Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaking at the People's Action Party pre-election rally at Hong Lim Green in 1959. — ST PHOTO
RETIRED diplomat Joe Conceicao recalls a recent function he attended where Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew was present. The conversation turned briefly to Mr Lee's 80th birthday, and the former Katong MP remarked to the former Prime Minister that "people are talking about wanting to build monuments and statues and what-have-you". Mr Lee looked him in the eye and gave a response that drew from an 1818 sonnet by Percy Bsysshe Shelley. "Remember Joe," he said, "remember Ozymandias".
Remember who? Ozymandias was an Egyptian pharaoh with a penchant for self-aggrandising monuments. The boast etched in a plaque below his statue commanded lesser mortals to "look on my works". Only that the vastness of desert sands is all that remains visible: no empire, no monuments, no great works. And the statue of Ozymandias lies half-buried in sand, wrecked and decayed.
In his advice to "remember Ozymandias", Singapore's own political colossus was cautioning against hubris, said Mr Conceicao, 79.
"He sees the course of history as more important. He wants none of these honours and edifices. He wants what he has done to last."
That obsession with Singapore's survival means that, after almost 50 years in public life, Mr Lee is showing no sign of quitting. For most Singaporeans, his looming presence has been a more permanent fixture than any physical landmark - the one constant in a fast-changing society.
But, then again, is the Lee Kuan Yew of today the same as the Lee Kuan Yew of the 1960s, or the 1980s? In some respects, he continues to adhere to many of the same principles that guided his and Singapore's journey from Third- to First-World status. Yet, even at 80, when many others have long lost steam or departed the scene, he continues to be a work-in-progress: evolving and re-inventing himself to fit the times.
Photographs and newsreel footage show his transformation from brilliant student and lawyer to pugnacious nationalist politician, from a young, stern, no-nonsense Prime Minister, to elder statesman, author and global adviser.
People say that he has mellowed with age.
One who has watched this happen is Mr Leong Chun Loong, a grassroots leader who has served in Mr Lee's Tanjong Pagar ward for 30 years.
Way back then, it was not uncommon to see the prime minister's temper flare. At one legendary National Day event, for example, some problems cropped up with seating arrangements and several guests were unhappy and passed comments.
Mr Leong recalls that Mr Lee said something to the effect that "if you guys cannot do a simple activity like that, how can you organise a country?"
Now, however, there are times when Mr Lee will say "never mind, let them make mistakes", according to Mr Leong, 67, the managing director of an electrical engineering company.
"In the last 10 to 15 years, he's definitely more patient. He listens to you. Sometimes, he will tell you what he doesn't agree with, sometimes, he will just smile," he adds. "The change is quite understandable. As people grow older, they take things easier. The other reason is that he understands there is a change in the constituency. There are younger people, and you must change to suit their needs."
To Mr Viswa Sadasivan, a media professional, Mr Lee's ability to adapt is one of his greatest strengths. "The fact that he learnt how to use the PC and the Internet when he was in his 70s and later successfully chatted with youth on the Net illustrates this," he says.
Dr Wang Kai Yuen, an MP since 1984, adds that Mr Lee has learnt to moderate his perfectionist demands on the people around him.
"He always said that joining the PAP is like joining the priesthood. But by the time I joined, I could see some acceptance on his part that not all human beings are or can be like him," he says.
"I think he might have come to accept that if he used the same standard to judge everyone and MPs, he won't get too many."
Banker Wee Cho Yaw says: "He appears to be less combative and more tolerant of contrary views."
Mr Sadasivan, who as a broadcast journalist covered Mr Lee in the 1980s and 1990s, is also struck by the Senior Minister's increased willingness to talk about personal matters.
"This was the single biggest change I saw: Becoming more comfortable with his personal, private life coming out into the open - something which he was very strict about as he believed it was indulgent."
Nobody, however, is under any illusions that Mr Lee has become soft. People continue to keep a respectful, even fearful, distance.
"There's such an aura around him. When you get near him, you don't know what to do," says Mr Leong.
Younger MPs are similarly intimidated, says Dr Wang. "He's always thinking philosophy... 'cheem' topics. He is someone who doesn't really enjoy small talk," he notes.
"And he might ask you a question that he has been thinking about...and it's not a good situation to be in if your response indicates that you have not thought it through.
"All of us are aware that if you don't know the answer, you'd better say I don't know, instead of saying something."
Such is Mr Lee's aura that many of the individuals who were interviewed for this piece - whether former ministers, MPs, civil servants or community leaders - remained measured, proper and guarded in their assessment of him.
But they speak of a man who remains visibly and inextricably rooted to Singapore's body-politic, who has dictated social norms and economic philosophy, and may continue to do so for the forseeable future.
Mr Lee's basic ideas remain unchanged, they say.
High among these is his belief that government is about practical things.
His former press secretary, James Fu, 70, notes that his early and basic focus had been to develop the dignity of the individual providing for shi (food), zhu (shelter), yi (clothing) and xing (transport). This very Asian outlook was evident years later, during the Great Marriage Debate over unmarried graduate women.
The issue still weighs on him, says former Senior Minister of State Ch'ng Jit Koon, 69. "When he meets former MPs, he asks about their families and children... and when he finds out that the children, especially daughters, are still not married, my goodness! The population growth is still in his mind."
Much as he has mellowed and taken a back seat, Mr Lee continues to be driven by the very same concerns that nagged at him when he and his colleagues set off on the road to Independence: Singapore's continued existence and survival.
"He remains totally and absolutely committed to Singapore. This is the single most constant thing about him," says Mr Wee, chairman and chief executive officer of the United Overseas Bank. "I think he spends his every waking hour thinking of the country, its problems and its future."
