Parliamentary Statement on calls to honour Mr Lee Kuan Yew, by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on 13 April 2015
An Outpouring of Grief and Gratitude
During the month of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s final illness, and the week of National Mourning after he passed away, Singaporeans experienced a tremendous outpouring of emotions – gratitude, sorrow, and solidarity. People prayed for, grieved over and paid their last respects to the founding father who had done so much to create today’s Singapore. Many wrote touching messages in condolence books and cards, and made special tribute books and items. During the Special Session of Parliament, Members spoke movingly about Mr Lee’s contributions, what he meant to them, and their personal experiences of him. I thank this House, and all Singaporeans, for their tributes to my father.
Those of us who lived through this special moment in our history, and experienced this sense of togetherness in our shared grief, will remember it for the rest of our lives. Mr Lee’s passing brought us closer together as one people and intensified our sense of nationhood. It was his last gift to us.
How should we remember and honour him – his person, his contributions, his ideals? Members of the House and the public have made many suggestions. There were several questions on the Order Paper today. Ms Foo Mee Har and Dr Lily Neo suggested printing his image on our currency notes and coins; Mr Ang Wei Nang and Dr Lily Neo suggested re-naming Changi Airport after him; and Ms Foo Mee Har suggested designating a day to commemorate our founding fathers every year. And there are many more suggestions.
These are all good ideas. But we should not rush into making decisions on this matter, especially so soon after Mr Lee has passed away. We should allow some time to pass, consider the ideas carefully, and make calm, considered decisions which will stand the test of time. We want to honour Mr Lee, but we must do so in the right way.
Ideals, not Monuments
Most importantly, how we honour Mr Lee must be faithful to the ideals he lived by and fought for. Mr Lee made it very clear throughout his life that he did not need and did not want any monument. It was not monuments but ideals that were his chief concern, the ideals upon which he built Singapore: multi-racialism, equality, meritocracy, integrity, and the rule of law. He hoped these ideals would endure in Singapore beyond him. We can pay no greater tribute to him than to uphold the principles upon which he built this country.
Mr Lee was very careful when it came to lending his name to institutions and awards. When he consented, it was for causes that he was passionate about, and where using his name served a greater purpose. He was intent on showing his support for the cause or institution, rather than using the honour to glorify himself. For example, on his 80th birthday, he agreed that NUS should create a Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Cabinet had discussed this carefully and had convinced him that having such a school, and associating his name with it, would help establish the Singapore brand of governance and advance the school’s mission – to raise standards of governance in Asia, to improve the lives of people and to contribute to the transformation of the region. For the same reason, he supported NTU when it named its school of international studies after his old comrade, Mr S Rajaratnam, and the SAF when it named the command and staff college after Dr Goh Keng Swee. Similarly, the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize honours contributions towards solving the world’s water challenges, because water, in the Singapore context, was a lifelong obsession of his. And the various education awards in his name are to encourage students at all levels and of all abilities to strive for all round excellence. One of his recent contributions to education for awards was the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism and this focusses on mother tongue learning. He paid close attention to this issue all his life, not just as a policy matter, but as someone who learnt Mandarin the hard way as an adult and kept up the effort till his last days.
Mr Lee was very careful never to allow a personality cult to grow around him, much less to encourage one himself. He was exceptional in this respect among post-colonial leaders and founders of countries. They were larger-than-life figures, and often developed personality cults around themselves, especially if they lasted long in office.
Hence, you will not find portraits or busts of Mr Lee Kuan Yew all over Singapore. He did have his portrait painted and his bust made in his lifetime, but he did not allow them to be displayed publicly and I know of only two exceptions to this. After he stepped down from Cabinet in 2011, a bust of him, which had been made many years ago in the early 1980s by Sydney Harpley (who is a British sculptor who did the Girl on a Swing and other sculptures which are in the Botanic Gardens) was displayed in Parliament House. There is another bust of Mr Lee, made by French sculptor Nacera Kainou, which is displayed at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities in the Singapore University of Technology and Design, with his permission. This was presented by the Lyon-Singapore Association as a gift to Singapore in 2013, as a token of friendship between the French and Singaporean peoples.
So it is with this mindset that we should assess proposals to honour Mr Lee.
Ms Foo Mee Har and Dr Lily Neo suggested issuing notes and coins that bear the image of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and that is certainly something we can consider for the future.
However, this year being SG50, MAS intends to issue a set of commemorative notes and coins to celebrate our heritage and reflect the spirit of Singapore. The notes and coins were planned last year, and had already been designed before Mr Lee passed away.
The set of coins, which are themed “Education, Building our Nation Together”, was launched by Minister Heng Swee Keat on the 4th of April last week.
The set of notes, comprising five $10 notes and one $50 note, will capture significant achievements in our history, and the values and aspirations that underpin Singapore’s progress. On the $50 note, one element in the design will be a transparent panel showing Mr Lee with fist raised, leading the crowd with the rallying cry of “Merdeka!”.
We had in fact settled this last year, and the notes are in production. We had hoped that Mr Lee would launch the commemorative set of notes himself. Sadly that is not to be. But we have decided to continue with the project and will launch the notes later this year. They will form part of our SG50 celebrations, which will honour our founders even as we pledge ourselves to continue their work.
