MPs pay tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew in special sitting of Parliament

MPs pay tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew in special sitting of Parliament
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pays his respects to his late father Mr Lee Kuan Yew, along with his wife Ho Ching (left) and brother Lee Hsien Yang (right), after the Special Parliamentary session for Mr Lee Kuan Yew at Parliament House on 26 March, 2015.

SINGAPORE - Members of Parliament (MPs) from both sides of the political divide filled Parliament on Thursday in a special session honouring the Republic's first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away on March 23 at the age of 91.

The solemn session was especially poignant with a bouquet of white flowers placed on Mr Lee's empty seat in the House. Most of the MPs were dressed in black and white during this period of mourning.

One speech that differentiated itself from others was by Mr Low Thia Khiang, secretary-general of the Workers' Party, who said that Mr Lee was a "controversial figure in some people's eyes" as many Singaporeans were "sacrificed" during the period of nation-building.

"I do not think that a one-party governance is crucial for the economic prosperity of Singapore, and neither is it key to maintain social cohesion and national unity," Mr Low said in his Mandarin speech.

"In the process of nation-building, some Singaporeans were sacrificed, and our society has paid a price for it," he added, causing a mild stir in the chamber.

However, Mr Low acknowledged Mr Lee's contribution to the nation, and said that he was largely responsible for Singapore's prosperity.

grongloh@sph.com.sg

Here are the speeches from other Members of Parliament:

Full speech by Dr Ng Eng Hen:

Today this House mourns the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore. Mr Lee was our longest serving and most illustrious member. When Mr Lee was admitted to Singapore General Hospital a few weeks ago for pneumonia, Singaporeans from all walks of life, watched anxiously, increasingly worried as his condition worsened.

Despite the outpouring of deep wishes and fervent prayers - elderly men and women with arthritic joints knelt and prostrated themselves for his recovery - Mr Lee's chair sits empty today. His loss is deeply felt. A nation cries out in mourning. No one moved Singapore as Mr Lee did - not in life, sickness or death. We in this House, together with all Singaporeans here and abroad, weep that Mr Lee is no longer among us.

Why this deep sorrow for one man? Why do tears flow uncontrollably for thousands on his passing and memory?

Simply put, Singapore would not be what it is today without Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He was that bright night star that guided us all, an impoverished and fearful nation through independence. He envisioned, then drove Singapore to become a success story - as he promised, from "mudflats to a thriving metropolis"1 that countries all over have sought to emulate. Today, Singaporeans hold their passports with confidence and pride.

Mr Lee's vision and tenacity rallied and energised a nation to overcome seemingly unsurmountable odds. He coaxed, pushed Singaporeans to do what was difficult, but ultimately right and good for their long term interests. With his powers of persuasion, his clarity and confidence became ours, the people's - the mark of a great leader.

Mr Lee is no longer with us, but I believe as many do here, that each generation will discover anew his wisdom in building the sturdy foundations of a thriving Singapore. His life is like a treasure chest. Each visit through his many deeds and words reveals pearls of wisdom and nuggets of sound advice, as I found for this eulogy.

For such a monumental life, any eulogy will fall short and I seek your pardon. But to honour his memory and remind us what his life stood for, I propose to capture the essence of Mr Lee through his speeches - the very words he used in this Parliament.

Even at the dawn of his political career, Mr Lee identified closely with the hopes and aspirations of common Singaporeans. In his first election in 1955, he told the voters of Tanjong Pagar, that out of 25 divisions, he wanted to represent "workers, wage earners and small traders, not wealthy merchants or landlords." This was why he "chose Tanjong Pagar, not Tanglin".

The residents of Tanjong Pagar believed and trusted him and elected him by a handsome margin. Astonishingly, Mr Lee would be returned as their MP for 13 subsequent elections. He would serve as MP for Tanjong Pagar for 60 years from 1955 to 2015, and is the only MP that Tanjong Pagar has ever had. I doubt this record will ever be broken in our Parliamentary history.

But Mr Lee and his Government did not get re-elected time and time again because they dispensed sweet words. Indeed, Mr Lee would often warn voters against silver-tongued politicians offering empty promises. He gained a fearsome reputation as one who eschewed the easier, more popular but ultimately wrong paths, as he recounted in his book, Hard Truths.

Flattery fell flat on him as did lofty but pretentious ideals. For Mr Lee, the acid test for any idea or proposal was how it would make Singapore stronger. If it weakened this country's foundations, he would reject it, even if it was politically incorrect to say so and attracted widespread criticism.

If it would make Singapore better, then no obstacles, no preconceived notions, no preset habits were too deeply entrenched to uproot or overcome. Indeed, he would attack these hindrances squarely and vigorously, to improve our circumstances. That was the Lee Kuan Yew the world knew and respected throughout his political life.

In 1968, an MP asked in Parliament, how the British withdrawal would impact Singapore. Mr Lee told Singaporeans plainly that the British bases made up 20 per cent of the GNP and tens of thousands of jobs would be lost.

To overcome this drastic impact, Singaporeans would have "to adapt and adjust, without any whimpering or wringing of hands, as a way of life which they have been accustomed to over 30 years comes to an end."

When another MP followed and asked if economic aid from the British could ease the effects of the pull-out, Mr Lee's quick and unequivocal rejoinder was that any aid should "not make us dependent on perpetual injections of aid from the outside", that "…we cannot change our attitude to life, that the world does not owe us a living and that we cannot live by the begging bowl... The best way of meeting the problem is to go about it quietly and intelligently discussing our problems in a low key and with as little fuss and bother as possible."

There was steel in the tone of these replies but Mr Lee revealed later in 1999 that he knew how serious the problem really was.

He said: "1968 to 1971… were critical years for our young republic. We knew we either made it or we would fail. We worked hard, we worked smart, and most important we worked as a team. By the time the British withdrew in Oct 1971, we had avoided massive unemployment..."

"With as little fuss as possible" in those critical years would mean a fundamental overhaul of what Singaporeans had indeed become accustomed to but could not afford. To stop the rot, Mr Lee rooted out corruption, and attacked the malaise that afflicted our society and economy. What followed would re-make the work environment, industrial relations, schools, skills upgrading, productivity, defence and security - ridding Singapore of unsavoury, unproductive and unsustainable habits and customs inherited from its past.

A slew of legislative reforms followed in this House. Amendments were made to Employment, Industrial Relations, and Trade Unions Acts that put an end to the disruptive labour strikes. Bills were passed to build technical training institutes, forerunners of today's ITE, Polytechnics and Universities to educate and upgrade the skills of the workforce. Work hours were extended and the number of public holidays slashed. None of these bills was popular.

We in Government and as MPs on the ground know how difficult it is to carry unpopular policies, even if they are right. Why did Mr Lee and his Government choose to persuade Singaporeans to do, again and again, what was necessary but painful? Mr Lee himself provided us the answer. He said in 1968 in this House, "If we were a soft community, then the temptation would be to leave things alone and hope for the best.

Then, only good fortune can save us from the unpleasantness which reason and logic tell us is ahead of us. But we are not an easy-going people. We cannot help thinking, calculating and planning for tomorrow, for next week, for next month, for next year, for the next generation. And it is because we have restless minds, forever probing and testing, seeking new and better solutions to old and new problems, that we have never been, and I trust never shall be, tried and found wanting."

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