As Ayer Rajah MP Tan Cheng Bock sees it, Mr Lee's mind is always focused or preoccupied with keeping Singapore in good stead.
"He spent his whole life thinking about it, now even more with all this Sars, terrorism, and now, the economy. He's in everything."
Or, as former Senior Minister of State Lee Khoon Choy puts it, there has never been someone who has been more concerned about Singapore's welfare and interest than Mr Lee.
"Day and night, he's thinking of Singapore. Day and night."
Policymakers from around the world are often intrigued by Singapore's transformation over the last half-century, much of this with the city-state's first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, at the helm. The chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities, Mr Liu Thai Ker, spoke with Mr Lee on Aug 31 2012. Looking back, Mr Lee called the opportunity to redevelop the entire city the "chance of a lifetime".
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (right in foreground) on a tour of Jurong Industrial Estate with a group including Yang di-Pertuan Negara Tun Yusof Ishak (second from left), Economic Development Board chairman Hon Sui Sen (left) and Public Services Commission chairman Phay Seng Whatt (fourth from left) in 1964. — ST PHOTO
Liu Thai Ker: You are certainly the key architect for the way Singapore is today. A lot of developing cities want to know how we got started. How did we get ourselves on the right footing?
Lee Kuan Yew: I learnt from negative examples. Hong Kong has crowded, tall buildings, you seldom get sunshine in the streets, no greenery. So that's something we must avoid. I also watched how the French cities did their underground roads... and we had teams going out along the equator to collect various plants that will thrive in Singapore so we would have variety... We are not the only city. There are thousands of other cities and we can see the mistakes they have made. We can also see what they have done right.
Liu: What do you think were the critical success factors for Singapore?
Lee: First, you must have an efficient administration... It cannot be one-off. It has to be regularly done and there must be an organisation or several organisations that see to this.
We started rebuilding Singapore, and the two big organisations were the Housing and Development Board, and later on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)...
(In contrast, China faces problems with resettlement) because there is no special agency that will build the new houses and coordinate it with the road builders and the tree planters. I think URA and HDB, plus the Garden City Action Committee, played crucial roles.
Second, it must be a level playing field for all... You must have a society that people believe is fair. We have a heterogeneous population - Chinese, Indians, Malays and others - so policy is colour-blind...
A crucial thing is not to allow clever developers to corner large pieces of land at critical areas, waiting for the development. We forestalled them to prevent exploitation of fellow men. (State land was sold with a condition that it be developed in a specified period, to discourage speculation.)
Third, it must be corruption-free... The basis for that was a non-corrupt bureaucracy, especially the police, heavy penalties for corruption, rigorous enforcement of the law. Today, people accept it as a fact - you've just got to obey the law...
There are no haphazard buildings, like in Bangkok, Jakarta or even Kuala Lumpur, where you've got two tall towers and then squatters all around. There's a definite plan, and we stuck with the plan. There is no corruption and nobody can deviate from the plans. A building that is not in accordance with the plan cannot be allowed. Those were the basics, and that's how we started.
Liu: Were there special opportunities that helped Singapore to be developed?
Lee: We became a hub because of the convenience. For shipping, you have to pass Singapore, it's the southernmost point (of continental Asia)... We were poor and we were underdeveloped, so we had to work hard... The chance (to industrialise) came with the British military withdrawal in 1971. They surrendered to us the land they were holding. So we had the Bases Conversion Unit, with (former minister of finance) Hon Sui Sen as the head. He knew all about land and we entrusted to him the work of planning, where to build what on these vacant spaces.
Mr Lee's visit to Bedok New Town on June 15, 1980. He is accompanied by Mrs Lee and Mr Liu. — PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIU THAI KER
Liu: What were the key obstacles that you faced at different stages?
Lee: The key obstacles were a lack of land, and the high cost of compensation for coastal land. So we passed a law that said that when government acquires coastal land, we compensate without taking into account that it's by the seaside. (The Foreshores Act was amended in 1964 to end compensation to landowners for their loss of sea frontage.)
The market was at an all-time low at that time and so we acquired large tracts of land. They were lying fallow - investors were waiting for the climate to change so they could manipulate and sell it at a big price.
We just acquired as many large pieces of land as possible and claimed the right to reclaim coastal areas... Jurong was a swamp, which we reclaimed. I think there's a picture of me and Hon Sui Sen in Jurong and I was pointing towards it...
So the coastline changed and that accounts for Paya Lebar. We abandoned Paya Lebar as the main airport in favour of Changi, and with the East Coast Parkway, you can get from the airport to the city in 20 minutes. These are basic infrastructures.
Unless they are in place, it's very difficult to overcome the obstacles, so they must be in place early. You must have the infrastructure right and that was made possible because we reclaimed coastal land without paying high compensation and so we had a brand-new airport, and a brand-new East Coast Parkway.
Mr Liu Thai Ker on Mr Lee Kuan Yew's courage to defy world trends in the 1970s, taking the decision to build high-rise, high density housing so that Singaporeans can enjoy full home ownership.
I feel that land acquisition is an example of our very creative, far-sighted, unconventional legal system, which is one of the key factors to our success story. What would you say about that? (The 1966 Land Acquisition Act lets the Government pay compensation for land it acquires based on current value and zoning. Landowners may question the compensation value, but not the acquisition itself.)
I anticipated these problems. At the low point (in the property market), people gave up on Singapore and said, "this place is going down the drain", and property prices went down. So I pushed this legislation through. It's probably because of my legal background that I wanted to get the legality of what we were doing properly entrenched, so it cannot be varied and changed for fickle reasons.
