Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a statesman, a fighter, and a gardener, says PM Lee Hsien Loong in his eulogy
Share this on

Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a statesman, a fighter, and a gardener, says PM Lee Hsien Loong in his eulogy

Read the summary here.

Here is the transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s eulogy.


President Tony Tan, friends, family and fellow Singaporeans. This has been a dark week for Singapore. The light that has guided us all these years has been extinguished. We’ve lost our founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who lived and breathed Singapore all his life. He and his team led our pioneer generation to create this island nation, Singapore.

Mr Lee did not set out to be a politician, let alone a statesman as a boy. In fact, his grandfather wanted him to become an English gentleman, but events left an indelible mark on him. He’d been a British subject in colonial Singapore. He’d survived hardship, danger and fear in the Japanese occupation. These life experiences drove him to fight for independence.

In one of his radio talks on the battle of merger, many years ago in 1961, Mr Lee said: “My colleagues and I are of that generation of young men who went through the second world war and the Japanese occupation and emerged determined that no one, neither the Japanese or the British, had the right to push and kick us around.”

Mr Lee championed independence for Singapore, through merger with Malaya to form a new federation, the federation of Malaysia. He worked tirelessly to bring this about and succeeded. Unfortunately, the merger did not last and before long we were expelled from Malaysia. Separation was his greatest moment of anguish. But it also proved to be the turning point in Singapore’s fortunes.

From the ashes of separation, he built a nation. The easiest thing to do would have been to appeal to Chinese voters alone. After all, Singapore had had to leave Malaysia because we were majority Chinese. Instead, Mr Lee went for the nobler dream of a multiracial, multi-religious nation. Singapore would not be based on race, language or religion, but on fundamental values—multiracialism, equality, meritocracy, integrity and rule of law.

Mr Lee declared, this is not a country that belongs to any single community. It belongs to all of us. He checked would-be racial chauvinists, and assured the minorities that their place here was secure. He insisted on keeping our mother tongues even as English became our common working language. He encouraged each group to maintain its culture, faith and language, while gradually enlarging the common space shared by all. Together with S. Rajaratnam, he enshrined these ideals in the national pledge.

He kept us safe in a dangerous and tumultuous world. With Dr. Goh Keng Swee, he built the SAF from just two infantry battalions and one little wooden ship, into a well-trained, well-equipped, well-respected fighting force. He introduced National Service and persuaded parents to entrust their sons to the SAF. He succeeded.

First, because he led by example. His two sons did NS, just like every Singaporean son. In fact, my brother and I signed up as regulars in the SAF. And we went in on SAF scholarships. Secondly, people trusted Mr Lee, and they believe in the Singapore cause. And therefore, today we sleep peacefully at night, confident that we are well-protected.

Mr Lee gave us courage to face an uncertain future. He was a straight talker and he never shied away from hard truths, either to himself, or to Singaporeans. His ministers would sometimes urge him to soften the tone of his draft speeches, even I would sometimes do that, to sound less unyielding to human frailties. And often he took in the amendments, but he would preserve his core message. As he said, “I always try to be correct, not politically correct.”

He was a powerful speaker, moving, inspiring, persuasive, in English and Malay, and by dint of a life-long hard slog, in Mandarin and even Hokkien. Mediacorp has been broadcasting his old speeches on TV this week, reminding us that his was the original Singapore roar. Passionate, formidable and indomitable.

Above all, Lee Kuan Yew was a fighter. In crisis, when all seemed hopeless, he was ferocious, endlessly resourceful, firm in his resolve and steadfast in advancing his cause. And thus he saw us through many battles. The battle for merger against the communists, which most people thought the non-communists would lose. The fight when we were in Malaysia against the communalists, when his own life was in danger. Separation which cast us out into a hazardous world. And then the withdrawal of the British military forces in Singapore, which threatened the livelihood of 150,000 people.

Because he never wavered, we didn’t falter. Because he fought, we took courage and fought with him, and prevailed. And thus Mr Lee took Singapore, and took us all from the third world to the first.

