What do I tell my children about Lee Kuan Yew, our first Prime Minister, our founding father? What can I say about the man who is both revered and reviled by people all over the world. This is the man who once said that the Pope is wrong about rejecting human organ transplant, who predicted that homosexuality will soon be accepted in Singapore just as China had accepted it, who never had to change diapers for his children, who doesn’t care what young Singaporeans think about him, and who does not believe in love at first sight. On the latter, he said, “It’s a grave mistake. You’re attracted by physical characteristics and you’ll regret it.” Well, I can’t say that he is wrong about that. I do echo that view too. In fact, Kwa Geok Choo, his wife, was once asked on his 80th birthday in 2003 about what was the most misunderstood thing about LKY, and she replied, “I read somewhere that “few statesmen can command as much respect and condemnation simultaneously as Lee.” I will leave it to these writers to argue which one has most misunderstood Kuan Yew.”
I guess all leaders helming a nation will inevitably invite criticisms of some forms. It clearly comes with the territory. These leaders understand that they just can’t be everything to everyone (or give whatever the people want whenever they want it) because that is a sure recipe for disaster. So, borrowing his wife’s tongue in cheek comment, LKY may be one of the most misunderstood public leaders in the world because he is undoubtedly a self-opinionated man with a relentless drive for results. Yet, one thing his most ardent opponent doesn't have the luxury or indulgence to say about him is that he is a wishy-washy statesman – indecisive, vacillating and a pushover.
In fact, if anyone was to push another over, it was LKY. In June 1969, he was invited to address the undergraduates in NUS. When he finished, one Professor stood up and badgered him about his government’s stand on pro-abortion policies. LKY then told the Chairman of the Forum to move on after allowing the feisty Professor some airtime. However, the Chairman, who was a young Singaporean Indian student, told LKY off with these words: “I am the Chairman. I will decide.” With that, he allowed the Professor extended airtime to ventilate his views. It was at this time that LKY had had enough of the harassment and physically pushed the Chairman aside and said, “I am taking charge.”
Now, I can’t say that that was uncharacteristic of LKY in his governance of Singapore from the time he assumed office in 1959 until the time he retired in 1990. For all the solid 31 years of stellar public service, LKY took charge of Singapore with a firm hand and transformed her from third world to first.
My children should know that the first PM of Singapore was a no-nonsense, stern and determined leader with an indissoluble passion for the well-being, security, safety, and the sustainable future of Singapore. He once said that, “Singapore is my concern till the end of my life.” And he had kept that promise to the end. It is no doubt difficult to understand this complex and multilayered man and to pin him down to one to two traits would not do him ample justice. But if I had to choose just one trait to characterize LKY to my children, it would without doubt be his down-to-earth, pragmatic way of governance. It is almost an obsession for him.
The dictionary define pragmatism or being practical as “of or concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas.” LKY fits the definition to a tee. I guess John Maynard Keynes’s quote did not specifically apply to LKY when he said, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economists.” In one of the sessions discussing about whether certain new model of economic theory apply wholesale to Singapore against its unique historical background, in particular, complete privatization of SIA and other government-linked corporations, LKY said, “The economists who say that have not sat down as we have, for the last 40 years, working out the different variables, the size of the market, the level of our technology, the entrepreneurial skills available, and what is the alternative.” The point is that LKY is definitely not a one-size-fits-all leader. Instead, he scouts around tirelessly for the right size for the right fit.
LKY is by heart a hardcore, result-oriented leader who embraces wholeheartedly these words by one of the leaders he personally admires: “It does not matter whether the cat is white or black, the main thing is it catches the mice.” According to LKY, that is “the whole Deng (Xiaoping) in one sentence” and that is in my view the whole Lee (Kuan Yew) in one sentence too. I sincerely believe that this is the one trait about LKY that had carried Singapore through the toughest of times. And LKY epitomizes pragmatism most consistently, glowingly and valiantly. My children would just have to read about Singapore history and the man personally to know why governing a nation from two million in the 1960s to five million in the 1990s takes more raw grit, guts and gumption than fancy theories, ideologies and doctrines.
In fact, a person like LKY who is only interested with what works (and not what sounds most demagoguery) has the thickest skin so to speak. He was not afraid to tell world leaders off when he found their opinions to be incorrect. And because he was often proven right by his astute observation and forecasts, world leaders just had to pucker up and listen to what he had to tell them. LKY was also the least concerned with what others think of him. Although his policies were not always spot on, he knew that he was not running a popularity contest when he took up the baton in 1959 to lead the divided government elected to manage an almost derelict island with no hinterland, no resources, and practically no hope.