You've got to look ahead and forestall or pre-empt the problems. I mean, if we did not introduce the certificate of entitlement (a vehicle quota system begun in 1990) at a time when the public could not afford cars as much, you could not do it now without a big row - because you can't get people to give up their cars.
But we did it when the cars were few. Today, it's accepted as a fact. If you want the roads to be free, you've got to pay for the right to use the roads.
Create a sense of safety, a sense of feeling comfortable in this place. It is no use having good surroundings, if you are afraid all the time. I went to New York's Central Park, and you felt unsafe... The police force must be effective, not visible. We have neighbourhood police posts - police who know the people in that neighbourhood, so they know when strangers come in. It is easier to prevent people from going to another place where they are not recognised and committing crimes, because if you are not from the neighbourhood and you come in, you are noticed... Today, a woman can go jogging at three o'clock in the morning, and she would not be raped. It is an essential part of a liveable city.
Liu: What are your current concerns about the urban development of Singapore?
Lee: I think the large influx of immigrants has disturbed the population. But if you don't bring in these people, at the rate we're reproducing ourselves, we will cease to exist in two generations. So you've got to balance this rate of inflow and the discomfort of seeing unfamiliar faces in crowded trains and buses.
So we must have the immigrants to keep the place young, make the economy grow and look after the old. They are willing to sacrifice and work hard, they want to succeed. So they set the pace and the competition.
Liu: In terms of urban development, what are you most pleased with?
Lee: I'm pleased that we redeveloped the city when there was a chance to do it. We knocked down Outram Prison in the west, we started from Changi in the east and worked towards the centre and rebuilt the whole city. And the big heritage sites in the city like Fullerton Building, we left those alone.
That was a chance of a lifetime.
I was born in Malaysia, but became a Singapore citizen in 2008.
Immigration officials who processed my application were surprised by it, since I was stationed in Hong Kong at the time.
"Why do you want citizenship?" they asked.
Before the posting to Hong Kong, I spent 3 1/2 years working and living in Singapore. I had tremendous respect for the government and the country.
I replied without hesitation: "Because I choose Singapore as my home. I know I want to spend the rest of my life here."
I moved back to Singapore in 2010.
Born and bred Singaporeans sometimes may not come to appreciate Singapore the way immigrants do - simply because immigrants have seen how bad things can get in other countries.
The only competitive advantage this country has is a good government, which has spawned good schools, the rule of law, meritocracy and corporate governance, which have in turn brought high-end investments here. These investments have raised the standard of living for all.
At the heart of good government, of course, is Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Through his brilliance and sheer tenacity, he has proven that one man can make a difference. He took the poorest country in Asean (by gross domestic product per capita) and made it the richest.
I watched the National Day Parade this year from my new office on the 46th floor of the Marina Bay Financial Centre, which has a breathtaking view of the bay. The development of the bay area is a story in itself - of how Singapore can create value from little more than air, water and earth.
When Majulah Singapura was played, I sang it with my right hand to my chest. I sang it with pride because I love my new home country.
I am a product of the late 1970s. At the edge of Gen X, not quite Gen Y.
Those in my generation have parents who are part of the "grateful old" - a term I coined not to offend, but in recognition of the fact that they had witnessed the transition from what was to what is under the rule of the PAP.
But my peers and I grew up in a different era. We read English literature and watched American sitcoms. For us, leaders are not idolised, change is openly embraced and alternative opinions are often taken to be "cool" and to be a sign that one has personality.
As we entered the workforce, we heard phrases such as "Lee dynasty" and "false democracy".
Suddenly, it was deemed intellectual for one to have another opinion about the man behind the Singapore Story.
Human rights and freedom of the press were pressing issues of the day for my generation - not wealth or capitalism. Mr Nelson Mandela won universal reverence, as did Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. What about Mr Lee Kuan Yew?
In the midst of this, I remembered my father's advice, that I should always strive to have a mind of my own.
I believed it took special insight, otherwise known as wisdom, that comes only with time, to pass judgments or form opinions. More so on a man. I remained circumspect then.
Today, I do not see myself as a direct result of Mr Lee's exceptional accomplishments. I do, however, look to the people whom I love the most as living testimonials of his legacy.
My mother once lived in what was effectively an illegal opium den, but later moved into a beautiful HUDC apartment by working long hours and walking home to save on 25-cent bus trips.
My father washed dishes to pay for his doctoral studies, but later could afford to take us on holidays to Malaysia and, eventually, New Zealand.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, the patron of Business China, enjoying a conversation with Business China Young Achiever Award winner Stefanie Sun, a singer, and Business China Excellence Award winner Tao Shing Pee, a property tycoon, during the awards ceremony at the Shangri-La Hotel on Jan 10, 2011. — ST PHOTO
Eventually, my son will have a shot at making it to the best university in Asia.
He will be able to afford an HDB flat on his own and will enjoy beautiful greenery and waterways wherever he chooses to work or live in Singapore.
He will not have to worry constantly about air pollution, clean water and two-hour-long traffic jams. And he will be secure in the knowledge that hard work, good ethics and a good education will get him somewhere.
Perhaps these have come to be taken as basic expectations of many of my fellow Singaporeans. But these are needs that I have decided are important to me and my loved ones, now and for the future.
I remember vividly my meetings with Mr Lee. Some were formal and austere, rather quiet and awkward - or at least in my imagination. But there were also fleeting moments of intimate friendliness and genuine warmth.
It was hard to not be in awe of this man. I remember thinking to myself: This must be what it feels like to be a fan.
I remember one incident when we were to be photographed together. As I kept a respectful distance, he impatiently asked me to move closer to him.
Another time, he was in good spirits and asked me jovially who was the lucky man whom I was married to.
