There is so much to talk about Mr Lee Kuan Yew. When I first met him, I was very honoured. He was an outstanding leader and has inspired my own personal development as a worker, a unionist and a leader.
When I was young, my father would often tell me about Mr Lee. He said that Mr Lee played a key role in advancing the Indian community in Singapore. If not for him, none would be able to stand on their feet. Because in those days, Indians did not send their women to work. Only men worked. That was the culture. Most Indian families were single income families. This caused financial hardship as most men earned low incomes. Families usually stopped sending their kids to school and sent them to work instead. How could we move forward like this? How could families manage with low incomes?
Mr Lee understood this very well. He saw the hardships experienced by the Indian community and was determined to help. So he publicly called for women to be brave and to go to work. He said, “Don’t be scared. We have safety measures in place for you.” He introduced the Vigilante Corps, to ensure the safety of women returning home from work at night. What he did greatly encouraged and emboldened Indian women to work, learn a skill and help their families financially.
As more Indian women started to work, their families began to earn more. Because Mr Lee also made sure that public housing was affordable, the combined incomes of the husband and wife enabled Indian families to purchase a basic house and start families. Today, there are many dual-income Indian families. Many Singaporeans today own their homes and are proud of it. We have to thank Mr Lee for that.
I went on to complete my education, and join the workforce. I would like to share with you a personal interaction with Mr Lee many years ago. I was then an apprentice wireman at the Public Works Department. Many told me stories about Mr Lee. They said, “Our PM, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, is a very hot-tempered man. If he wants, he will dismiss officers immediately.” Many said different things about Mr Lee. I didn’t worry too much about it because I wasn’t at that level to have any sort of interaction with him.
Unfortunately, I should have paid attention. Once, my colleagues and I were asked by my supervisor to go to Changi Cottage to service the air-conditioning system. We did not know who lived there or used the space. When we got there, we serviced the air-conditioning system as per my supervisor’s instructions. As we were finishing up, Mr Lee, who was then PM, came into the room and looked at us. How would you feel if he looked at you? We had heard that he is a hot-tempered man. We were very scared. In fact, we were shivering! We tried to control ourselves, finished the job and climbed down from the ladder.
When we were done, Mr Lee asked if we had completed the job. We said, “Yes, Sir”. Then Mr Lee asked where our supervisor was. We told Mr Lee he was outside. Mr Lee asked me to call him in. When my supervisor came in, Mr Lee said, “When a job is given to you, you should do it. I asked you to service the air-conditioning. Please service it now in front of me.” My supervisor immediately went up the ladder and started servicing the air-conditioner again.
I was dumbfounded! Maybe I did a terrible job! We were all very scared. We watched as my supervisor serviced the air-conditioning. My colleague whispered to me, “Don’t worry. I’ll explain later.” When he was done, Mr Lee told my supervisor that he did not want to see him again in the Istana or at the Changi Holiday Bungalow.
The incident left a deep impression on me. Mr Lee believed that one must do correctly what one is told, and everyone should do their own work. If a third person is asked to do the job, the impact would not be right. If it is our job, we should not pass it on to others. This is how a leader should be.
Mr Lee was indeed very strict. This father (Mr Lee), we must be principled like him. We must have a sense of duty and be upright like him. His philosophy is evergreen that we do well today.
Mr Lee was also like a father to the unions. In his May Day speeches he would encourage workers, employers and the government to work hand-in-hand. He said everyone must play their part. If the three of you work together, the management would be good. If you three fight amongst yourselves, it won’t be right. Sit down, think carefully and work together. Who else would teach us such things?
Mr Lee would urge us union members to upgrade our skills. He would tell us: “Don’t stagnate. There are a lot of courses for you to upgrade yourselves.” In those days, there used to be Lembaga (Adult Education Board) night classes. Many heeded his call, and became technicians and engineers. I’m proud to say I am one of them. If he didn’t teach us these things then, we wouldn’t be at this level today. All credit goes to him.
We are very fortunate to have had a leader like Mr Lee.