Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Indonesians mourn loss of a close friend

Mr Lee understood political culture of its big neighbour, they say

To many Indonesians, Mr Lee Kuan Yew's sincere interest in understanding them as well as his humility stand out from the long list of attributes they admire about him.

"Mr Lee understood how to build relations with big neighbours like Indonesia," said Mr Agus Widjojo, former Indonesia Armed Forces chief of territorial affairs.

"He understood the culture of Indonesia's political system and this is very important because the political situation often depends on the personalities of the leaders," he added, crediting the close ties between Indonesia and Singapore to the foundation that Mr Lee had laid as a result of his close friendship with Indonesia's second president Suharto.

That friendship was so deep that when Mr Lee flew to Jakarta in 2008 to see the ailing Suharto before he died, the Singapore leader was allowed to scrub in and sit by his bedside, a privilege usually accorded only to close members of the family.

Ms Siti Hediati Hariyadi "Titiek" Suharto, who with her two sisters had just returned from Singapore after paying their respects, remembered how Mr Lee had encouraged her father, who resigned from office in 1998.

"When Pak Harto stepped down, a lot of politicians were allergic to meeting him. Pak Lee made an effort to come to Jakarta to meet Pak Harto. He didn't care what other people said. Pak Harto was just recovering from a stroke. They hugged each other when they met," she told The Straits Times.

"Pak Lee said, 'You shouldn't be sad and disappointed because you have done a great job. There are still millions and millions of other people who love you and think about you. They will always remember you'," she added.

Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu recalled that Mr Lee put him at ease. Then an army chief, he had asked Mr Lee if he could speak Bahasa Indonesia to him.

"My English isn't good, not fluent. May I speak Bahasa with you?

"Lee Kuan Yew said 'go ahead. I have no problem with that'," Mr Ryamizard told reporters after he signed the condolence book at the Singapore Embassy on Wednesday.

Mr Lee then told him: "Just so you know, Pak Ryamizard, I speak Bahasa with only two people - Pak Harto and now you."

The Defence Minister described Mr Lee as a humble leader who, he said, reminded him of Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

"(Mr Lee) talked humbly, down to earth. He always thought about his people. If Lee Kuan Yew didn't exist, Singapore would not exist. Even China managed to advance itself because they learnt from Singapore," he said.

Indonesia watchers pointed out that Mr Lee made a significant move to improve ties - one that also showed his magnanimity - in 1973 during a state visit.

He visited the graves of two Indonesian marines who were hanged in Singapore for the bombing of MacDonald House in 1965. That attack, which killed three people and injured 33, took place during the Konfrontasi from 1963 to 1966.

To signal that Singapore was moving on in its relationship with its largest neighbour, Mr Lee scattered flowers over the graves.

Said Mr Hayono Isman, who was youth and sports minister in the Suharto government: "He was a leader who respected his own country's laws, as well as respected Indonesia, a neighbour which mourned the two soldiers sentenced to death in Singapore."

He added: "That shows extraordinary character."

Leaders such as Vice-President Jusuf Kalla recalled how Mr Lee's candidness caught them off-guard. "As we emerged from our two-hour discussion, he told the media it is a pity Pak Kalla is only a V-P because he understands the problems in Indonesia and what needs to be done," Mr Kalla told The Straits Times. He was also Vice-President from 2004 to 2009 when Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was President.

"That caused a political storm but I understand that it was just his spontaneous comment," Mr Kalla said with a chuckle.

Mr Lee's straight-talking nature gave him credibility, said analysts. "People appreciated his thoughts on Indonesia and on its relations with Singapore," Mr Jusuf Wanandi, vice-chairman of the board of trustees at Jakarta's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a tribute in The Jakarta Post.

"Sometimes he could comment on what Indonesians could not even say during the Suharto years about themselves," he added, describing Mr Lee as a "sage" and "giant" for advancing the region.

Many Indonesians who had studied in Singapore, including its political elite, felt they had directly benefited from Mr Lee.

In her tribute, "RIP the Founding Father of Singapore", published in Kompas daily on Thursday, former trade minister and respected economist Mari Elka Pangestu said: "I experienced first- hand the education system in Singapore that was filled with discipline, toughness and fierce competition that taught me not only to be good academically, but also in sports and community service, among other activities."

Dr Pangestu studied at St Margaret's Secondary School in the 1970s and won an award for being the best all-rounder.

And so, since Mr Lee's death on Monday at age 91, many Indonesian leaders, dignitaries and analysts have been writing commentaries or posting on social media their reflections of the Singapore leader, remembering him as a close friend of Indonesia.

"Despite the ups and downs in bilateral relations, Indonesia has always remained comfortable with the leadership of Mr Lee Kuan Yew... in a large part, a result of Mr Lee's personality," said Mr Agus. "I am not sure there will be another leader like him."


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