In his own words: Make the right decisions, even if they are unpopular

When Parliament convened yesterday to pay homage to its longest-serving member, speaker after speaker referred to the major speeches that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had made in the House at key moments in the nation’s history. Perhaps the Parliament’s most electrifying presence ever, he pulled no punches and spoke with clarity and conviction on the challenges facing Singapore at various stages of its evolution. Here are edited excerpts from 10 significant speeches he delivered in the House over his 60 years as MP for Tanjong Pagar.

FEB 23, 1977


In one of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's longest speeches ever, he held forth for nearly four hours in a wide-ranging parliamentary address. Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong recently singled out this speech as memorable, recalling how, as a young MP listening to it, "my bladder was about to burst". Mr Lee spoke on leadership, succession, fighting the communists and winning elections in his address to 11 young MPs - Mr Goh included - who had just entered the House.

"PERHAPS I ought to begin by saying that the (new Members of the House) ought to take themselves seriously because we, on this side as Members of the Government, take them seriously. Upon us is the burden of finding a successor government worthy of its responsibilities. It is not an easy job.

First, let me explain the shock for new Members. They have been at the hustings. They made different kinds of speeches. They come here, they are bound by Standing Orders and rules of debate, which we have inherited, copied, modified.

Let me explain the problems that we face, by first reading an excerpt from a book written by a British left-wing minister who started the free health service scheme in Britain, Aneurin Bevan. He described his experience and the dangers of a Britisher or Welshman in his case, going into Parliament.

His (the MP's) first impression is that he is in a church - the stained glass windows, the rows of statues of great statesmen of the past, the echoing halls, the soft-footed attendants and the whispered conversations, contrast depressingly with the crowded meetings and the clang and clash of hot opinions he has just left behind in his election campaign.

Here he is, a tribune of the people, coming to make his voice heard in the seats of power. Instead, it seems, he is expected to worship; and the most conservative of all religions - ancestor worship. The first thing he should bear in mind is that these were not his ancestors... His forefathers were tending sheep or ploughing the land, or serving the statesmen whose names he sees written on the walls around him.

So we have not, fortunately, inherited the British Empire. We have inherited a very small fragment of it. We have not the deep class antagonism but if we do not bring out these differences of opinion, and if we had not done so successfully since 1965, when the Barisan Sosialis MPs walked out of this Chamber, I do not believe that in February 1968, in September 1972 and again in December 1976, we could have been returned unanimously and completely.

This is a marathon, not a hundred-yard spurt. With (an MP's) every passing speech, with every passing act, the character, the style, the strength, the weaknesses are etched in the minds of the public. You can do a PR job, as has been written in American books after the making of presidents, where you have a vast electorate of 200 million people, with over 120 million potential voters, with the help of radio and TV, and you suddenly find, with a whole host of ghost writers and advisers, that the man becomes scholarly, learned, solicitous in his speech. Catch him at a press conference and a question-and-answer session, where the ghosts cannot whisper to him, and the man is betrayed.

What I wish to remind Members is this: that we take them seriously, and over a period of time, we begin to take some MPs more seriously than others because they have done their homework. It is a question of getting to know them, familiarity over a long stretch of time.

The problem is really so simple, yet it has been solved only a few times in a few countries and only over certain periods of time - one man, one vote, to produce a group of men who can provide a continuity in good government, change of policies, flexibility, to reflect the changing moods of an electorate.

In other words, you need a wide spread, a wide variety representing all types, reflective and representative of the population. And that is why we are here.

But from amongst us, most of us, or perhaps I can say, all of us, speak more than one language or you would not be here. You may not speak the second language well but you understand what is being said. You know what your constituents want. You know what it is all about. Therefore, I am a little disappointed to find people who have gone through this process questioning the wisdom of demanding minimum pass standards in the second language. This is Singapore... And, you know, when you want to win votes, the Queen's English is not going to help you...

If you want to be popular, do not try to be popular all the time. Popular government does not mean that you do popular things all the time... Popular, representative government means that within each five-year period, your policies have demonstrably worked and won popular support. That is what it means. And if we flinch from the unpopular, we are in deep trouble.

Of course, the Area Licensing Scheme was unpopular. Of course, car taxes were unpopular. But gentlemen, which would you have? A jammed-up Singapore with car owners exasperated, bus passengers exasperated, or 20,000 to 30,000 car owners having to lay up their cars and hundreds of thousands going through in buses or in shared cars?

We made that decision, and it was right. Of course.

If we had an election period, like the New Zealanders and the Australians have, for three years instead of five years, that is more difficult. But (former Australian prime minister) Sir Robert Menzies, in spite of three-year periods, won and stayed in office for 12 years.

He knew that popular representative government means that, sometimes, even when 55 per cent... are against you, if it is right, proceed.

When it works out all right, they will swing back. But if you flinch, then that 55 per cent becomes 65 per cent, and you are out."

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