In many countries, anticolonial fighters and heroes would win independence and assume power, but then fail, fail at nation-building. Because the challenge of bringing a society together, growing an economy, patiently improving people’s lives, are very different from the challenge of fighting for independence, mobilising crowds, getting people excited, overthrowing a regime. But Mr Lee and his team succeeded at nation building.

Just weeks after separation, Mr Lee boldly declared that ten years from now, this would be a metropolis. Never fear. And indeed he made it happen. He instilled discipline and order, ensuring that in Singapore, every problem gets fixed. He educated our young. He transformed labour relations from strikes and confrontation to tripartism and cooperation. He campaigned to upgrade skills and raise productivity, calling this effort a marathon with no finish line. He enabled his economic team, Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen, Lim Kin San, to design and carry out plans to attract investments, grow the economy, and create prosperity and jobs. As he said: “I settle the political conditions so that tough policies could be executed.”

However, Mr Lee was also clear that while the development of the economy is very important, equally important is the development of the nature of our society. So he built an inclusive society where everyone enjoyed the fruits of progress. Education became the foundation for good jobs and better lives. HDB new town sprung up, one after another. Queenstown, Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio, to be followed by many more. We had roofs over our heads and we became a nation of homeowners.

With Mr Devan Nair and the NTUC, he transformed the union movement into a positive force, cooperating with employers and with the government to improve the lot of workers. Mr Lee cared for the people whom he served, the people of Singapore. When SARS struck in 2003, he worried about taxi drivers whose livelihoods were affected, because tourists had dried up, and he pressed us hard for ways to help the taxi drivers.

Mr Lee also cared for the people who served him. One evening, just a few years ago, he rang me up. One of my mother’s women security officers was having difficulty conceiving a child and he wanted to help her. He asked me whether I knew how to help her to adopt a child. So Mr Lee was concerned for people, not just in the abstract, but personally and individually.

Internationally, Mr Lee raised Singapore’s standing in the world. He wasn’t just a perceptive observer of world affairs, but a statesman who articulated Singapore’s international interests and enlarged our strategic space. At crucial turning points, from the British withdrawal east of the Suez to the Vietnam to the rise of China, his views and counsel influenced thinking and decisions in many capitals.

In the process, he built up a wide network of friends, in and out of power. He knew every Chinese leader from Mao Zedong, and every US president from Lyndon Johnson. He established close rapport with President Suharto of Indonesia, one of our most important relationships. Others he knew included Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Schmidt, George Schultz, as well as President Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, who we are honoured to have here with us this afternoon. They all valued his candour and his insight.

As Mrs Thatcher said: “Mr Lee had a way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing, with unique clarity, the issues of our time and the way to tackle them. He was never wrong.” And hence despite being small, Singapore’s voice is heard and we enjoy far more influence on the world stage than we have any reason to expect.

Mr Lee didn’t blaze this path alone. He was the outstanding leader of an exceptional team, a team which included Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, Othman Wok, Hon Sui Sen, Lim Kin San, Toh Chin Chye, Ong Pang Boon, Devan Nair, and quite a number more. They were his comrades and he never forgot them. So it’s very good that Mr Ong Pang Boon is here today with us to speak about Mr Lee later on. Thank you Mr Ong.

Mr Lee received many accolades and awards in his long life, but he wore them lightly. When he received the Freedom of the City of London in 1982, he said: “I feel like a conductor at a concert, bowing to applause, but unable to turn around and invite the accomplished musicians in his orchestra to rise and receive the ovation for the music they have played. For running a government is not unlike running an orchestra and no prime minister ever achieves much without an able team of players.”

Because he worked with a strong team and not alone. Because people knew that he cared for them, and not for himself. And because he had faith that Singaporeans would work with him to achieve great things, Mr Lee won the trust and confidence of Singaporeans. The pioneer generation who had lived through the crucial years had a deep bond with him. I once met a lady who owned a successful fried rice restaurant. She told me: “Tell Mr Lee Kuan Yew, I will always support him. I was born in 1948 and I’m 48 years old.” The year was 1996, there was some issue then, and this question had come up. “I know what he has done for me and Singapore.” She and her generation knew that, to use a Chinese phrase. If you follow Lee Kuan Yew, you will survive.

