A life devoted entirely to Singapore

A life devoted entirely to Singapore
File photo of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew in front of the Istana.

When Singapore split from Malaysia, one major matrimonial asset required more than a little time to divvy up: their joint Malaysia-Singapore Airlines.

The day finally came seven years later in 1972, when Singapore Airlines (SIA) was ready to take to the skies.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had taken a personal interest in the process. But when he spoke to the Singapore Air Transport Workers' Union on the eve of SIA's formation, there was no nationalistic cheerleading.

The airline was not a prestige project, he told them. If they could not turn in a profit, "we should have no compunction in closing a service down", he warned.

"The future of Singapore Airlines depends more on the reality SIA leaves behind on their passengers than on their advertisements."

Three decades later, with SIA famed as one of the world's top airlines, Mr Lee refused to be swept off his feet by its glamorous image.

Intervening in 2004 over a dispute between its pilots and management, he told them he would not allow anyone to endanger SIA.

"Both management and unions, you play this game, there are going to be broken heads."

Recalling similar squabbles in 1980 when he intervened personally, he declared: "This is a job that has to be finished and I'll finish it."

This was vintage LKY. Cutting through the fluff. Setting no-nonsense targets.

And leaving no room for doubt that any "games" would be tolerated - other than the one he had decided was in Singapore's best interests.

The histories of former colonies are replete with politicians who shone in the independence struggle but stumbled in office, when the enemy was no longer the distant imperialist but dysfunction within - corruption, poverty, ethnic or religious conflict.

Mr Lee was a rare case of a leader who never cut himself or his team any slack even after the job appeared done.

Perhaps this was because of the unforgiving circumstances the People's Action Party (PAP) found itself in, with freedom first secured as part of an uneasy federation in 1963, followed by unceremonious expulsion in 1965.

He brought to each situation a voracious appetite for information to feed his rational calculations.

He knew the value of having differing views within government, which partly explains his obsession with creaming off the most intellectually able to staff the public sector.

At the same time, he expected no obstruction from individuals or institutions outside of government.

Not surprisingly, therefore, how people view his political style depended a lot on where they stood - within or outside the trusted establishment.

Former ambassador Chan Heng Chee was among those who had regular lunches with him. Her lunch group included two other top diplomats, Prof Kishore Mahbubani and Prof Tommy Koh.

She recalls Mr Lee bouncing off his ideas, eager for a robust exchange. "He looked like he was fighting in court... a little stern, but I think that was his natural look," she said.

"He wanted people to come back to disagree with him, so that he didn't think that everything, that his ideas were all absolutely correct."

That was one side of him, willing to be challenged and contradicted. There was another that would brook no contest.

In his political opponents, he saw only one way to meet them: their total defeat.

"Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.

"That's the way I had to survive in the past. That's the way the communists tackled me."

While this was an instinct honed by experience, those who remember Mr Lee in his late 20s and early 30s recall a young man hungry for information, to abandon or augment an argument, before closing his case.

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