I like a smiling Harry. (This is how I address him - a rather rude way, I know, to speak to the founding father of Singapore, and therefore, I do it only in private.)
It felt like a very precious moment for me.
I remember singing his wife's favourite song, Que Sera Sera, at the Business China Awards in 2011, not long after her demise. (Senior Minister of State) Josephine Teo later told me in private that she saw tears in his eyes. That was probably one of my proudest moments as a singer.
Young Singaporeans have less of an emotional connection to Mr Lee Kuan Yew than do their parents or grandparents.
By the time I was in my formative years, Mr Lee had long stepped down as prime minister. I came to know him better through books, articles and videos.
But the assumption that we therefore are less appreciative of his contributions to this country can sometimes be overstated.
I know many young people - myself included - who are excited to see Mr Lee at public events and at National Day Parades.
I don't agree with Mr Lee on every issue.
For example, he thinks dialects complicate the learning of Mandarin. I believe reviving dialects will in fact raise Mandarin standards while strengthening our cultural roots.
Yet, differences in opinion do not affect my respect for him.
I met Mr Lee in a closed-door dialogue with young Singaporeans at the Pyramid Club in 2006.
I was struck by the speed at which he responded to questions. His intellectual horsepower and the firmness of his views were also a breath of fresh air at a time when leaders globally tend to be well-spoken lightweights who frequently flip-flop or repeat crowd-pleasers.
In recent years, some young people have shown a desire to rebel against the conventional narrative of Singapore's history, which is centred on Mr Lee and his People's Action Party team.
They believe history's underdogs - such as the leftists of the 1950s and 1960s - have not been duly recognised for their contribution to the Singapore story. I fully agree with the thinking behind this revival, which has spawned books and films featuring alternative accounts of history.
But in their eagerness to correct what they saw as wrong, some have cynically gone to the other extreme by attempting to erase what Mr Lee and his team have done. There is no historical basis for that. Would not the second injustice be at least as grave, if not more grave, than the first?
History has a place for everyone. In my mind, Mr Lee will always be a most distinguished trailblazer with visionary foresight.
Singapore and its people owe a lot to Mr Lee Kuan Yew for getting the country to where it is today.
In 1959, Minister for National Development, Mr Ong Eng Guan, announced a gigantic $415-million government-building programme extending over the next five years. The plan would provide for 83,647 units, which were almost three times of the output of the Singapore Improvement Trust in the past 12 years, to accommodate at least 420,000 people. The plan was announced when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was touring several housing estates. — ST PHOTO: HAN HAI FONG
SINCE he initiated Tree Planting Day back in 1971, Mr Lee Kuan Yew would mark it each year by planting a seedling somewhere on the island in an informal ceremony.
In the early years, Mr Lee, Singapore's first Prime Minister, was shown wearing rubber boots at this annual ritual. The ground was likely to be muddy. But by the late 1970s or early 1980s, he would often be shown planting a seedling in a polo shirt, white shorts, and a pair of track shoes.
Some time in the mid-1980s, when I thought I should start jogging, I went out and bought myself a relatively costly pair of New Balance running shoes. I bought New Balance because that was the brand Mr Lee was shown wearing in the tree-planting picture that year.
One of the attractions of my East Coast condominium was its large swimming pool. I had always feared going near water, but a remark made by Mr Lee in 1977 stung me, and I was determined to learn to swim.
At the opening of a new Police Academy swimming pool early that year, the Prime Minister said: "If you can't swim when we are surrounded by water and have a multitude of swimming pools, it is ridiculous."
That statement made me feel inadequate, and it stayed with me. So eight years later, when I moved into the condominium, with a pool literally in my backyard, I had no more reason to postpone learning to swim.
A colleague recommended a coach at a pool near my office. I went to him dutifully twice a week after work, until I had learnt at least the breast stroke and could do laps.
It was in the mid-1980s that I bought the condominium apartment. I was never a saver, but there was enough money accumulated in my Central Provident Fund account which, together with a housing loan from my company, allowed me to purchase the studio apartment.
I was 35, and I had my own private property. It was an arrival of sorts. The best part was, I didn't have to scrimp and save for it. It made me grateful for the CPF policy.
That a good part of an employee's salary should go into the CPF was Mr Lee's idea.
His lieutenant, Dr Goh Keng Swee, the economic architect of modern Singapore, had, by the end of the 1960s, assessed that the new nation was going to succeed in its economic take-off. Workers' wages would rise rapidly as multi-national companies were being wooed to set up shop here.
There would also be such a desperate shortage of workers that Singapore would have to import workers from Malaysia, he told an audience of university students. It sounded like bombast at the time.
But as surely as he had predicted, wages shot up during that decade, and thousands of Malaysians crossed the Causeway to work in factories which were set up here.
They rose again in the 1980s, when Mr Lee and Dr Goh shifted gears, moving Singapore's industrialisation up the value chain.
If Dr Goh had the foresight, it was Mr Lee who had the vision to see that if a significant portion of the wage increases were siphoned off into the CPF, the money could be put to good use in their nation-building project.
But in the first place, the MNCs had to want to come. As the Chinese say, you have to "zao chao ying feng", or build the nest so that the phoenix will come to lay its golden eggs.
So the infrastructure had to be put in place, and the people mobilised. Singapore had to show itself to be a safe and orderly place, its people disciplined and industrious. And so much the better if it could also be a secure financial hub in the region.
All this my leaders worked at and succeeded, against many odds.
Mr Lee's CPF idea proved to be a successful formula: in less than two decades, more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans got to own their HDB flats.
