PM Lee Hsien Loong at launch of Sidek Saniff's book "Life Reflections at Eighty"

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 10 July 2018

Transcript of speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the launch of Sidek Saniff's book "Life Reflections at Eighty" on 10 July 2018.


Encik Sidek Saniff, Puan Sharifa, Emeritus Senior Minister, Ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, a very good evening to all of you. 

I am very happy and honoured that Encik Sidek has asked me to launch his book, “Life Reflections at Eighty”. We all know Sidek well. He served as a Member of Parliament (MP) for 25 years, in this Chamber, during which he held political office in various ministries, including the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Ministry of the Environment. 

I had the privilege of working closely with Sidek for two years in MTI, from 1986 – 1988. Sidek is a warm, generous and down-to-earth person. Always the first to go the extra mile to help his friends and constituents, and the last to claim credit. His humility and selflessness stem from his upbringing and his religious faith. The poverty and hardship that Sidek and his family experienced in the early years inspired him to help others all his life. His devotion to his faith reinforced this, and perhaps also made him shy to speak about his achievements.

Therefore, I am glad that after much urging from friends and colleagues, Sidek finally relented and agreed to write and publish his memoirs, in English as well as in Malay. Because Sidek has a valuable story to tell, and he has told it well. It is a story of lifelong learning and service to the community and to the country. 

Sidek grew up poor, but he persevered, he studied hard, and he made good. His formative years coincided with the Second World War, the Japanese occupation, and the post war years of anti-colonial struggle for independence. His experience was shared by many Singaporeans of his generation. 

For older readers, the chapters of his early years in Kampong Radin Mas and Pulau Semakau will conjure up memories of what Singapore was like in those old days. For younger readers, it will be an eye-opening read about a Singapore they have not personally seen or experienced, and about the struggles and sacrifices of their parents and grandparents to build the Singapore that we see today.

Sidek has dedicated his life to public service. Before he entered politics, he was already a popular and respected Malay teacher. Hence, Cikgu Sidek. He was passionate about uplifting the Malay community through education. He joined the Singapore Malay Teachers’ Union (KGMS), and rose to become its President. He was a firebrand, fighting for greater recognition of the Malay language and better salaries for Malay-stream teachers, and unafraid to take on the government. 

In his book, Sidek recounts how he led busloads of union members on a street demonstration, carrying banners and placards with the words “Mengapa Kementerian Jimbam”, why the MOE is inefficient. He will tell you, you cannot find the word “Jimbam” in the dictionary but it came from Tanjong Malim. 

Sidek was therefore surprised when Mr Lee Kuan Yew invited him to join the PAP and to contest in the 1976 elections. Then-Minister of State Haji Ya’acob Mohamed had recommended Sidek to Mr Lee. Haji Ya’acob explained to Sidek that Mr Lee would rather listen to people who had better alternatives, than those who criticised for the sake of criticising. Mr Lee believed that Sidek’s opinions were genuine and constructive. He hoped to win Sidek over to the government’s side, to work with the government, to uplift the Malay community. 

After consulting his family and close friends, Sidek eventually decided to join the PAP. It was not an easy decision. Joining the party initially cost Sidek his popularity. Some of his former colleagues in KGMS accused him of being “bought” by the PAP. But he pressed on, because he believed that he could make a difference from within the government. In time, Sidek’s convictions bore fruit, and he more than earned back the respect of the community with his perseverance and his sincerity. Sidek was assigned to Kolam Ayer. It was a new constituency in 1976, formed with parts carved from Kallang, Geylang West and Potong Pasir. With some minor boundary changes, the division has remained till today and Yaacob is today the MP. 

Sidek worked hard as an MP. Together with his fellow Malay PAP MPs, they launched many initiatives to uplift the Malay community. One notable instance was the formation of Mendaki in 1982. Sidek chaired the first Mendaki Congress. More than a thousand delegates attended. They included teachers as well as representatives of Malay cultural and religious organisations. The result was the formation of Mendaki, our first self-help group.