Mr Lee imbued Singapore with his personal traits. He built Singapore to be clean and corruption-free. His home was Spartan, his habits were frugal. He wore the same jacket for years and patched up the worn bits instead of buying new ones. He imparted these values to the government, and even when old and frail, on his 90th birthday when he came to parliament and MPs celebrated his birthday in parliament, he reminded them that Singapore must remain clean and incorruptible, and that MPs and ministers had to set the example.

He pursued his ideas with tremendous and infectious energy. He said of himself: “I put myself down as determined, consistent, persistent. I set out to do something, I keep on chasing it until it succeeds. That’s all.” Easy to say, very few do it.

And this was how he seized the opportunities, seeing and realising possibilities that many others missed. So it was he who pushed to move Paya Lebar airport to Changi. It was he who rejected the then conventional wisdom that MNCs were rapacious and exploitative and he wooed foreign investments from MNCs, personally, to bring us advanced technologies, to bring us overseas markets, to create for us good  jobs.

He wasn’t afraid to change his mind when a policy was no longer relevant. When he saw that our birth rates were falling below replacement, more than thirty years ago, he scrapped the “Stop at Two” policy and started encouraging couples to have more children. Having upheld a very conservative approach to supervising our financial sector for many years, he eventually decided the time had come to rethink and liberalise, but to do so in a controlled way. And this was how Singapore’s financial centre took off in a new wave of growth to become what it is today.

He was always clear what strategy to follow, but never so fixed to an old strategy as to be blind to the need to change course when the world changed. Nothing exemplifies this better than water security which was a lifelong obsession of his. He entrenched the PUB’s two water agreements with Johor in the separation agreement. He personally managed all aspects of our water talks with Malaysia. He launched water saving campaigns, he built reservoirs, he turned most of the island into water catchment to collect the rain to process to use. He cleaned up the Singapore river and Kallang basin. He dreamed of the Marina Barrage long before it became feasible and persevered for decades until finally technology caught up and it became feasible, and it became a reality. And he lived to see it become a reality. When PUB invented NEWater and desalination became viable, he backed these new technologies enthusiastically. So the result today is Singapore has moved towards self-sufficiency in water, become a leader in water technologies, and turned a vulnerability into strength. So perhaps it’s appropriate that today, for his state funeral, the heavens opened and cried for him.

Greening Singapore was another of his passions. On travels, when he came across trees or plants that might grow well here, he carried saplings and seeds and hand carried them back home. He used the Istana grounds as a nursery and would personally check on the health of the trees, not just in general, but individual, particular trees. If it had names he would know their names. He knew the scientific names.

Singapore’s prime minister was also the chief gardener of the city in the garden. He had a relentless drive to improve and continued to learn well into old age. At 70, to write his memoirs, he started learning how to use his computer. Every so often, he would call me for help, sometimes late at night, and I would give him a phone consultation. And talking through the steps—how to save a file, how to find a document, which has vanished somewhere on his hard drive—and if he couldn’t find me, he would consult my wife.

He made a ceaseless effort to learn mandarin, over decades. He listened to tapes of his teacher talking, conversing with him, every day—in the morning while shaving at home, in the evening while exercising at Sri Temasek. And he kept up his mandarin classes all his life. Indeed, his last appointment on the 4th of February, this year, before he was taken gravely ill, early the next morning, was with his mandarin tutor.