The enforced savings scheme had served the country well. But the world has turned. What had once helped made Singapore a winner could now hobble it, if no changes were made. Hence, the slaughter of what was once a sacred cow by the Goh Chok Tong government last month.
The many changes to the CPF will have some impact on me, a bachelor past his sell-by date, but not as much as it will have on those who have families or who are younger.
Until I owned my first home, I had felt myself a misfit in Mr Lee Kuan Yew's new rugged society. Adrift, I sought security in the company of a group of other misfits, who sought escape through drugs and rock n' roll.
It was the Age of Aquarius, after all. We mimicked the Western counterculture youths, unaware that closer to home, in China, people of our age and younger were wrecking the country in a revolution that could spill over its Great Wall.
At the same time, American soldiers as young as we were were stopping over in Singapore, before they were flown off to fight the war in Vietnam. The convulsions in China and the Vietnam War could have caused havoc in a very vulnerable South-east Asia.
As it was, Indonesia was going through a massive upheaval of its own, as its first president Sukarno was deposed in an army coup, and replaced by Suharto. For two years, the country was plunged into chaos, and there was blood on the streets. More than a million people, many of them innocent, were killed in a fit of anti-communist madness.
It was against this turbulent backdrop that Prime Minister Lee and his team set about remaking colonial Singapore.
It was a profound undertaking. People were uprooted en masse and moved into simple but functional HDB high-rise blocks, which were being built as quickly as the bulldozers could move into their ramshackle squatters.
Those people who had lived with pigs and fowl suddenly found they could no longer do so. Elderly folks like my grandmother found themselves prisoners in their new high-rise homes, because they feared taking the lifts.
The Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian enclaves were broken up, as the people found themselves with new neighbours who were of different races. I moved from a shophouse to a three-room HDB flat. An Indian family was my next-door neighbour.
No one's life was left untouched in the re-ordering of Singapore. Old ways of life had to make way for the new. The adjustment was not easy for many people, and there were those who were dislocated, like myself. Talk about mindset change!
Yet, the people trusted the small band of men who had planned this massive disruption to their fairly routine, if generally meagre, post-war lives. On them, they pinned their hope for a better future.
For those of us growing up at the time, we found that suddenly, many of our familiar landmarks were wiped out in the fast-changing landscape. Schools, kampungs, favourite hang-out spots - they disappeared overnight. We lost all points of reference.
Well, not quite. There was one point of reference which loomed over us, and never got out of sight. We could run, but we could not hide from Mr Lee Kuan Yew, our fearless but most fearsome Prime Minister.
He was indefatigable in the way he drove us. Open the newspapers and turn on the radio, and there he was, exhorting us to work harder, to be more disciplined, to be rugged, to use our hands, and to cut our hair. When we had TV, he popped up on the small screen, repeating his exhortations. But such was his charisma and so palpable was his passion that few of us switched him off. The two comics, Wang Sha and Ye Feng, provided relief in between.
Mr Lee set impossibly high standards, then kept raising the bar each time his people cleared it.
Yet, harsh as he was, he believed everyone counted in the Great Singapore Race, and he spurred those who were dislocated, who tripped and were left behind, to catch up.
And when you did, effort turned into exhilaration. You found yourself in a fast winning team, snapping at the heels of the bigger teams ahead of you.
When I began to have the means to travel and visit other post-colonial societies, I could compare myself with my peers in those countries. Sadly, their lot was invariably a much meaner one than mine. They had suffered disorder, were denied education, and now, as adults, were mired in poverty.
Their revolutionary leaders proved to be poor administrators when they took power. They could not contain the communal tensions of the different races of people who had been brought together by empire, and held down for so long by it. They watched helplessly as these tensions exploded into bloody strife. Meanwhile, they nationalised all businesses, and ran down whatever resources the colonialists had left behind.
Ambitious projects were started but left unfinished. Broken-down vehicles and other mechanical junk littered the landscape.
The squalor in these places was picturesque to well-fed tourists, in the way ours was in the early 1960s, when the natives were out in the streets till late at night, only because their living quarters were often too cramped to even sleep in.
I saw that my leaders had made the right bets when they formed the government. They followed no doctrine, choosing only what worked. And they were very clear about their goal: to build an orderly and prosperous society, whose people share a common destiny, and who are ready to defend themselves against others.
To win a battle is one thing. To run a country and keep it in fighting-fit form, that is another altogether.
In that speech at the opening of the Police Academy pool, besides pointing out how every Singaporean should be able to swim, Mr Lee had also said: It was easy to build a pool, but to keep the changing rooms, the shower stalls and the toilets clean and functioning, required constant maintenance. These were the areas not seen by the public, but the users would know if they were not properly maintained.
This was a signature riff of Mr Lee's: build, maintain, and make sure everything works, all the time.
It is to have that quality which the British historian Arnold Toynbee calls "the arduousness of excellence". A slackening of the will, a dampening of the ardour, and all that is excellent, that has taken years to build, can be turned to ruins.
Today's asset-rich and cash-poor Singaporeans who are stuck with a second property should know how quickly dereliction sets in when a tenant cannot be found and the place is left vacant.
In his tome, A Study Of History - I must confess I have only the abridged edition - Toynbee cites as example the once remarkable system of irrigation in Ceylon. An astounding achievement in early civil engineering, it was developed by the Sinhalese over many generations.
"But this fertile countryside survived in its man-made state only so long as Man did not relax his grip upon his hostile environment.
"When the internecine wars of the 11th century...destroyed the tank-building dynasty and checked the continuous human exertions which had been required to produce and maintain this miraculous transformation in the face of Nature, those irrigated and cultivated and populated plains relapsed into their primeval state..."
I visited Sri Lanka in 1980.
