Mr Lee's favourite question was: 'So?'

Mr Lee's favourite question was: 'So?'
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat (left) with Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, at a conference titled "The Big Ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew" on Monday.

SINGAPORE - "SO?" WAS Mr Lee Kuan Yew's favourite question, recalled his former principal private secretary (PPS) Heng Swee Keat.

He would pose this question when presented with reports on developments. He would often repeat this question to probe any explanation he was given.

These queries would always be followed up by asking: "So, what does this mean for Singapore?"

Recounting this at a day-long conference on the former prime minister's big ideas, Mr Heng said that this was Mr Lee's way of "cutting through the clutter" to get to the heart of issues the country faced and tackle them.

It was this total dedication to Singapore and the clarity of mind applied to survival and success of the country that left an indelible impression on him, said Mr Heng on Monday at the conference organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Mr Heng, now Education Minister, singled out the "so?" question as emblematic of Mr Lee's "unwavering and total dedication to Singapore, to keeping Singapore successful so that Singaporeans may determine our own destiny and lead meaningful, fulfilling lives".

"In the same way that he asks himself, we need to always be asking ourselves, 'So?' So what does this mean for Singapore? So what should we do about it? And act on it," Mr Heng said.

Mr Heng, whom Mr Lee once described as the best PPS he has had - serving him from 1997 to 2000 - also touched on Mr Lee's views which stood out for him, in keeping with the conference title, "The Big Ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew".

For instance, Mr Lee believed the tension between competition and cooperation in society must be constantly recalibrated: Without the pursuit of excellence and competition, society loses its vigour but if the disadvantaged are ignored, it loses its cohesion.

On good governance, Mr Lee believed in the importance of leaders with the right values. Above all, he believed that "leaders are stewards" who must grow the next generation and know when to step aside - a point reiterated by other speakers.

While Mr Lee had a mental map of the world and would be constantly scanning for changes like a radar, the focal point of this map was "always Singapore", said Mr Heng.

He cited examples of how Mr Lee turned his insights into results.

These ranged from daring to make public disagreements over the handling of Suzhou Industrial Park in its early years, to having a hand in the revamp of the financial sector after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and to being a "steady, respected voice in the international arena" even in volatile episodes of US-China relations.

He was one of 10 prominent figures who spoke at the conference on Monday on Mr Lee's legacy and controversies in areas such as the rule of law, geopolitics, language policies and good governance.

Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School Kishore Mahbubani opened the conference by pointing out these ideas had contributed to big and practical improvements in Singaporeans' lives.

Noting that Mr Lee is a man of action who got on with the job of making Singapore a better home for all, Mr Heng added: "The task of creating a better life for all Singaporeans - through expanding opportunities and through building a fair and just society - never ends."

andreao@sph.com.sg

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