Much has been said and written about Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the builder of modern Singapore, during his lifetime. The man himself has talked and written extensively about his journey and his experiences in nation-building since 1965, when he found himself in charge of a newly independent nation which Malaysia had cast adrift.
This piece is a compilation of obituaries, write-ups and images that appeared soon after the news broke, on the morning of 23rd March, that he had passed away during the early morning hours. It includes my own observations and comments on some social media networks.
To start with, here is the announcement by his son, the current PM of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong.
A compilation, by The Wall Street Journal, of LKY’s life and times .
Here is a compilation of some of his more interesting and, at times, controversial quotes.
“If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana.” (Remark to a BBC reporter, 2000 who asked questions about Singapore’s chewing-gum ban & said that without chewing on gum, he couldn’t think)
“If Singapore is indeed a nanny state, I am proud to have fostered one” – from his book, The Singapore Story, 1965 – 2000
“I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. I neither deny nor accept that there is a God. So I do not laugh at people who believe in God. But I do not necessarily believe in God – nor deny that there could be one.”
“There is an end to everything and I want mine to come as quickly and painlessly as possible, not with me incapacitated, half in coma in bed and with a tube going into my nostrils and down to my stomach.”
“Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me to the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.” — Mr. Lee Kuan Yew (1923 -2015) on religion and on his death.
On his observation that people should generally marry keeping their educational levels in view:
“If you don’t include your women graduates in your breeding pool and leave them on the shelf, you would end up a more stupid society… So what happens? There will be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation. That’s a problem.”
On the high pay of cabinet ministers and senior civil servants:
“You know, the cure for all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government. You get that alternative and you’ll never put Singapore together again: Humpty Dumpty cannot be put together again… and your asset values will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people’s countries, foreign workers.”
“In new countries, democracy has worked and produced results only when there is an honest and effective government, which means a people smart enough to elect such a government. Remember, elected governments are only as good as people who choose them.”
Lee Kuan Yew, in an interview with Fareed Zakaria, a few years ago.
Lee Kuan Yew, in his later years, talking to students of the National University of Singapore (NUS).
My edited comments on SM networks:
A towering figure among 20th century political leaders, I have seldom, if ever, seen the kind of charisma & presence that Lee Kuan Yew had. Many Singaporeans, particularly in their 50s & 60s, regard him truly as a father figure and are possibly feeling orphaned at the news of his demise.
A lot has been said and written and will continue to be written about the Singapore model. What, to my mind, differentiates Singapore from success stories like Hong Kong or Dubai is the fact that Lee Kuan Yew had his priorities right and implemented them singlemindedly. Among other things this included a really good schooling & higher education system through world-class universities and polytechnics, affordable public housing (housing ownership for Singaporeans is among the highest in the world, at about 90%), zero tolerance for corruption, highly pragmatic and efficient systems & processes which are regularly tweaked and adapted to changing situations as often as needed, a world-class infrastructure for businesses & individuals, an efficient bureaucracy built on meritocracy and a truly world class airport and sea port which have firmly established Singapore as a key tourism destination and a logistics hub in Asia Pacific. He also put in place a system of succession planning which ensured that all these will remain in place and be nurtured across generations. He set the bar for quality and customer service high in all that he planned and implemented.
Even after Singapore became a first-world country, an oasis among a whole host of third world countries in the region, he kept pushing Singaporeans to strive hard and excel in their chosen spheres and not become complacent or mushy. He may have exercised strict control in many spheres of daily life but he ensured that Singaporeans and residents had what it takes to not worry about the essentials of life and an environment where they could focus on doing well for themselves and their families. Among other things, the sense of safety and security one has in Singapore can hardly be matched by most other Asian countries and only by a small number of countries globally. As LKY said, if Singapore is indeed a nanny-state, the credit largely goes to him for making it one. Anyone accustomed to the standards and efficiency levels of most things in Singapore, can’t quite be faulted for getting irritated and frustrated with what he or she sees in virtually all other South and South-East Asian countries.
Typical of the efficiency of the place, tourists or business travellers could look forward to getting off their flight, clearing customs and immigration, picking up their baggage and reaching their hotels or offices downtown in less than an hour’s time. Businesses could be registered and be up and running in a week’s time. There can be no better testimony about systems that work clinically and efficiently.
No one is perfect or should claim to be. The downsides of his period at the helm and even later, as a key influencer and mentor of the government of the day, have been discussed in some of the obituaries referenced above and I have nothing further to add on that count. All I can say at this instant of his departure from the world stage is, ” Farewell Sir, you have been inspiring in many ways and your achievements and vision will be remembered and admired for a long time.”