There was civil strife, as the Tamil minority, who saw themselves marginalised by the Sinhalese leadership, raged against the Sinhalese majority.
It was such a lovely country, but such a sad state of affairs. Everywhere I turned, I saw poverty.
On a sunny morning, when I was in Cambridge on a two-month fellowship programme, I chanced upon a gathering of students in a college rectangle, happy and busy preparing themselves for the convocation ceremony.
Watching them, I felt a stab of sadness. I wished I had won a glamorous government scholarship after I had finished my pre-university examinations, and sent over here. But I did not even go on to the university at home. I was here now, but it was 25 years too late.
In Mr Lee's Singapore, to be a government scholar was to belong to a select mandarin class. Those outside of the class were what Hollywood used to call a cast of thousands, before technology made the minimum-wage extras redundant. Rightly or wrongly, that was how many of us non-scholars felt.
We were "chow ka peng", as they said in the Hokkien platoons in the old National Service days, or unwashed foot-soldiers. But Mr Lee had taught us well. Over the years, we had internalised at least some of his values. We were not going to be content to stay in our ranks and "cari makan", earn a livelihood.
We might not have the stuff to make it to generals, but we would fight to become captains or majors, in our own ways.
If we could not get into the scholar mandarin suite, we wanted access at least to the officers' mess. The privilege would come with responsibilities, but we would bear them.
It was largely unspoken, but it was a challenge many of us responded to - "look me no up, is it?" - and not an insignificant number of us have made the officer grade.
So what has been generally seen as an elitist policy has worked its magic of levelling up the society. When you pretend to be egalitarian, as in the former communist states, it goes the other way round. You lower the people to the mean, then you find you have to keep lowering the mean, because that is the way human nature is, and you get caught in a slippery spiral down to the bottom of the well.
I cannot say I am Mr Lee Kuan Yew's ideal Singaporean - not too bright, not rugged enough, not married, so not a father - but my life has been given meaning, and my patch of real estate is worth more than just its price in hard cash.
How many men in their mid-50s in other post-colonial societies can boast of a similar sweet spot? The sad fact is, many are no longer around, they had perished in the upheavals that took over their countries following the end of empire.
I do owe Mr Lee.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew and members of the PAP Cabinet photographed outside the City Hall after the swearing-n ceremony on June 5, 1959: (from far left) Yong Nyuk Lin, Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, Lee Kuan Yew, Ong Eng Guan, Ahmad Ibrahim, K. M. Byrne, Ong Pang Boon and S. Rajaratnam. — ST PHOTO
IT is troubled times that produce the great men, thinkers, writers. People say the Swiss are very happy people, relaxed. And for a long time, they were remembered for having produced the cuckoo clock, whereas a turbulent Russia has produced Tolstoy, great writers and musicians.
In Singapore's early years, we went through some difficult times.
And we needed somebody like Lee Kuan Yew, who's strong and, if I may say so, can be ruthless when he needed to be to get things done.
I think Singapore is very fortunate that when it was at a low point after we left Malaysia, that men such as Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee were here and able to do what was needed.
It remains very characteristic of Kuan Yew that when you accept to do a job, you do it well - or else don't accept the position if you're incapable of doing it.
You do it well or not at all. That is how that generation thought, and it is what they lived by. There is no room for fakes and pretenders. Even today.
My generation will always regard him highly.
If not for him, and I will always add Keng Swee, I think Singapore will not be what it is today.
When it was needed, Singapore had the men to shape and develop it although we had no resources, except a good harbour, good geographical position and hardworking people.
He knew what needed to be done: order, firm rule, authoritarian if necessary, to allow Singapore to develop economically.
Incidently, the late James Puthucheary - a founding PAP member who crossed over to the Barisan - once told me in Kuala Lumpur, where I was High Commissioner, that even if the Barisan had come to power, they could not have done for Singapore what Kuan Yew did.
That is a tremendous compliment, coming from James.
And it is a tribute to Kuan Yew's leadership, his ability.
Can you imagine what the situation would have been without his leadership and Keng Swee's economic genius?
When they took over the Government, we were practically bankrupt.
Kuan Yew emerged naturally as party leader, and others accepted him. He would take charge of any meeting, with his ideas, eloquence and command of the language.
I hear it was a free-flowing discussion in Cabinet. But once they made a decision, everyone supported it.
This collective responsibility has carried over to today.
The PAP was confronted by the communists, and to overcome them, they had to be united. Any disagreements among themselves might have led to disaster.
There were always fresh challenges ahead. It was highly doubtful if we would succeed after the separation from Malaysia.
But we had the right leaders: Kuan Yew, the creative genius of Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen, S. Rajaratnam, Eddie Barker, Toh Chin Chye.
As leader, he also, in the course of time, built up the next generation. And he was far-sighted in making way when the time came for the next generation of leaders, who were carefully selected.
He has stepped aside. But he'll be consulted, because his imprint, values, determination are still there.
Although some people have criticised the fact that he places great store on academic achievements, this is understandable, given his own achievements. His wife is also brilliant academically, and so are his children.
Has he changed on this?
I'd like to think that with age, he's grown more tolerant and philosophical - although there are moments when he tends to give no quarter to the opposition.
I first came to know him in 1940, when I was already in Raffles College, which was something of a seedbed for the future leaders in Singapore and Malaysia.
The year he joined us was also when Tun Abdul Razak joined. So that cohort, in fact, produced two Prime Ministers.
Sui Sen, Keng Swee, Eddie Barker, Toh Chin Chye were all also there. So too were Ghazali Shafie, Khadir Yusof. All became very prominent.
The British idea had been to provide a basic minimum: educate locals to a point where they could become clerks, schoolmasters and the like. There was this discrimination - not allowing Asian talent to emerge to challenge them. That rankled us.
