Lee Kuan Yew's conviction and personality shaped Singapore

On his 90th birthday, Mr Lee Kuan Yew can look back with some satisfaction at what he has achieved. An independent, thriving Singapore transformed beyond recognition from the one he first led in 1959. Two successful changes in prime ministers since he stepped aside in 1990. These were his two lifelong projects, which he has largely accomplished.

SINGAPORE - No need then to, as he famously put it years ago, leap out while being lowered into his grave if he saw something not right?

Or is there?

Was there a hint of regret at a job not yet complete when, at an interview last year for the book One Man's View Of The World, he spoke about the younger generation's lack of understanding of what made Singapore succeed?

Where is the miracle, he had asked, mimicking the question younger Singaporeans pose when they see today's successful Singapore, but without experiencing the difficulties their fathers and grandfathers experienced in the 1950s and 1960s.

He had read out loud a letter from an admirer thanking him for making the country what it is.

"My family is deeply grateful and has benefited from your magnificent leadership and solid contributions that have enabled our nation to achieve peace, happiness, progress, prosperity, solidarity and security all these good years," the writer noted.

How wide the gap between the writer's generation and the one that now took Singapore's success for granted, Mr Lee had lamented.

At 90, when he should be past worry, Mr Lee frets still.

But, in fact, he needn't.

Singapore's younger generation embodies many of the values he tried very hard to instil in this young, fragile nation when he led it to independence and to a brave new world.

Those nation-building years laid the foundation for today's young, not just the physical infrastructure which has been renewed to a fault, but also, more important, the cultural and social DNA.

For Mr Lee, the Singapore he strived for wasn't just so that it could boast the best port or public housing or export competitiveness. Ultimately, it had to be about Singaporeans, as a people, whether they had the wherewithal to make it as a country.

And so he was relentless in wanting to imbue them with the values he believed were necessary for success, urging, sometimes cajoling and, occasionally, scolding them to do better.

If you read those early missives, they were always values-laden: No one owed Singapore a living, it had to be exceptional or it wouldn't survive, there was no place for idle passengers in this journey to excel, and so on.


An entire generation felt the force of his conviction and personality, and it shaped its thinking.

The young today, brought up by the product of those times, cannot but have been influenced - by their parents, in the schools and wider community. The qualities they possess - their capacity for change, their modern, outward-looking mindset and cosmopolitan outlook - embody Mr Lee's vision of what a forward-looking Singapore is like.

(On the flip side, critics might point to the political apathy, materialistic outlook and lack of civic consciousness as negative traits that rubbed off on them as well.)

But these attributes also mean they are more open to new ideas, questioning of authority, unafraid to upset the status quo and critical of the ruling party's dominance.

It could not have been otherwise.

Indeed, it would be a negation of everything Mr Lee stood for if young Singaporeans thought and behaved like their fathers and grandfathers, and Singapore stood still as a result.

Even though he might have doubts about whether they will continue to keep Singapore secure and prosperous, he must know a large part of the DNA survives.

He himself had acknowledged in the book Hard Truths that no leader can influence a country's future beyond a decade after his departure.

Even the tightly controlled Soviet Union could throw up a Gorbachev who would be responsible for breaking up the mighty superpower.

For the People's Action Party (PAP), the best thing that has happened to it lately has been the pressure it is facing to meet the demands of a changing electorate.

Imagine if it were not the case and the PAP carried on in autopilot mode - how much more likely would it have become complacent and, perhaps, ultimately corrupt, as has happened to many other long-lived incumbent parties.

But if it is able to respond to these new challenges, it can make a successful transition to a post-Lee era.

Mr Lee can take pride in his part in shaping a Singapore that is on the move, one which, at this turning point in its history, isn't lacking in what it takes to succeed. He can look back with satisfaction at the pivotal role young Singaporeans are playing in forcing the pace of change.

They may not fully understand the Singapore he tried to fashion, but they are living proof of how well it has turned out.

Happy birthday, Mr Lee.


Lee Kuan Yew's life in brief


Born in a house in Kampong Java Road, the eldest son of Shell employee Lee Chin Koon, 20, and MsChua Jim Neo, 16.


Start of Japanese Occupation. He narrowly escapes execution during the Sook Ching massacre.


Secretly marries Kwa Geok Choo during Christmas holidays when both were studying law at Cambridge University.


Graduates from Cambridge with two first-class honours and a star for distinction.


Returns to Singapore to begin work as a lawyer.


Forms the People's Action Party.


Elected first prime minister of Singapore.


Campaigns successfully in referendum to take Singapore into Malaysia the following year.


Singapore separates from Malaysia. He breaks down while announcing the news at a press conference.


Steps down as PM, handing over the baton to Mr Goh Chok Tong. Remains in Cabinet as Senior Minister.


Appointed Minister Mentor after Mr Lee Hsien Loong becomes Prime Minister.


Steps down from Cabinet along with Mr Goh after general election.

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