'Devoted to doing the best for the country'

'Devoted to doing the best for the country'
Mr Sidek Saniff says Mr Lee backed the formation of Mendaki.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew celebrated his 90th birthday on Monday. Elgin Toh speaks to Singaporeans from all walks of life to find out what Singapore's first prime minister means to them personally and what they consider to be his lasting legacy.

Mr Sidek Saniff, 75, is a former senior minister of state for education and environment.

Mr Sidek: IN THE lead-up to the 1976 General Election, I was approached to stand as a candidate for the People's Action Party by Minister of State Yaacob Mohamed and PAP MP Lawrence Sia.

The invitation surprised me as I had been a vocal critic of the PAP Government. I believed they had not done enough to uplift the Malay community, especially in education and in ensuring that Malay students left school with a decent grasp of English.

"Why would Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew ask someone who has been attacking his Government?" I asked.

Haji Yaacob remarked that I did not know the man well. Mr Lee, he said, had a problem if you were criticising for the sake of it. If your motivations were right and you wanted the best for the country, he would work with you.

I would later find this to be true of the man throughout my 25 years in politics.

Some in the Malay community at the time saw my joining the PAP as a betrayal. For them, I had been "bought". But one who is bought has to compromise his beliefs and principles.

Instead, I stayed honest to myself, fighting for the same causes that I had been doing previously on a different platform. This was only possible because Mr Lee listened seriously when there were differences of opinion and could be persuaded to absorb them.

Six years after I entered politics, self-help group Mendaki was formed after strong lobbying from Malay leaders, myself included. Mr Lee supported us and attended the opening ceremony.

In the Education Ministry, where I was senior parliamentary secretary and later senior minister of state, I remember a move by Mr Lee in the 1980s to disclose the breakdown of PSLE and O- level results by ethnicity.

Mr Lee was aware that this might be a sensitive issue for the Malay community and gave instructions that if I could not announce it, a civil servant could do it instead.

I turned down the offer and decided to do it myself because I believed it was the right thing to do.

It was much easier to hide the problem by lumping statistics and pretending that all was fine. But Mr Lee was not interested in what was easier or more popular. He wanted to confront the problem.

In the 10 years after we started announcing results by ethnicity, Malay grades improved significantly, including in mathematics.

As I recall these stories on Mr Lee's 90th birthday, I pay tribute to a man whose whole life has been devoted to building up this country and doing what is right for it. And how well he has succeeded. Happy birthday, Mr Lee.

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