Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Softer side of Mr Lee Kuan Yew unveiled

Leaders recall a tough but fair man who agonised over hard decisions

A softer side of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew emerged yesterday from the eulogies of those who had worked closely with him.

They spoke of Singapore's founding Prime Minister not just as a scrupulously honest leader and a tough taskmaster, but also as a mentor, a teacher, a friend - and a hero.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam recalled the "roar" of the crowd at the National Day Parade two years ago when the audience burst into a loud cheer upon seeing Mr Lee make his entrance.

"That roar captured the feelings of a nation, of all of us, towards Mr Lee. It rang with respect, affection, friendship and deep emotional attachment.

"It was the sound of one nation united," Dr Tan said at a state funeral for Mr Lee at the National University of Singapore's University Cultural Centre (UCC).

Last week, the nation gathered to mourn him, and did so in a manner that would have made him proud, the President added.

Singaporeans queued patiently for hours to pay their last respects to Mr Lee, who died last Monday. Many helped to make the wait less onerous by offering shelter and refreshments.

"This was what (Mr Lee) had worked for his whole life - to build a united people, who respect and care for one another as fellow citizens," Dr Tan said.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who had taken the Prime Minister baton from Mr Lee in 1990, described him as a man who "drove his people hard" to quickly create a nation from scratch.

But Mr Lee - whom Mr Goh first met in 1958 when he invited the then opposition leader to speak at his school, Raffles Institution - was also a "great teacher" and an inveterate worrier.

"He shared with the Cabinet useful articles, his conversations with world leaders, and insights from overseas trips," Mr Goh told the 2,200 guests at the

funeral.

He also "worried incessantly whether Singapore would survive after he and the old guard were gone. He wanted to be judged on this, not by the city he had built and the lives he had improved".

To usher in Singapore's next generation of leaders, Mr Lee "had to cut short the political careers of his old colleagues", a process that "was painful for him", recalled Mr Goh.

"He said that it was 'emotionally difficult but necessary… I had to do it, whatever my own feelings'.

"I know he felt for them. He would occasionally ask me about them," he added.

After Mr Goh himself stepped down as Prime Minister in 2004, handing the office over to Mr Lee's son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, he continued to have lunch regularly with the elder Mr Lee until the latter's health declined in 2013.

Mr Goh also caught peeks of Mr Lee's personal life during those lunches. "We talked about our families and health. After Mrs Lee's death, I glimpsed how lonely and sad he was."

Former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan, once identified by Mr Lee as a potential successor, shared similar memories of the latter mentoring younger ministers.

"When he made official visits and went to conferences, he always made it a point to take a few of us in the younger team along with him," he said.

"Mr Lee never tired of repeating his war stories, observations, and conclusions about events and personalities. To me, he was Minister Mentor from the time I started working with him."

Like Mr Goh, Mr Dhanabalan also witnessed Mr Lee's anguish behind the scenes when he had to make difficult decisions.

"He was sometimes seen as a hard-hearted man who acted without feelings. But on the few occasions he discussed privately with me the decision to act against someone, I know that he agonised over the decision," said Mr Dhanabalan, now chairman of NUS Business School's management advisory board.

But he added that Mr Lee "was convinced that a soft-hearted approach would undermine the ethos he wanted to embed deeply in public service".

One value Mr Lee held dear was that of no wastefulness, said former senior minister of state Sidek Saniff.

Speaking in Malay, he choked up at times as he recounted how Mr Lee had told him not to spend money buying a new overcoat and boots for a trip to China, but instead to borrow them - from former Cabinet minister Ahmad Mattar and Mr Goh respectively.

Concluding, Mr Sidek turned to face Mr Lee's coffin and said: "Farewell, friend. Farewell."

An equally heartfelt goodbye came from Mr Dhanabalan, who also faced the coffin and said simply: "Farewell, Sir."

Dr Tan and Mr Goh, on the other hand, ended their eulogies by urging Singaporeans to continue Mr Lee's legacy of a harmonious and successful Singapore.

"Let us stay united, across race, language, religion, across young and old, across rich and poor, across our whole society, to write an exciting sequel to his and our Singapore story," said Mr Goh.

Other eulogists at the 21/2-hour state funeral included former Cabinet minister Ong Pang Boon, trade unionist G. Muthukumarasamy, Tanjong Pagar community leader Leong Chun Loong and civil servant and former journalist Cassandra Chew.

Their speeches were bookended by eulogies from Mr Lee's sons, PM Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang.

After the 10 eulogies, PM Lee and Dr Tan laid wreaths near Mr Lee's coffin.

A moment of silence was then observed islandwide for Mr Lee and the pledge and national anthem recited before the family left for the cremation service at Mandai Crematorium.

fiochan@sph.com.sg