Mendaki’s efforts have made a big difference to the Malay community. The impact goes beyond the social and educational progress of the community, which has been remarkable. But equally important is the pride and sense of satisfaction among Singapore Malays, engendered by the self-help approach. Mendaki’s success led to the formation of other ethnic self-help groups, such as the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), SINDA and the Eurasian Association. 

Mr Lee Kuan Yew knew that he could always rely on Sidek to give his honest opinion, as well as to help make difficult decisions, and to explain them to the ground. For instance, in the 1980s, Mr Lee wanted to disclose the breakdown of PSLE and O-Level results by ethnicity. Knowing that this would be a sensitive issue for the Malay community, Mr Lee instructed that if Sidek could not announce it, a civil servant could do so on his behalf. But Sidek decided to do it himself. He believed that it was the right thing to do and that it would eventually improve Malay students’ academic performance. At first, the Malay community felt awkward about the issue. But bringing the data out into the open enabled the community to acknowledge and to tackle the problem, and helped to deliver the steady progress we have seen over the last decades.

Thus, Sidek and the other PAP Malay leaders steadfastly stood by Mr Lee and the PAP’s ideals. They fought courageously shoulder-to-shoulder for what they believed in – the advancement and well-being of the Malay community, in a multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore. 

When we were preparing for Mr Lee’s State Funeral Service, and looking for someone to speak about Mr Lee’s work with the Malay community, Sidek was the natural choice. I asked him and he accepted. He delivered a moving eulogy, one that also spoke eloquently of their friendship. Sidek described how Mr Lee had looked out for him, paying personal attention even to little details such as whether Sidek had a suitable overcoat and boots for a winter trip to China, and whom he should borrow these things from so that they would fit his size.

Sidek represents a transition from the earlier batches of PAP Malay MPs to the later ones. Many of the previous Malay MPs were journalists, like Othman Wok, or unionists, like Arif Suradi. Many others were not well-educated, not professionals, but they were salt of the earth, people who felt passionate about the great events convulsing Singapore during that period. Even before joining the PAP, they were already engaged in the political struggle. 

Sidek was also actively concerned with the political issues of the day, but he was not in a politicised profession unlike his predecessors. He was a teacher. On the other hand, Sidek was different from the Malay MPs who came after him. His first language is Malay, like most of the previous Malay MPs. After Sidek, most Malay MPs were more bilingual. With Sidek, the PAP started drawing from a larger talent pool for its Malay candidates. We would have many more Malay professionals becoming PAP MPs, but fewer who were already in the rough and tumble of politics before they were fielded.

Thus, Sidek brought something different to the team – both a professional’s perspective, and also a deep understanding of the political forces at play. Because of his experience, leadership and conviction, he was able to carry the ground. When we needed a strong team to contest in Eunos GRC in 1991, we sent Sidek there to reinforce the team and we held the seat with 52 per cent of the vote. 

Even after retiring from government in 2001, Sidek has remained active in community work. Nurturing and mentoring younger generations of grassroots leaders. Also doing tabligh, missionary work, travelling abroad to spread the faith, and reaching out to the underprivileged.

One thing that emerges clearly from Sidek’s book is his love for his country, his community and for education. To publish a book at a ripe old age of 80, Haji Sidek has once again taught us a life lesson, this time on active aging and lifelong learning. I am happy that we now have Sidek’s remarkable life story on record, and I am sure that this book will be read and cherished for many years to come. 

To conclude my speech, I thought it would be fitting to recite a pantun for the Cikgu:

Asam paya buah di hutan, ambil pelepah dibuat lidi, tuan berbakti kepada watan, jasa dikenang hingga abadi. 

In English, the asam paya can be found in the forest, spines of leaves are made into rakes, Sir you have served our nation, and your deeds shall be remembered forever.

Congratulations, Sidek, on a life well-lived, on reaching 80, and on publishing your life story. I hope many Singaporeans will read it and be reminded of and inspired by your dedication and service. 

It is now my privilege to launch Haji Sidek Saniff’s book, “Life Reflections at Eighty”.

Thank you very much. 
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