Mr Wong Kan Seng: Special Parliamentary Sitting

December 9, 2019

Mr Wong Kan Seng: This is one of the saddest days in my life. I first met Mr Lee Kuan Yew at Istana when I was a young officer (attending) a meeting with Dr Goh Keng Swee at the Istana in 1973. In 1984, I had the daunting experience of sitting before him to be interviewed by the Sec-Gen Committee to join politics. Since 1985, I had the privilege of working with him as my Prime Minister, mentor and colleague. Throughout his 6 decades of public service, the late Mr Lee had only one mission – and that was to create a better life for all Singaporeans. In one generation, Singapore was transformed. The results of Mr Lee’s lifelong dedication are all over Singapore. No words can truly describe or reflect his contributions and the great impact he made on the lives of millions of Singaporeans, including mine. His policies enabled me, son of hawker parents, to become a deputy prime minister. Many poor families’ children have done well too. Many in this House came from humble beginnings. Social mobility is not an abstract theory in Singapore. Good leadership and governance have been crucial to Singapore’s success. For Singapore to overcome adversity has not been easy. Nations with far more than we had at the point of our independence have fallen short. Many nations large and small have studied the Singapore story. Singaporeans benefit from this sterling reputation when they travel, live and work overseas. In the last few days, many Singaporeans I met told me how lucky and proud they are to carry the red passport when they travel. My foreign friends said they wished they had a “Lee Kuan Yew”. Indeed, we are blessed to have had him as our leader. Mr Lee and his team took bold, tough policy decisions in the interest of the country and not for themselves. The pioneer generation of Singaporeans understood the existential crisis they faced. They worked hard, and trusted that Mr Lee and his colleagues would bring them a better life. They were willing to make short term sacrifices for long term good. As a result, the leadership team was able
to create an economic, social and political eco-system that has made Singapore unique, successful and relevant to the world. Mr Lee imbued in Singapore the values and principles of meritocracy, multi-racialism, non-corruptibility and
belief in the rule of law, and built the institutions to ensure that these core values and principles are practised. When many colonies’ leaders of his time had hung on to power long after gaining independence, Mr Lee was a firm believer and
practitioner in self-renewal of leadership. He did not hold power for himself. He did it for Singapore. He played a personal role in recruiting and developing the younger team of ministers. I remember nostalgically the lunches he had with me as a new minister in the 1980s, together with one or two of my colleagues. We could ask any question, and he would share his thoughts and experience. I also learnt a lot during the many dinners at the Istana poolside hosted by Mr Lee for foreign leaders. These were occasions when great minds converged to discuss issues of the world. Mr Lee brought the younger ministers on his overseas trips to give them exposure to international relations. These trips offered practical lessons in diplomacy. When he was Prime Minister, I had the privilege of joining his trips across Asia, Europe and the United States. My first overseas visit with Mr Lee was to Jakarta in May 1985 when he was hosted by the late President Suharto. In September 1985, he was hosted by the late Deng Xiaoping in Beijing. Both rolled out the red carpet for him. I experienced up-close how Mr Lee interacted with foreign leaders of countries much larger and more powerful than Singapore. They showed great respect and admiration for Mr Lee and his achievements for Singapore. They treated him as an equal and listened keenly to his strategic analysis of world issues. They valued his insights. These meetings were an eye-opener for me. It made me very proud to be a Singaporean, and to be able to serve under him. Even before he stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, Mr Lee would encourage the younger ministers to make decisions because he felt that we would have to implement them and be accountable to the people. When issues of critical importance were discussed at Cabinet meetings, Mr Lee would express his views and explain his thinking, sometimes vigorously and forcefully. But at the end of the discussion, he would say: “You, the younger team, are in charge and it is your decision to make. I have given my views”. Some people think Mr Lee brooked no dissent and was autocratic. That is wrong. While Mr Lee has strong views, he also listened. When convinced, he would change his views. Beneath the public persona of Mr Lee as a tough-minded man who suffered no fools, Mr Lee had only the interests of Singaporeans at heart. That was why he spent his whole adult life caring for Singaporeans’ welfare, uplifting our well-being, and protecting Singapore’s interests. We are beneficiaries of his life-long dedication and contributions to Singapore. At the personal level, Mr Lee was a caring man. Some years ago, a doctor diagnosed me to have a transient ischemic attack (TIA). Mr Lee learned about it and called me up on the phone. On hearing that I was attending a dinner, he nagged me to go home, as he believed that my heart was like a ticking bomb, I might suffer a stroke if I did not go back to rest. He insisted that I seek a cardiologist’s advice, which he also named the doctor. And I saw the doctor the following day. Dr Lee Wei Ling also recommended a neurologist friend to see me. And on the neurologist recommendation, I saw another neurologist. And it turned out that I had no TIA. I was relieved and I believe he was very relieved too. Madam Speaker, here I would like to say a few words in Mandarin. English translation: Mr Lee Kuan Yew is a great man across centuries. He often reminded us that some policies were like “bitter medicines”- which might be hard to stomach in the short term, but as long as the purpose of the policies is to benefit the people, then, we must persist. History will judge Mr Lee’s achievements. In my heart, I feel that Mr Lee had devoted all his life for Singapore, and was a responsible, good Prime Minister. In the future, there will not be another great leader like him- cultivate oneself, manage a family, govern the country, and retain world peace- Mr Lee have achieved them all. He had devoted all his life to Singapore and left us a prosperous, and harmonious home. Mr Lee’s physical health declined in recent years, but he was still mentally sharp. It pained me each time I saw him appearing in public attending to the call of duty. I would have preferred to remember him when he was much fitter physically, and not so gaunt and frail. Today, we enjoy an international reputation as a clean, green, efficient country with a low level of corruption and a strong government supported by the electorate for more than 50 years. Our children and the grandchildren are fortunate to grow up in prosperity and stability. They did not experience the difficulties and risks that their parents faced in bringing them a better life. Madam Speaker, can Singapore continue on its path of success and prosperity? It depends on whether Singaporeans can look beyond individual self-interest, and have a consensus on the kind of Singapore we want for ourselves and our children. It also depends on whether we have enough Singaporeans who care enough to come into politics to serve selflessly, just like Mr Lee and his team had done for Singapore; and whether Singaporeans will trust and support these individuals. I sincerely hope that all Singaporeans will build on the foundations of our pioneer leaders, and continue to make Singapore a unique, extraordinary country for the next generation. This means upholding the values of meritocracy, multi-racialism and non-corruptibility – core values that Mr Lee strongly believed in, and which have now become our national ethos. Let us continue to do this, and stay cohesive as one people. Then, Mr Lee would not have toiled his whole life in vain for us. Madam Speaker, modern Singapore has lost its founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. On behalf of my residents and my family, I convey my deepest condolence to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his family, as we grief with them.

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