Kuan Yew was out to prove, to show, as he says, that the Chinaman is as good as the white man. And he did it, of course, in Cambridge, when he beat them all with his First Class degree.
The fact that the Japanese could defeat the British opened our eyes. It certainly influenced Kuan Yew and those who eventually became political leaders. So did India's independence in 1947.
Maybe you can say they were rebels by nature.
However, they had to wait until they had full educational qualifications, which they acquired at Raffles College and later in Britain, before they could organise themselves.
What was different on their return from Britain was that they had proven themselves there: that as students, they were as good as any white man. That was a test.
The chaps that returned were all bright fellows. And David Marshall, Lim Yew Hock were ahead of them. So they watched them, saw how things were developing.
But Kuan Yew also had ambition. He knew that unless you go into politics, you are not going to achieve anything. Keng Swee also.
The idea was to work through the trade unions to gain ground support before aiming for political power. And Kuan Yew becoming the leading legal adviser to unions was important in that regard.
But you also had to be tough. The communists had penetrated the unions, and it was touch and go at times. But by then, the PAP had the British on its side.
Still, it was a risk. It was such a disparate society in Singapore at the time, with so many racial groups.
But what pulled them through was determination and taking a chance. As Kuan Yew said, if they had failed, they might well have been put up against a wall and shot.
But they thought it was a risk that had to be taken.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who pulls no punches, respects what he calls 'toughies'. — ST PHOTO
WE FIRST met in November 1956 over a beer at the Island Club. The entire left-wing of the PAP leadership had just been thrown into jail. The party was in a state of crisis. Yet Lee Kuan Yew had taken time off to brief this ignorant newcomer about his plans.
They sounded crazy. He had formed the party with a few English-educated friends to take on two formidable adversaries simultaneously - the British colonial masters of Singapore and the powerful popular front of the pro-communists - with the aim of establishing the island as an independent democratic state.
How could he hope to win?
I had seen (or was soon to see) murderous military rule in Burma, Mao's stifled China, the capricious despotism of Sukarno in Indonesia, the corrupt dictatorship of General Sarit in Thailand and Syngman Rhee in South Korea. His dream simply did not fit into the political scenery. And Singapore was not even a nation, just a small, weak hodge-podge of disparate immigrants. There was no such thing as a "Singaporean".
But I reckoned without Lee, the agile tactician. His detractors say he was an unprincipled opportunist - he befriended the communists and then stabbed them in the back, he professed to be a social democrat, but rejected the welfare state and embraced capitalism. But did Singapore need an inflexible dogmatist? I had seen them at work in nearby Vietnam - hidebound communists in the North, hidebound anti-communists in the South, where the Americans backed a line of corrupt military dictators in the sacred cause of democracy. Dogmatists spelled disaster. And Lee might trim his sails to the wind, but so must any wise captain with his eye on a fixed star if he wants to stay on course.
Paradoxically, his dedication to their ultimate benefit tended to keep him at a certain distance from the people of Singapore. They admired him, but they did not warm to him, for he was no glib politician full of empty promises. "I'm not here to make myself popular," he would say ominously, and proved it. Elected Prime Minister, he at once proceeded to warn potential obstructionists not to get in his way. "I'll fix you," he would say pugnaciously to colonially-minded bureaucrats and conservative editors - it was one of his favourite phrases. Single-minded, he judged men by their usefulness and loyalty to his cause. His friends were almost all political allies. The end was everything.
He was a street fighter who pulled no punches. When the Labour government in London announced that it proposed to withdraw all British forces from Singapore, throwing over 30,000 locals out of work, I found him at the Istana with Goh Keng Swee, livid with rage and uttering dire threats. But when Goh said "Hey, don't talk like that; they'll think we're a bunch of gangsters", he did not protest, but favoured us with a thin smile. He respected what he called "toughies". He was one himself.
He can be relentless when hounding opposition party leaders, but as a lawyer he always keeps strictly within the law, which for him, justifies any action he takes, regardless of its impact. So he pursues them mercilessly - in the courts. He does not appear to worry that, given natural public sympathy for the hounded, he could still be throwing away votes. Meanwhile, he has inspired unswerving loyalty among his followers, surrounding himself with outstanding talent. "He shouts us down; he won't listen," a Cabinet minister once complained to me bitterly, adding: "but he is unquestionably our only leader."
An arrogant boss who "won't listen"? That is a side of him I don't recognise. When he asked me to help him write his memoirs, I spent three days a week for 20 months going through his draft of The Singapore Story, suggesting innumerable changes, ruthlessly cutting more than 10 per cent of the text, even switching chapters.
And he accepted almost every change I proposed, in contrast to Margaret Thatcher, who had summoned my literary agent to advise her on her autobiography, only to give him a 20-minute lecture on how she would write it. Lee Kuan Yew has never been too proud to pick the brains of others before making up his own mind.
He was tireless in pursuit of his goal. Mobilising support for the election of 1963, he toured all of Singapore's 51 constituencies, making speeches to each community in three languages and then moving on to the next, drenched in sweat, changing shifts four times a day, never flagging. My wife, who was recording these tours for television, would come home after midnight utterly exhausted, but exhilarated by the experience.
He had insisted ad nauseam that Singapore's only salvation lay in merging with Malaysia, stressing that it could not exist as a small independent state. But only two years later came separation, and it had to do just that. He had been cruelly hoist by his own petard. I saw him break down during his historic televised press conference on Aug 9, 1965. An emotional man beneath a cool exterior, capable of warm affection and boiling fury, he could not contain his tears.
