Former Cabinet Minister S Dhanabalan paid tribute to Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in a eulogy at the State Funeral on Sunday (Mar 29).
Mr Dhanabalan had served under Mr Lee and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in the Singapore Government, taking up several Cabinet positions such as Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for National Development and Minister for Trade and Industry. He is currently a member of the Council of Presidential Advisers.
“As one who worked closely with Mr Lee Kuan Yew for a period, I want to focus on just four aspects of his leadership that remain with me.
“First, he had an absolute obsession to ensure an honest, corruption-free political process and public administration system. He had seen the damage a nation and society suffer when well-meaning leaders allow those close to them to take advantage of their position. Mr Lee demanded and expected honesty and probity from political colleagues, from his equivalent of ‘Long March’ comrades, public servants and from all members of his family.
“He was seen as a hardhearted 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. He was convinced that a softhearted approach would undermine the ethos he wanted to embed deeply in public service.
“The second point is how he planned succession. What is still vivid in my mind is the time and mental energy he spent to prepare us for the responsibilities ahead. Much of the time in Cabinet meetings was spent with him sharing his experience in politics, in policy making and policy implementation. He circulated and discussed critically, essays and commentaries from journals and newspapers.
“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 to familiarise us with how to interact with the leaders of other nations and observe how to probed, to get a better understanding of global events. He would always try to seek the relevance to Singapore of his, as well as our observations.
“We were deeply sensitised to looking at everything in terms of what we could do in and for Singapore or, equally important, what we should avoid doing. 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.
“The third point is the way he took decisions. The myth is that he brooked no opposition to what he wanted and that the Cabinet members merely fell in line. That was not my experience. He argued tirelessly to get the Cabinet to accept his views not because it was the PM’s view but because of the strength of his arguments. I think he felt he had failed were he not able to convince his Cabinet colleagues.
“When he spoke as Prime Minister at important occasions he sent drafts of his speeches to his colleagues for views and suggestions before he settled on the final version. The idea that he expected his team to follow him like a herd of sheep without question completely misrepresents the man and his values.
“The last point concerns his reputation as the complete political pragmatist who did not allow idealism to get in the way of what would work in and for Singapore. He was a pragmatist, yet in a very deep sense he was an idealist. He was obsessed with not only what would work in Singapore, but what the feel and timbre of our society should be.
“This is well-illustrated by his approach to the language policy. In a population comprising 75 per cent Chinese, the easiest way to ensure political support and electoral support would have been to champion Chinese language and, behind that, Chinese chauvinism.
“He was convinced that for our nation to be different or stand out from other nations we had to be multi-lingual with English as the main language of administration and commerce. But each racial group must maintain its cultural identity with their mother tongues as a second language. To convert Chinese schools into national-type schools and to push for Mandarin against Chinese dialects were the acts of an idealist not the acts of a pragmatist.
“Today, we come to say our farewell to Mr Lee Kuan Yew who is in a complete sense the Father of our Singapore that we know. Up to the very end he was committed to this nation. In the words of Tennyson, though ‘made weak by time and fate’ he remained ‘strong in will’, determined not to ‘rust unburnished’ but ‘to shine in use’.