence

Crowds at the state funeral procession of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew gathering outside NTUC Building on March 29, 2015.
Crowds at the state funeral procession of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew gathering outside NTUC Building on March 29, 2015.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Lydia Lim.

"We are on our own, but we are ready," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong near the end of his speech, in words that summed up what SG50 has been about - a year of bidding farewell to founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew while, at the same time, taking stock and celebrating the Singapore that exists today.

Those nine words mirror the message the elder Mr Lee had to give a shaken populace during the "moment of anguish" on Aug 9, 1965 - that ready or not, Singapore was out of Malaysia and on its own.

Almost every Singaporean has seen the video clip that shows him breaking down as he mourns the failure of the merger he had worked for all his adult life until that point.

But at that same press conference, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had gone on to assure Singaporeans of all races, in words the Prime Minister reiterated last night in his speech in Malay: "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."

That was the starting point for a newly independent Singapore 50 years ago. Indeed, that determination to be a multiracial society is one of three factors that have made possible today's Singapore, PM Lee told his audience at ITE College Central

last night. The other two are a culture of self-reliance and mutual support, and a political system in which the Government keeps faith with the people.

Singapore has put words into action, acting decisively to enshrine multiracialism through language, education and housing policies, and through electoral measures such as group representation constituencies to ensure minorities will always be represented in Parliament.

It has created an ethos where if a person works hard, he should do well and if he does, he is expected to help others.

Its Government has a track record of being honest and doing right by the people. In return, Singaporeans "expect the Government to perform, trust the Government to have their interests at heart, support the Government and its decisions, and even in tough times, therefore, we can act decisively together".

In his assessment, Singapore - unlike many other countries - has succeeded in getting it right in all three areas.

That is a contentious claim, to be sure, and, in this current political climate, is sure to draw criticism from some quarters.

But as befits the leader of the political party that has governed Singapore continuously since 1959, PM Lee believes that success in the next 50 years will be as much about continuity as about change. It will rest on applying old principles in new contexts to meet fresh challenges.

Issues involving race and religion, for example, are in some ways more complex and difficult to handle today than 20 years ago because people in many societies, including Singapore, are taking religion more seriously.

More are also exposed and vulnerable to extremist ideologies, he said.

Of course, these three founding principles are inextricably tied to the choices made by the Old Guard ministers and the pioneer generation of Singaporeans who worked with them to build the nation in its early years.

Of the three ministers of that generation who are alive today, only one - Mr Othman Wok - was able to attend last night's Rally, the first since the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in March. It was Mr Lee who had delivered the very first National Day Rally speech in August 1966 and made the address an annual event.

So much of Singapore's first half-century has been marked by questions about whether this nation, which the elder Mr Lee led and shaped with such passion and precision, would survive him. Foreign and local critics alike once revelled in predicting doom after he departed the scene or, at the very least, a radical overhaul of its political system.

Last night, PM Lee staked his stand against such doubters and shakers of the status quo.

"Those people who feel daunted and think Singapore's best days are behind us - they are wrong!" he said. On the contrary, Singapore enters the post-Lee Kuan Yew era with confidence and stronger than ever before.

"He is no longer here with us, we are on our own, but we are ready," he said. "Our resolve to defend ourselves is unquestioned. Our spirit and confidence is robust. Our unity and identity as a people has never been stronger".

At the end of his speech, PM Lee recalled what to him were the two highlights of the Golden Jubilee National Day Parade held at the Padang.

The first was when the whole crowd joined Kit Chan in singing the hit national song Home.

The second was when he met the children involved in one of the performances and saw their faces shining with excitement and hope. They are the ones who will be around for SG100 when Singapore marks 100 years of independence, and PM Lee said he hoped "they will be back at the Padang celebrating again, remembering SG50, congratulating each other on how much they have done and how far they have come."

To the Singaporeans alive then, Mr Lee Kuan Yew may be but a distant memory. But if an independent Singapore still exists, one that is multiracial, self-reliant and well governed, they will know him by his legacy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2015, with the headline 'Entering post-LKY era stronger and with confidence'. Print Edition | Subscribe