He inspired all of us to give of our best, and he was constantly thinking about Singapore. At one national day rally, in 1988, he declared: “Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.” And he meant that. Indeed, even after he left the Cabinet, occasionally, he would still raise with me issues which he felt strongly about. During the Budget debate two years ago, almost exactly two years ago, MPs hotly debated the cost of living, the public transport, and so many other matters then preoccupying Singaporeans. Mr Lee felt we had lost sight of the fundamentals that underpinned our survival. He emailed me, he sent me a draft speech, he told me he wanted to speak in the chamber to remind Singaporeans of this unchanging hard truths—what our survival depended upon. But I persuaded him to leave the task to me and my ministers, and he took my advice. But his biggest worry was that younger Singaporeans would lose the instinct for what made Singapore tick. And this was why he continued writing books into his nineties—Bilingualism, Hard Truths, One Man’s View of the World, and at least one more, guided by him, still in the process of being written, on the history of the PAP. Why did he do this? So that the new generation of Singaporeans could learn from his experience and understand what their security, prosperity and future depended upon.

One of Mr Lee’s greatest legacies was preparing Singapore to continue beyond him. He believed that the leader’s toughest job was ensuring succession. So he systematically identified and groomed a team of successors. He made way for Mr Goh Chok Tong to become Prime Minister, after him, but stayed on in Mr Goh’s Cabinet to help the new team succeed. He provided stability and experience and quietly helped to build up Mr Goh’s authority. He knew how to guide without being obtrusive, to be watchful, while letting the new team develop its own style, its own authority. He described himself like a mascot, but everyone knew how special this mascot was, and how lucky we were to have such a mascot. And it was likewise when I took over. Mr Goh became Senior Minister, Mr Lee became Minister Mentor, a title which he felt reflected his new role—not in command but advice not to be taken lightly. Increasingly, he left policy issues to us, but he would share with us his reading of world affairs and his advice on major problems which he saw over the horizon. Some other prime ministers told me that they couldn’t imagine what it was like to have two former PMs in my Cabinet. But I told them, it worked, both for me and for Singapore.

For all his public duties, Mr Lee also had his own family. My mother was a big part of his life. They were a deeply loving couple. She was his loyal spouse and confidante – going with him everywhere, fussing over him, helping with his speeches, and keeping home and hearth warm. They were a perfect team, and wonderful parents. When my mother died, he was bereft. He felt the devastating loss of a lifetime partner, who he had said had helped him become what he was.

My father left the upbringing of the children largely to my mother. But he was the head of the family, and he cared deeply about us, both when we were small, and long after we had grown up. He wasn’t very demonstrative, much less was he touchy-feely. So not New Age, but he loved us deeply.

After my first wife Ming Yang died, my parents suggested that I tried meditation. They gave me some books to read—mindfulness, tranquillity meditation, I read the books but I did not make much progress. I think my father had tried it too, also not too successfully. When his teacher told him to relax, still his mind and let go, he replied: “But what will happen to Singapore if I let go?”

When I had lymphoma, he suggested that I try meditation more seriously. He thought it would help me to fight the cancer. He found me a teacher and spoke to him personally. With a good teacher to guide me, I made better progress.

In his old age, after my mother died, my father started meditating again, and this time with help from Ng Kok Song, whom he knew from GIC. Kok Song brought a friend to see my father. The friend was a Benedictine monk who did Christian meditation. My father was not a Christian, but he was happy to learn from a Benedictine monk. He even called me to suggest that I meet the monk, which I did. He probably felt I needed to resume meditation too. And to give you some context, this was a few months after the 2011 general election. I was nearing 60 by then, and he was nearly 90. But to him I was still his son to be worried over, and to me he was still a father to love and appreciate, just like when I was small.

So this morning before the ceremonies began at Parliament House, we had a few minutes. I sat by him, and meditated.

Of course, growing up as my father’s son could not but mean being exposed to politics very early. I remember as a little boy, knowing that his constituency was Tanjong Pagar, being proud of him becoming legal advisor to so many trade unions, and being excited by the hubbub at Oxley Road whenever elections happened, and our home became the election office.

I remember when we were preparing to join Malaysia in the early 1960s, going along with my father on constituency visits – the “fang wen” tours he made to every corner of Singapore. For him, it was backbreaking work, week after week, every weekend, rallying the people’s support for a supremely important decision about Singapore’s future. For me, these were not just Sunday outings, but also an early political education.