But then, with his handpicked team behind him, he proceeded to contradict himself flatly by turning the "little red dot" of Singapore into a uniquely successful independent Asian state outside Malaysia, in many ways the envy of all its neighbours.
He has been accused of imposing a "nanny" society on Singaporeans, making them dependent on the Government for all decisions and so incapable of thinking for themselves. It sometimes seemed as if, after its difficult birth, he was reluctant to let his child out of his sight. But the day still came when, unlike so many ageing Asian leaders, he yielded his office to a younger man. He did not quit the arena, however.
Today he is 80 and still going strong. I once asked Rajaratnam if he would ever let up. "You know Harry," was his only reply. Check.
Lee Kuan Yew reminds younger team to look after older generation even as they move forward
When he turned 80 in 2003, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said he would retire from office when he was no longer able to contribute to the Government.
In an interview with The Straits Times to mark his birthday, he was asked, what if no one in Cabinet dared to tell you when that time came.
Mr Lee laughed then, and said: "You don't have to tell me. I can feel it when I am no longer making a contribution."
Yesterday, the Minister Mentor let Singaporeans know that in his judgment, that day has come.
In a statement issued jointly with Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong one week after Singaporeans went to the polls in the 11th General Election since independence, he said:
"After a watershed General Election, we have decided to leave the Cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore."
They asked the younger team of leaders to always have in mind the interests of the older generation, who have contributed to Singapore and must be well-looked after.
The People's Action Party (PAP), which Mr Lee helped found in 1954, first came to power in 1959.
As the party's secretary-general, Mr Lee became Singapore's first prime minister. He was 35 years old.
Six years later, in August 1965, he found himself in charge of a newly independent Singapore, after a failed merger with Malaysia.
Observers did not regard the British trading outpost without a hinterland of its own, as a viable sovereign state.
Yet within a generation, Mr Lee was able to, in the words of former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, transform Singapore from Third World to First.
He and the first-generation leaders grew Singapore's economy, found jobs for the people and rehoused the population.
He led by example to create a culture of clean and incorruptible government.
He set the pace in leadership renewal, which began in the 1970s and proceeded in earnest in the 1980s when the Old Guard ministers made way for younger talent.
In 1990, while still in robust health, Mr Lee, then aged 67, resigned as prime minister and handed over the reins to Mr Goh.
Weeks before the handover, he said in an interview with a foreign magazine, Worldlink: "I think my mission will not be complete until the system has been handed over and works without me. Whether my colleagues and I have succeeded or failed depends upon whether Singapore works without us."
But Mr Lee remained in Cabinet, as senior minister, to share his experience and views with the younger ministers.
He went on to play a key role in shaping a new institution of government, the Elected Presidency, designed as a check on the executive arm's ability to spend the nation's reserves.
He was also behind a policy that has proved controversial to this day - the 1994 decision to benchmark ministerial salaries to top private sector pay.
During the parliamentary debate in November 1994, he said:
"I say this is necessary for Singapore. I say face up to the facts, get a good generation in, get the best of this generation."
In May 2004, Mr Lee became Minister Mentor when his son, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, was appointed Singapore's third Prime Minister.
On his decision to retain the elder Mr Lee in Cabinet, the new PM said he remained "a unique national resource".
His role as Minister Mentor would be that of "a wise and trusted guide, who gives advice and counsel". Younger ministers could continue to draw from his "databank".
Foreign leaders and diplomats also continued to seek out the Minister Mentor for his analyses of international developments, especially those affecting the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite his advancing age, MM Lee travelled overseas regularly to represent Singapore at international conferences and meetings, his reputation always ensuring him an appreciative audience.
But over time, the Minister Mentor's political style began to diverge from how a younger generation of Singaporeans preferred to engage with their leaders.
During the recent election campaign, MM Lee upset many when he warned residents of Aljunied GRC that they would have "five years to live and repent" if they voted for the opposition.
It fell to the Prime Minister to correct this misstep.
At a lunchtime rally at UOB Plaza, PM Lee sought Singaporeans' understanding, saying that MM could not be other than himself in speaking his mind on issues.
He added that he had spoken to the elder Mr Lee that a younger team of leaders would work with Singaporeans in their own way to deliver results.
Last Sunday, a day after the May 7 polls, MM Lee observed at a community event that "2011 has seen a generation that does not remember from whence we came".
"That is to be expected," he said. "But I do and those amongst you who are older than 50 will remember."
"And do not believe that the Singapore flight can be on autopilot. We will run into a storm, we will run into all kinds of emergencies and we must have good pilots on board," he added.
In January, Mr Lee had launched a book, Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, based on 32 hours of interviews with Straits Times journalists.
He wrote in the foreword that his aim was to convince younger Singaporeans, who had never seen harsh economic times or known threats from neighbouring countries, that Singapore must remain strong in its economy and defence to stay safe, and prosper.
Now, Mr Lee has decided he should step back and leave the Prime Minister and his crew to steer the country as they see fit.
One member of Singapore's fourth-generation leadership, Brigadier-General (NS) Tan Chuan-Jin, yesterday said MM Lee and SM Goh's decision means PM Lee can refresh his Cabinet to forge a new Singapore consensus.
"This is part of our efforts to move forward," he wrote in a post on Facebook. "But I have to say with all respect that it is with a very heavy heart that I see this day."
Back in 2003, when he spoke about retiring from office, MM Lee also said that he would remain as a Member of Parliament as long as he was fit and able.
Sir Winston Churchill, he said, had done so long after he retired as prime minister.
"Critical decisions are made in a parliamentary caucus before the vote. I want to speak my mind when it comes," Mr Lee said then.
He could leave office, he added, "but emotionally, I will always be concerned about the future of the people of Singapore".