Remembering Mr Lee Kuan Yew, 1923-2015
When I was a child, I lived with my grandparents and every other day without fail, my grandfather will bring me to the Singapore River where we will spend a quiet moment or two with each other. Sometimes he would tell me in bits of Hokkien and Mandarin how the Fullerton Hotel used to be a post office and how some of the buildings are actually built on reclaimed land.
I was about 4 or 5 then, and I obviously didn't know what is the CBD or what these sparkly skyscrapers housed. But I knew that this place stole my heart and until today, it's still my favourite part of Singapore.
Photo by Zachary Yong
But little did I know the Tanjong Pagar that is now synonymous with Singapore's economic prosperity had not always been the sleek, polished district it is today.
As recent as 50 years ago, this was Tanjong Pagar:
It was where the workers, wage earners and small traders, and probably the poorest were at.
And Mr Lee Kuan Yew had deliberately chosen this division when he was nominated in the 1955 General Elections.
Simply because he wanted to represent and fight for the "working class".
The same way he had fought for the postal workers in 1952.
Then, a 29-year-old legal assistant at Laycock & Ong, he undertook the case of the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union in negotiating a settlement after the union went on strike. He eventually won two weeks later, scoring wage increases, better terms of service and even the removal of thick printed red stripes on their trousers making them look like circus attendants.
With the executive committee members of the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union in 1952.
He went on to become the legal adviser to more than 100 unions and associations, building a reputation as a champion of workers and underdogs. The PAP’s power base came from the workers’ cause championing labour movement.
The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) was formed in 1961 when the PAP split into Barisan Socialis and PAP. As the PAP was formed by trade unions then, the trade union movement also split into 2 factions, the larger Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) with about 100 unions, and the NTUC, with less than 20 unions.
The PAP-NTUC alliance looked at creating jobs and improving wages, while the Barisan-SATU group, which was pro-communist, looked at strikes and chaos to push for a change of government. Over time, the PAP-NTUC triumphed and this relationship eventually strengthened into a consultative partnership where the PAP-formed Government, NTUC and its affiliated unions, and employers come together regularly to resolve issues concerning workers and wages.
This cooperation contributed significantly to harmonious labour relations and, ultimately, to Singapore’s rapid development in the 1970s and 80s.
Through the years as Singapore progressed with new policies added and amended, new developments to work on and worry about and as his health took a toll, his heart has never once left the workers, the masses.
And fight on he did...
Like what some have said, this was no man who lived in an ivory tower; his heart never left the workers.
He remained as one of the longest-serving MPs in the world, fighting for his "working class" ward everyday.
Which probably explains these poignant images you see on the Internet:
I didn't grow up in the 50s or 60s - I grew up receiving a world-class education, benefitting greatly from the bilingual policy and having abundant opportunities.
But my grandparents did. They weren't born with silver spoons (my grandfather was a sailor and my grandmother a seamstress) but they rose because of the numerous opportunities made available to them.
And I guess for these folks of that generation, they too witnessed first-hand how hard Mr Lee had fought for them. In his words, "growth is meaningless unless it is shared by the workers, shared not only directly in wage increases but indirectly in better homes, better schools, better hospitals, better playing fields and, generally, a healthier environment for families to bring up their children."
I know that politics is never the cleanest business and I'm not here to discuss that. All I'm saying is, this man and his band of brothers dedicated their life to public service so we can have the Singapore we have now. He might have made a few decisions that didn't sit well with some, but that doesn't discount the tenacity, perseverance and love he has for us that brought us to where we are today.
"All I can say is, I did my best. This was the job I undertook, I did my best, and I could not have done more in the circumstances. What people think of it, I have to leave to them. It is of no great consequence. What is of consequence is I did my best."
-Lee Kuan Yew, 1923-2015
I cannot express the deep gratitude I feel, all I can say is a million thank you's for dedicating your entire life to fighting for us and now finally, you can rest.
Sleep well, Sir.