Being a true-blooded pragmatist, he can’t afford to be a people-pleaser. Neither a slave to any ideology, however promising they appear to be. He had to produce results and focus on what is most important at that time for Singapore and its citizens like pursuing economic growth, attracting foreign investments, ensuring a roof over our head, educating the population, building up a trusted stewardship government with no tolerance for corruption, nurturing the best talents in the civil service, maintaining racial and religious harmony, and shoring up the workforce productivity.
You can say that LKY gave the best years of his life to make Singapore what she is today and he wouldn’t have done it without the unswerving commitment of his trusted cabinet colleagues like Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S Rajaratnam and Dr Toh Chin Chye (to name just a few). And when he was asked whether it was all worth the effort and sacrifice in his 60 years of public service, he replied, “Well, it depends on what you think life is about. I mean, if I want to lead a happy personal life, then I would have remained a lawyer and a businessman and today I would be very much wealthier than I am. But I did not set out to do that. I saw a situation which I thought was wrong and I sought to put it right and I have the satisfaction of seeing better-fed people, better housing, everybody owning their own home, everybody having children who go to school, better health services, recreational facilities, all they could ask for in life…At the end of the day, what have I got. A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.”
At this moment, I would expect my children to be wondering whether LKY had a soft side, that is, a more gentle and humane disposition. How is he as a husband and a father apart from being a visionary statesman?
Well, LKY has a love story too. He courted his wife Kwa when he invited her to his 21st birthday dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Great World. The relationship was anything but traditional because Kwa was not only more than two years older but also academically smarter than him. She trounced him twice for first place in the RI’s first-year college examination. She also beat him to secure the much coveted Queen’s scholarship. Talk about women’s power! Admittedly, in his own words, he was initially “disturbed and upset” by Kwa. But subsequently he fought hard for her love and even convinced the mistresses of the colleges in Cambridge to take Kwa in. In his own words, he said, “…my greatest joy was when my wife won the Queen’s scholarship and I managed to get her into Cambridge immediately.”
The loving couple then quite daring tied the knot in one of the most scenic places in England, namely, the Stratford-upon-Avon, that is, William Shakespeare’s birthplace. This is quite ironic because he once said that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford. What is important for pupils is not literature but a philosophy of life.” I guess pragmatism had to take a backseat when it comes to love (which, if you think about it, is the ultimate philosophy of life).
After they graduated, they returned to Singapore in August 1950 and they worked together in a law firm and set up their own firm subsequently. Thereafter, LKY entered politics and Kwa became a working mother looking after three young children. If anything, Kwa in my book made the greater sacrifice because she personally groomed and presented Singapore with two great leaders. And she did all that behind the public limelight, unassuming, faithful and wholly supportive. If behind every successful man is his wife, then Kwa (the mother of Singapore) had indeed made the enduring difference!
Needlessly to say, Kwa became the love of his life to the very end. And I sincerely believe that the two love of his life is Singapore and his wife and that in fact says a lot about the former. Only kwa could have turned a stone-cold pragmatist into a hopeless romantic when he left this endearing note to his children recently, “For reasons of sentiment, I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.”
In an interview, LKW was asked about what gave him the greatest sense of satisfaction and he replied, “That I’ve lived my life to the fullest. Given the circumstances, I did my best in politics. I did my best to bring up a family, which I could not have done alone. My wife did most of the nurturing. She’d go home every day for lunch. In those days traffic was light. So from her office in Malacca Street to my house was about five or seven minutes. My children were brought up as normal ordinary children.”
I hope I have whet the appetites of my children to learn more about this extraordinary leader, Lee Kuan Yew, and there are no shortage of books – especially his own personal biographies – for them to plough through. For good or otherwise, LKY has done Singaporeans proud and he has lived his life his way and on his terms, and fortunately for us, we are the beneficiaries of his enduring and glowing legacy. He had indeed done his best for Singapore by dedicating his entire life to the cause of nation-building through meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty. He may not be perfect but his passion for his country comes closest to perfection. For this reason, he will always be remembered as the founding father of modern Singapore and a very romantic one at that. Cheerz.