We are deeply saddened by the passing of our Founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee was Singapore’s first Prime Minister, from 1959 to 1990. He was also Senior Minister from 1990 to 2004, and Minister Mentor from 2004 to 2011. Mr Lee also served as Minister for Education in 1975. He continued to serve Singapore as a Member of Parliament of Tanjong Pagar GRC after stepping down as Minister Mentor.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew devoted his entire life to Singapore, rallying Singaporeans to build a nation and a home that we can all be proud of. Singapore has become a secure, stable and endearing home, a home where we work, learn and play with our families and friends.
When Singapore became independent in 1965, many thought Singapore would not make it. It was a small island city-state with a small market and no natural resources. The education level and the standard of living were both low. There was a rapidly growing population, high unemployment, and only a small defence force. For Singapore to survive, Mr Lee knew that Singapore had to be extraordinary. He set high expectations for himself and his team of leaders to create an honest and effective government and to gain the trust of the people. Mr Lee led a life of prudence himself, exemplifying the virtues of hard work, thrift and integrity.
Mr Lee pursued a vision of a city-state where all Singaporeans, regardless of their race, language or religion, have equal and ample opportunities to seek a fulfilling future. Working towards that vision, he focused his and his team’s efforts on building a safe and secure Singapore. A strong defence force and friendly relations with other countries kept Singaporeans safe. To secure a livelihood for Singaporeans, Mr Lee and his team laid foundations for an open and dynamic economy that propelled Singapore to first world status. Mr Lee was not afraid to try out novel ideas when he believed that they were right for Singapore. He opened Singapore’s doors to foreign investments when other newly independent countries hesitated, and encouraged our companies to export globally. This decision to connect to the world enabled us to ride the waves of global growth since our independence.
Mr Lee pushed for Singapore’s transformation into a garden city because he believed that a clean and green Singapore lifts our spirits and makes a better home for Singaporeans. He personally took part in cleaning campaigns to set an example on how every Singaporean can play his part.
Mr Lee always believed that Singaporeans were Singapore’s best asset. Hence, Mr Lee placed special emphasis on education – despite the meagre resources we had in the early years, education has always been an important priority for him. As our nation progressed, we invested even more resources, to create more opportunities for all, especially in higher education.
Mr Lee once delivered a 21-page speech to all school principals in 1966, laying bare the problems as he analysed them, and exhorting them to bring up education standards and continue to improve our schools. He ended that speech with a question, “Now, how do we do it?” Every principal in the room sensed his determination to make things better, and having set out the issues, he was ready to get down to work and hear their ideas. They realised very quickly that Mr Lee was a man of action, and he intended to roll up his sleeves and be part of the solution.
Mr Lee believed that it is who we are as a people – as individuals and as a team, which will shape the future of Singapore. Beyond educating Singaporeans so that each can fulfil his potential and find meaningful careers, Mr Lee believed firmly that our schools must build the foundation for nation building. This means nurturing Singaporeans with character – Singaporeans who are rugged, honest, cohesive, possessing strong instincts for racial harmony and our collective survival.
In his address on the eve of National Day in 1967, Mr Lee shared how, “In the long run, it is the quality of our youths that will determine our future. And we have to invest in them more than any other sector…Our schools will train students in the classrooms, in the playing fields to make them healthy and robust. But even more important, they will teach our students high standards of personal behaviour, social norms of good and bad, right and wrong. Without these values, a literate generation may be more dangerous than a completely uneducated one.”
Over the years, Mr Lee donated generously to the Education Fund, and provided awards to recognise outstanding students in schools, the Institute of Technical Education, and Polytechnics who excel in academic and non-academic domains. These include the Lee Kuan Yew Award for All Round Excellence, the Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship to Encourage Upgrading, the Lee Kuan Yew Award for Mathematics and Science and The Lee Kuan Yew Award for Outstanding Normal Course Students.
One of the most critical decisions that Mr Lee made was to promote and uphold bilingualism as the cornerstone of our education system. The mother tongue languages connect us to our roots, our culture, and our heritage. At the same time, Mr Lee made English our working language and that has enabled Singaporeans to connect with one another, and to the world. In this way, bilingualism has helped to build national unity and deepen our cultural identity.
Bilingual education has been a lifelong commitment for Mr Lee. Mr Lee set up the “Prime Minister’s Book Prize” which was awarded each year to the most outstanding bilingual students in our primary and secondary schools. More recently, Mr Lee also started the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism in 2011 to focus on initiatives aimed at pre-school children so that our young may develop a good foundation for bilingualism early in life. In 2013, Mr Lee said, “In Singapore, our bilingualism policy makes learning difficult unless you start learning languages, English and the mother tongue, from an early age – the earlier the better.”
At his 1987 National Day Rally, Mr Lee defined excellence in this way: “You do your best and reach your peak in that job. Whether you’re a craftsman, whatever you are, be the best that you can be.” He was speaking about excellence in the context of education, and educational qualifications. Reading that speech again recently, it brought home to me how Mr Lee was already pushing for respect for all skills and all trades, for lifelong learning and for the spirit of seeking to be the best version of ourselves – a mindset shift we continue to encourage in our work in SkillsFuture today.
For Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore has been a lifelong preoccupation. Mr Lee’s deep and abiding belief is that who we are as Singaporeans will shape the kind of future that we will have. For all of us in the education fraternity, the most fitting tribute to Mr Lee is to press on with our mission to bring up future generations of Singaporeans who understand our past, who are prepared for the future, and who have a deep loyalty to Singapore and a commitment to fellow Singaporeans.
Mr Lee has lived a full and meaningful life. Mr Lee was known as a man of his word and a man of action. Let us share our thoughts about his life and contributions with family and friends. Beyond words, let us take action together, to build on the ideals and legacy of Mr Lee and his team of pioneers, so as to create a better future for all Singaporeans, and build an endearing home for all. That will be the best way to honour Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s life and his life’s work that is Singapore.