38 Oxley Road
There have also been calls to turn Mr Lee’s home, 38 Oxley Road, into a museum and a memorial to him. But Mr Lee was adamant that 38 Oxley Road should be demolished after his passing. He wrote formally to the Cabinet at least twice to put his wishes on the record - once soon after my mother his wife had died, and the second time soon after he had stepped down from office in 2011. He said, talking about Oxley Road, that “it should not be kept as a kind of relic”. He said that he had seen too many other houses of famous people “kept frozen in time … as a monument with people tramping in and out”. They invariably “become shabby”, in his words. My mother also felt strongly about this. She was most distressed at the thought of people coming through her private spaces after she and my father had passed away, to see how they had lived.
Mr Lee stated his view on this matter in one of his books, Hard Truths. This caused a public reaction, as some people wanted the house preserved. So in December 2011, after he had retired from the Cabinet, and after he had written to us the second time, I held a special Cabinet meeting and invited Mr Lee to attend, in order to discuss 38 Oxley Road.
The ministers tried hard to change his mind. After the meeting, Mr Lee wrote to the Cabinet, and I quote from his letter:
“Cabinet members were unanimous that 38 Oxley Road should not be demolished as I wanted. I have reflected on this and decided that if 38 Oxley Road is to be preserved, it needs to have its foundations reinforced and the whole building refurbished. It must then be let out for people to live in. An empty building will soon decline and decay.” End of the quote and that was the letter.
Two years later (in December 2013) Mr Lee made his Will. He appointed my brother Mr Lee Hsien Yang and sister Dr Lee Wei Ling as his executors and trustees. Mr Lee wrote (in paragraph 7 of his Will), and I quote:
“I further declare that it is my wish, and the wish of my late wife, KWA GEOK CHOO, that our house at 38 Oxley Road, Singapore 238629 (“the House”) be demolished immediately after my death or, if my daughter, Wei Ling, would prefer to continue living in the original house, immediately after she moves out of the House. I would ask each of my children to ensure our wishes with respect to the demolition of the House be carried out. If our children are unable to demolish the House as a result of any changes in the law, rules or regulations binding them, it is my wish that the House never be opened to others except my children, their families and descendants. My view on this has been made public before and remains unchanged. My statement of wishes in this paragraph 7 may be publicly disclosed notwithstanding that the rest of my Will is private.”
Mr Lee’s position on 38 Oxley Road was unwavering over the years, and fully consistent with his lifelong values. We should respect his wishes, as well as those of Mrs Lee.
Dr Lee Wei Ling has informed me that she intends to continue living in the house at 38 Oxley Road. Therefore there is no immediate issue of demolition of the house, and no need for the Government to make any decision now.
If and when Dr Lee Wei Ling no longer lives in the house, Mr Lee has stated his wishes as to what then should be done. At that point, speaking as a son, I would like to see these wishes carried out. However, it will be up to the Government of the day to consider the matter.
A Founders’ Memorial
There have been several calls to do something to honour not just one man, but our founding generation of leaders. For example, Ms Foo Mee Har suggested that we designate a Founder’s Day.
Mr Lee was always conscious that he did not act alone, but as a member of a team. His core team included Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Othman Wok, Hon Sui Sen, Lim Kim San, amongst others. It was a multi-racial team who complemented one another’s strengths, trusted one another implicitly, and through their joint efforts created a prosperous, fair and just society in Singapore. Mr Lee himself said he was only primus inter pares – first among equals. So it is appropriate that we consider how to honour not just Mr Lee, but also our other founding fathers.
One idea that has been suggested is to have a memorial for all of the founding fathers, perhaps coupled with an exhibition gallery to honour their legacy and educate future generations. Indeed, Mr Lee himself had thought that there was value in such a memorial.
I agree that this concept merits further consideration. A founder’s memorial need not be a grand structure, but it must stand for our ideals, our values, our hopes and aspirations. It must belong to all Singaporeans and mean something significant to us all. It should be a place where we and future generations can remember a key period in our history, reflect on the ideals of our founding fathers, and pledge to continue their work of nation building.
I have therefore asked Mr Lee Tzu Yang to chair a committee to gather views from the public, and conceptualise such a memorial for our founding fathers. He has agreed to do so. If the idea of a Founders’ Memorial finds resonance among Singaporeans, the committee will take the project further.
When I met Mr Lee Tzu Yang last week, he shared that in the week of National Mourning, he like many others was moved by the sense of solidarity. Everyone grieved together, and in our grief, looked out for one another – in the queues for the Lying-in-State, and along the streets as people bade farewell to Mr Lee in the rain. With time our grief will subside, but our unity should remain. If the memorial captured some of that same spirit, we will have succeeded.
I agreed with Mr Lee Tzu Yang. Let us focus our attention and energies on how best to achieve this, especially given Mr Lee’s longstanding views, and the wishes he expressed in his Will.
Mr Lee lived his life for Singapore, not for himself. Let us take time to consider the best way to honour his memory, in a way that is in keeping with his ideals.
In remembering the past, we must also look to the future. Whatever memorial we decide upon should not only be right for Singaporeans living today, but also for generations not yet born. The memorial should reflect and strengthen in all of us our sense of what it means to be a Singaporean, why Singapore is worth striving and fighting for, and how we can continue to build a harmonious and successful Singapore for future generations.
Thank you Madam Speaker.
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