I remember election night in 1963, the crucial general election when the PAP defeated the pro-communist Barisan Sosialis. My mother sent me to bed early, but I lay awake to listen to the election results until the PAP had won enough seats to form the government again. And then I think I fell asleep.

I remember the day he told me, while we were playing golf at the Istana, that should anything happen to him, he wanted me to look after my mother and my younger brother and sister.

I remember the night the children slept on the floor in my parents’ bedroom at Temasek House in Kuala Lumpur, because the house was full of ministers who had come up from Singapore. Every so often my father would get up from the bed to make a note about something, before lying down to rest again. But obviously he wasn’t asleep. That day was 7 August 1965, two days before Separation.

Growing up with my father, living through those years with him, made me what I am.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. We all wanted Mr Lee to be present with us on August 9 to celebrate this milestone. More than anybody else, it was he who fought for multiracialism, which ultimately led to our independence, as a sovereign republic. It was he who united our people, built a nation, and made our 50th anniversary worth celebrating. Sadly, it is not to be.

But we can feel proud and happy that Mr Lee lived to see his life’s work come to fruition. At last year’s National Day Parade, when Mr Lee appeared and waved, the crowd gave him the most deafening cheer of the whole parade. Last November, the People’s Action Party celebrated its diamond anniversary at the Victoria Concert Hall, where Mr Lee founded the party 60 years ago. Party members were so happy to see that Mr Lee could be there. They gave him a rousing, emotional standing ovation. Those of us who were there will never forget it.

St Paul’s Cathedral in London was built by Sir Christopher Wren, that famous architect. He was the architect, and he buried in the cathedral, his life’s work. The Latin epitaph on his grave reads: si monumentum requiris, circumspice (If you seek his monument, look around you). Mr Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore. To those who seek Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s monument, Singaporeans can reply proudly: “look around you”.

I said the light that has guided us all these years has been extinguished. But that is not quite so. For Mr Lee’s principles and ideals continue to invigorate this Government and to guide our people. His life will inspire Singaporeans, and others, for generations to come.

Mr Lee once said that “we intend to see that (Singapore) will be here a thousand years from now. And that is your duty and mine”. Mr Lee has done his duty, and more. It remains our duty to continue his life’s work, to carry the torch forward and keep the flame burning bright.

Over the past month, the outpouring of good wishes, prayers and support from Singaporeans as Mr Lee lay ill has been overwhelming, and even more so since he passed away on Monday. People of all races, from all walks of life, young and old, here and abroad – hundreds of thousands queued patiently for hours, in the hot sun and through the night, to pay respects to him at the Parliament House.

I visited the queue at the Padang. Many Singaporeans and not so few non-Singaporeans, came out of deep respect and compulsion…Many more penned messages and took part in tribute ceremonies at community sites all over the island. Thousands of overseas Singaporeans gathered in our embassies and consulates to remember Mr Lee. At the end of this funeral service, all of us – in this hall, across our island, and in far flung lands – will observe a minute of silence, say the National Pledge, and sing Majulah Singapura together.

We have all lost a father. Together, we have grieved as one people, one nation. We are all in grief. But in our grief, we have displayed the best of Mr Lee’s Singapore. Everyday Singaporeans, going to great lengths to share refreshments and umbrellas with the crowd, helping each other in the queue, late into the night. Citizen soldiers, Home Team, cleaners, all working tirelessly round the clock.  Our shared sorrow has brought us together, and made us stronger and more resolute.

We came together not only to mourn. Together, we celebrate Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s long and full life, and what he has achieved with us, his people in Singapore.

Let us continue building this exceptional country. Let us shape this island nation into a great metropolis reflecting the ideals he fought for, realising the dreams he inspired, and worthy of the people who have made Singapore our home and nation.

Thank you Mr Lee Kuan Yew. May you rest in peace.