Over to you now, young Singaporeans

Over to you now, young Singaporeans
Ms Irene Ng interviewing Mr Lee Kuan Yew when she was a journalist with The New Paper.

The night before a heart operation, Mr Lee Kuan Yew refused to rest.

He felt it was more important to be talking to young Singaporeans about the future of the country and their role in it.

So that was what he did on March 14, 1996.

For more than 2½ hours, he was on his feet in full flow, engaging about 1,700 undergraduates at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Using his wealth of political experience and wit, he exhorted them to learn from the mistakes he had observed abroad, and to back leaders who would take the long-term decisions needed to prevent Singapore from becoming just another slow-growing developed country.

Meanwhile, his wife, Mrs Lee, who sat in a front row seat, was beside herself with worry.

Her face was etched with concern as she watched him go on for an hour longer than scheduled.

Earlier, she had tried to persuade Mr Lee, who was then Senior Minister and 73, to put off the forum at the NTU.

A devoted wife, she wanted to minimise all risks for Mr Lee, who had a blockage in his coronary artery.

The next day, he was due to undergo balloon angioplasty to insert a stent - his second heart operation in two months, after an earlier procedure to widen the artery failed to work.

But Mr Lee insisted on keeping his date with the young Singaporeans.

Driven by his strong sense of mission, he wanted to help them understand how the country got to where it was and how to avoid the pitfalls that troubled other advanced countries.

As he said later: "They have grown up in a time of growing security and comfort and, by the time they learnt the pitfalls, it may be too late. So, why not try to lessen it?"

Throughout his life, his concern for the younger generation never slackened.

On the contrary, it grew stronger in the face of his old age and certain mortality.


I first met Mr Lee in the early 1990s, when I was leading the political coverage for The New Paper as its senior political correspondent. He was almost 70, and I about 30.

Over lunches with him at the Istana, usually together with one or two other younger journalists, we reflected the critical views of our vocal young to him, and their aspirations for a better life.

They wanted more political choices and freedom.

While Mr Lee understood these desires, he could not help but despair occasionally at the young's preoccupations with narrow immediate wants and their lack of historical perspective.

With his charisma and charm, he sought to influence us by persuasion rather than by imposing his will.

He was keen to get us to understand the vulnerabilities of Singapore and challenge us to embrace the possibilities of the future with the same gumption as his generation did.

From observing him over the years, I found that there were several issues close to his heart when it came to the young.

More about

Purchase this article for republication.



Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.