SINGAPORE - In an unusual step, the first 10 minutes of the weekly closed-door Cabinet meeting were made public on Wednesday (March 23) to mark the first anniversary of the death of Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his address to the ministers that was streamed live on Facebook, gave an insight on how the late Mr Lee, who died at age 91, mentored younger ministers.
The late Mr Lee was a man who “kept an eagle eye on every aspect of Singapore,’’ PM Lee recounted. “Yet (he) knew that he could not control everything personally, and that even more so another Prime Minister would have to govern in a different way.
“He advised us that one could not use 10 fingers to catch 10 fleas, quoting Mao (Zedong). One had to focus on the important things and build a team,’’ PM Lee said.
The late Mr Lee also made an enormous efforts to ensure that those who came after him succeeded in the running of the country, PM Lee added.
PM Lee vowed that his team of Cabinet ministers will continue to hold firm to the ethos and values the late Mr Lee stood and fought for, as they face new challenges in a changing world.
The Prime Minister was wearing a badge with the phrase “follow that rainbow”, used by Mr Lee in 1996 to urge Singaporeans to chase their dreams. Following his remarks, the Ministers observed a minute of silence.
PM Lee spoke in the very room the late Mr Lee had chaired or attended meetings for four decades. He said: “This Cabinet Room was Mr Lee’s command tent, where issues were examined and debated, decisions were taken, instructions given, and progress tracked.”
After Mr Lee stepped aside as Prime Minister in 1990, he continued to attend Cabinet meetings as Senior Minister until 2004, and then as Minister Mentor until 2011.
“So for nearly half a century, here in this room, we had a level of discussion and decision-making that would have been exceptional in any Cabinet room in the world.”
These meetings were an “open, interactive, dynamic process”, said PM Lee.
The late Mr Lee had clear views on matters being discussed, and would recount the history and the considerations so that Cabinet ministers would be aware of the context when making fresh decisions, PM Lee said.
He was mindful that before removing a fence, one had to understand why it had been put there in the first place,” he said. But he would also encourage ministers who had different views to argue their case, and he was prepared to make hard decisions.
PM Lee cited the Government’s decision to cut the Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution rates in 1985, when Singapore faced its first recession since independence.
The late Mr Lee had systematically built up contributions, raising them to 50 per cent of wages during a period of rapid growth, and had been against reducing CPF to cut costs, PM Lee recounted.
But the Economic Committee, which PM Lee chaired at the time when he was Minister of State for Trade and Industry, had concluded that costs had got out of line and a reverse in policy was needed to jumpstart the economy.
The Ministry of Trade and Industry proposed cutting the contribution rate to 40 per cent.
PM Lee recalled: “To our surprise, he said if you are going to do it, do it properly. Forty per cent is neither here nor there. Make a decisive move, and cut it to 35 per cent.
“Furthermore, cut only the employer’s contributions. Do not cut employee’s contributions to increase take-home pay. That may sweeten the package, but it will do nothing to make us more competitive.”
This, PM Lee said, was a lesson “not just in economic management but in political leadership”.
And it was through interactions like these that three generations of younger ministers have “most remarkably... benefitted from his experience and insights, his views and concerns, and increasingly his thoughts for Singapore’s future”.
PM Lee said: “Now we are a new team, dealing with a changed world in new ways, but always inspired by Mr Lee’s example and his memory, and holding firm the ethos and the values that he stood and fought for.
“These will guide us as we, in turn, follow the rainbow that Mr Lee himself chased all his life – to build an exceptional nation and to improve the lives of all Singaporeans.”