LKY 'held strong views but could be persuaded'

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said in his speech in Parliament that Mr Lee Kuan Yew's greatest wish was for Singapore to remain successful beyond his lifetime.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Minister Mentor, speaking to residents of Tampines GRC in 2011. With him is Mr Heng Swee Keat, who was Mr Lee's principal private secretary from 1997 to 2000.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Minister Mentor, speaking to residents of Tampines GRC in 2011. With him is Mr Heng Swee Keat, who was Mr Lee's principal private secretary from 1997 to 2000.ST FILE PHOTO

Lee Kuan Yew's willingness to do so seen in previous instances: Heng Swee Keat

Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew held strong views on certain issues when he was alive, but could change his mind when persuaded by robust arguments, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

The late Mr Lee's willingness to do so could be seen in when he changed his mind on the issue of the benefits of exposing children to languages in their early years.

Mr Heng, who was Mr Lee's principal private secretary from 1997 to 2000, said Mr Lee initially believed that the benefits of early exposure would wash out as the child grew.

But he changed his mind after evaluating evidence over the years, and even set up a fund, with his own money and from other donors, for bilingualism in 2011.

He asked Mr Heng, who was education minister from 2011 to 2015, to guide his ministry in using the fund to boost bilingualism across all levels, with special attention paid to those in their pre-school years.

"I share this experience to show Mr Lee's willingness to change his views if he was presented with robust arguments," Mr Heng said on the second day of a debate on allegations of abuse of power brought against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong by PM Lee's siblings.


Yesterday, Mr Heng recounted a Cabinet meeting in July 2011 which Mr Lee was invited to attend, and during which he stated his preference for the house to be demolished after he died.

Mr Lee also listened to the views of the Cabinet. "Except for PM, who did not speak, Cabinet members were unanimous in persuading him that the house should not be demolished. All of us who spoke felt deeply that, as a young nation, we needed a deeper sense of history, and that the house was of historical significance," said Mr Heng.

Mr Lee looked "very thoughtful" after the session, he said.

Cabinet members did not hear from Mr Lee until December that year when he sent them a note.

That December 2011 note was read out on Monday in Parliament by PM Lee. In it, Mr Lee stated that if the house was preserved, its foundations needed to be reinforced and the building refurbished.

Mr Heng said: "To me, that note, sent five months after the meeting, showed that he had been mulling over the issue during that period, and, importantly, he had taken other views on board."

The note also showed that Mr Lee felt it was proper and important to inform the Government "that he was prepared to consider the possibility that the government of the day might decide not to demolish the house".

Mr Heng, responding to a question by Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), said that no Cabinet minister had put pressure on Mr Lee .

"Despite his seniority and his role as the founding prime minister of Singapore, he did not once use his status to advance his case. He just stated his preference, and then listened intently to the views of Cabinet members," said Mr Heng, referring to what Mr Lee did at the July 2011 Cabinet meeting.

He also said that each time Mr Lee wrote to Cabinet on the issue, he had done so of his own volition.

Yesterday, Mr Heng also pointed to an application that Mr Lee submitted to the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2012 to renovate the house as further proof that Mr Lee had accepted the possibility that the Government might choose not to demolish the house.

"This shows that Mr Lee had a plan, and he put it into action," said Mr Heng.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2017, with the headline 'LKY 'held strong views but could be persuaded''. Print Edition | Subscribe