'He worked to help nobodies like me'

'He worked to help nobodies like me'

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 James Ow-Yeong Keen Hoy, 75, is a retiree. He wrote a thank-you letter to Mr Lee last year. It was reproduced in Mr Lee's latest book, One Man's View Of The World.

Mr Ow-Yeong: I WAS born in 1938 and grew up in Chinatown, which used to be known as "Chicago" because it was a messy part of town, rife with gangsterism.

I lived in a cramped room in an old, three-storey wooden house in Neil Road with my parents and six siblings.

It was a crowded house. Each floor had 10 rooms, and each room housed a family like mine. That meant as many as 40 people shared one toilet and one kitchen. Imagine the living conditions!

In 1966, I became the proud owner of my first home. It was a three-room flat in Toa Payoh, one of Singapore's first satellite towns. I was earning $300 to $400 at the time and the flat cost me just $7,500.

I felt I was living in heaven. The roads were clean and the surroundings were green and spacious. For the first time in my life, I had access to running water and sanitation at home and didn't have to use soil buckets. It was very gracious living indeed.

But above all, my wife and I had privacy. It was our very own home, and we didn't have to share it with anybody.

When Mr Lee Kuan Yew became prime minister, he vowed to make every Singaporean a house owner to give us a sense of ownership over the country. When I moved into my flat, that was how I felt. I had something solid in hand, and I belonged to this place.

So much that we enjoy in this country is a result of what Mr Lee worked his whole life to build.

Last year, I wrote to him to say "thank you". I was surprised that he wrote back within five days. It was, to me, a sign of great humility. I am, after all, a nobody.

That's the kind of man Mr Lee is, the kind of man we celebrate today, on his 90th birthday. A man who has achieved such great things, but who would reply to a nobody. Because it was precisely for millions of nobodies like me that he has been labouring all his life to help.

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