Memorial to founders must be 'full of meaning', says PM Lee

Time, discussion and perspective needed to get it right, says PM Lee

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday elaborated on why some time is needed to consider the best way to honour Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in response to points raised by Members of Parliament. Here is an edited extract of the exchange.

Mr Zainudin Nordin (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC): How do we ensure inclusivity so that all communities can relate to how we are honouring the founding fathers?

PM Lee: That is a very important question and that is why we are taking some time over the matter.

It's not a matter of just having the right place or the right structure, but also a process by which we can involve people in discussing what is the best way to honour him, how can we develop this idea of some sort of memorial for the founders which is more than just a memorial, and have people feel that this is something which is right for Singapore and the right way to do it.

After that, we find the correct place and if we are going to have a gallery and information and education, the right activities, so everybody feels that this is part of our common heritage.

Dr Lily Neo (Tanjong Pagar GRC): Will the request by many to name our airport after Mr Lee Kuan Yew be accepted? Or having his picture on our currency notes?

PM Lee: These are all sensible proposals but I hesitate to make decisions on them now. It's two weeks since the state funeral; it's three weeks since Mr Lee passed away. I think we need some time to pass, we need to have some overall sense of perspective and history, and then there is time enough for us to make these commitments and decisions to honour him - not just in the next few months but really in the next few decades.

If you look at how other countries do it, when they have people who have made a big mark in their history pass away, you will have in the hometown, perhaps straightaway, a street is named after you. But on the national basis, a memorial may be 50 years later, may be 70 years later, may be several generations later. And then your position, your historical trace is clear; emerges perhaps in sharper focus.

Mr Lee had a lot to do with Changi Airport, he had a lot to do with our having a currency which is worth the paper on which it is printed. He had a lot to do with many things too - the Singapore River, the greening of Singapore. If we want to name things after him, there's no shortage of things which are suited. I would say, take our time. Let's focus in the first instance on this idea of how should we remember our founders, not just Mr Lee, but the core founding fathers of the country. That in itself is a major exercise.

Over the years, there will be anniversaries, there will be birthdays, there will be 100th birthdays. We will come back to this and we will look at it again. At that point, I'm sure these ideas of Dr Lily Neo and others will still be there. And perhaps by then we will be a bit more ready.

Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC): Could more effort be made to preserve the heritage value of Mr Lee's house for future generations while respecting his wishes to demolish it. Perhaps the furniture can be considered historical artefacts which can be donated to the museum for a replica of the basement to be put up?

PM Lee: If you go on what Mr Lee has said publicly: "Whatever you want to do after I'm gone, take pictures, if you like, then demolish the building." That's on the record. His will follows that. We have to go in accordance with his wishes.

The building has been documented, photographs have been taken and published, especially the dining room where the important meetings took place...

We have to let time pass. We have to let perspective emerge gradually over the years and decades.

What we can do is to focus on one possible promising direction: A Founders' Memorial and education gallery somehow linked to it, perhaps co-located, and how do we conceptualise that so that it is something which is meaningful and which achieves our future-oriented purpose. That itself is a very big task. To go round adjudicating which other things you want to do will be hard to achieve.

For the Founders' Memorial itself, it would be necessary to involve historians, people who have worked, lived in Singapore, ordinary Singaporeans, people who have expertise, who have seen how such memorial ideas are developed and gradually brought to reality over many years.

It is a very difficult process.

Look at the 9/11 Memorial. It's now 13 and something years since 9/11. The memorial is done. But there was tremendous argumentation and disagreement and bitterness and battles along the way before they built it this way. Some people, including some significant sections of the families of the victims, are very unhappy with the way it was run and the outcome.

If you look at the way people honour (American) presidents - George Washington or Eisenhower or FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt) ... From the time the person stopped being president or died to the time when you do it, it may be, in Eisenhower's case, he died in 1969 and they are just arguing over his memorial now. They haven't finished the dispute...

For us to think we can settle this within the next few months or few years, that is being presumptuous. If we try to do that, we'd make decisions which even if we didn't regret, our children would regret it. I don't think we should do that.

Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong: While I'm not against the idea of having memorials, a more important question would be, how are we going to ensure those ideals (of Mr Lee) are shared and imbibed, are carried on through the generations?

PM Lee: I agree fully with Ms Chia Yong Yong on her very sensible views. Indeed, it is the ideals and the way we live our lives which is much more important than any physical thing you build.

And yet it is helpful to have what you might call a local habitation and a form for that abstract ideals to focus the mind, to generate the emotion and to bond people. Everybody has that.

The Israelis have Masada. Every recruit goes there. He's presented his rifle there. He remembers events 2,000 years ago, relevant to their spirit today.

You go to other countries. In Britain, you go to Parliament Square, you've got Winston Churchill's statue there; Trafalgar Square, you've got Nelson's statue there. You go to Washington on the Mall. It's a pilgrimage, not a tourist visit, especially if you visit the Vietnam War memorial or the Second World War memorial, which I just visited last year.

It focuses your mind and brings people together. So too with our week of national mourning and the State Funeral service. It's a form, right? But it meant something to the participants and it left an indelible mark and it changed them.

We had, by chance, a choir come through Singapore from St John's College, Cambridge. And because of the Cambridge connection, they offered to sing at the lying in state. They came with a beautiful rendition of Home. It was such a success that we decided we would ask other school choirs and other performing groups, including Jeremy Monteiro and his group, to come and perform during the lying in state.

It was a tremendous success; not just for the people who came to pay respects but for the people who came to sing. And as one of the schoolchildren said: "It's not a performance, it's a tribute."

(PM paused, gathered himself)

So you need these symbols, these physical things. But what are they? Which are full of meaning and not empty? And that's what we're looking for.

Education is an important part of this. After the national mourning period, I think we are rethinking how we can do the national education content in the schools so that you try to get some of the same impact. Otherwise I can write the best textbooks in the world, but between the textbook and the presenter and the listener ... each stage there's attrition, diminution, dilution, eventually you get an empty message rather than something substantial.

Yet if we can have one really powerful experience and it's emotional as much as it is intellectual, you bring people together.

On TV, we had one week of old footage broadcast, it took many years to assemble all that material ... and I think it had a big impact.

It reminded people what all this was about. We need to do more of that during this SG50 year and beyond. Not in a big gush of overwhelming information, but a continuing trickle just to remember ourselves, where we come from and what we should be committing ourselves to.

That way we will be able to achieve our bigger objectives.

Read the text of PM Lee's statement here.

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