What a tree's name taught me about Lee Kuan Yew

I have read the glowing tributes to Mr Lee Kuan Yew from world leaders, local politicians and Singaporeans from all walks of life.

Mr Lee has left an indelible mark on all of us.

I had the honour to serve Mr Lee as a young diplomat in the 1990s. I was part of his delegation to the Maldives and Vietnam. I also was the note-taker for some of his meetings with dignitaries.

Those experiences taught me lessons that I carry with me to this day.

One of the vivid memories I have of Mr Lee was that of his official visit to the Maldives. We were walking on one of the many beautiful islands of the Maldives when he came across a large tree.

Mr Lee turned to the then Singapore High Commissioner, Mr Michael Cheok, and later to me, asking us for the name of the tree.

Unfortunately, we were at that time unable to provide an answer. With Mr Lee, if you did not know something, it was prudent to admit it. He did not suffer fools.

After the visit, I thought, quite foolishly, that this was the end of the matter.

A day after our return, I received a call from his private secretary, Mr Cheong Cheng Hoon, who said Mr Lee wanted to know the name of the tree in the Maldives.

Needless to say, there was a bit of scrambling and we finally got the name of the tree with the help of our counterparts in the Maldives.

I understood that the name of the tree was passed on to National Parks to assess if it was suitable for Singapore.

Eventually, a few saplings were shipped from the Maldives.

Such was Mr Lee's attention to detail and his unwavering commitment to a green Singapore.


I am certain many of my more senior and longer serving ex-colleagues in the foreign service will have such stories of their experiences with Mr Lee.

He travelled widely and held meetings with many world leaders with our foreign service officers and civil servants in faithful attendance.

We all came out of these experiences in awe of the breadth and depth of his knowledge and grasp of world events.

Many have stated in their tributes that we just need to look around us in Singapore to see the monuments of his legacy.

We can talk about the economic growth, the skyscrapers, the housing programme and the green city.

But what I think is more important are the values that he has inculcated in all of us, which have earned us the respect of others in this region and throughout the world.

These are the values of meritocracy, self-reliance, and strong and clean governance.

One of the communities that have benefited from the pursuit of these values is the Malay/Muslim community. Whatever the misgivings some in the community may have had over some policies over the years, the reality is that the Malay/Muslim community can stand shoulder to shoulder with the other communities in Singapore.

We had to work within the competitive environment of meritocracy and self-reliance.

Many of us have benefited from the push towards better education and from the push to excel.

Yes, we have room to improve and we have to always strive to improve.

But we have earned our place in society on our own merits.

Mr Lee was the engine and architect of modern Singapore.

We will not forget his sacrifices. We will build on this strong foundation.

Thank you, Mr Lee.

Majulah Singapura.


This article was first published on Mar 31, 2015.
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