Mr Lee first entered this Parliament, or its earlier iteration the Legislative Assembly, in 1955 as a member of Tanjong Pagar, a seat he held for 60 years, an unsurpassed record.
I once asked him why he chose Tanjong Pagar. He said it was because the people there were very poor, the conditions bad and the place much in need of improvement.
I did not fully appreciate what he meant until I read his memoirs.
He described the Tanjong Pagar of 1955 as docklands crowded with dock workers, trishaw riders, shopkeepers and opium dens. Workers’ quarters were wooden dwellings with no sewerage or drainage.
He recalled scenes of filth and dilapidation among broken-down shophouses in or around Narcis Street, where Tanjong Pagar Plaza stands today. Drains clogged with rubbish stank, with decaying food.
He vowed to change this. He promised Singaporeans a better life. They believed him and voted him in.
This allowed him to enter Parliament in 1955 and eventually go on to become our First Prime Minister.
Tanjong Pagar and Singapore today are a far cry from what he described. Both have been completely transformed through his vision and his efforts.
He kept his promise to the people of Singapore and the bond was cemented.
On sacrifices, let me say something about sacrifices. What we were called upon to do was to sacrifice the things that would have held us back. It was not people who were sacrificed, but the things which would have made us a lesser people, a lesser country, than we are today. He called upon us to make sacrifices, in accordance with some very basic principles – humanity, integrity, thrift, welfare of the people. The things we had to give up were laziness, corruption, division, hatred of other races. The things we had to give up, were things like lack of security, lack of housing.
We were called to make sacrifices so that we could put things together. The other kind of sacrifice we were asked to make was to set aside divisions and animosity in the interest of national unity.
And who made the biggest sacrifice of all? In an interview, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was once asked, at the end of the day what he had achieved. His response was, “At the end of the day what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.”
The biggest sacrifice of all was made by Mr Lee Kuan Yew. And because of that, because he was a strong leader, and led a strong party, everyone benefited and Singapore is what it is today. And if you compare us with any other newly independent country, our people have more opportunities in Singapore.
And let us see the response of Singaporeans.
In the last week we saw a tremendous outpouring of love for Mr Lee. Thousands – young, old, rich, poor, from all races, religions and all walks of life – came. First, to wish him well and then, to say goodbye.
I have been at Tanjong Pagar CC every day, the last 5 days. You have also seen the queues that have snaked around this Parliament. You have to be there among the people to understand. People were in tears. And if you asked them, if you speak to them, all of them to the last person, will tell you this one thing. They will say that the reason why they are there, either at the CC or standing in queue, was because this is the one thing, the last thing they can do – to say thank you and to show respect.
What is the essence of the man that inspires such an overwhelming reaction?
Some might say it’s his vision, his drive, his intellect.
But these alone would not have been enough to generate this wellspring of emotion.
The real secret, the real secret of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s enduring bond with Singaporeans is that we all fundamentally understood that that vision, the drive and the intellect were all powered by one thing – he cared. He cared deeply for Singaporeans and Singapore, and all his actions were driven by a desire to make things better for them. Singapore was his life’s work.
And people know this.
So just as he was there for us on that amazing journey from third world to first, Singaporeans have been here for him in the last days of his life and now for his final journey.
One well-wisher at Tanjong Pagar wrote:
“Dear Mr Lee
We cannot thank you enough for all that you’ve done for us and the land we call home, let alone the sacrifices you made behind the scenes that all of us will perhaps only learn of in the long future or maybe even never. And in this simple card I know that I will fail to express my heartfelt gratitude and emotions to you as well. I can’t quite put into words the feelings I hold.”
Sometimes, the lack of words says it all.
History judges men by their legacies.
And what is Mr Lee’s legacy?
It is not in buildings or monuments. His is not a legacy of brick or stone.
His is a legacy of life and breath:
- a place where you can belong, irrespective of the colour of your skin, your religion, or your language;
- a place where you can be safe;
- a place of opportunity; and
- a place we call home.
His legacy is:
- a people united
- a people with heart
- a nation strong and free.
This is who we are today because of this man, his vision and his leadership, and above all, his unquenchable, unconquerable spirit from which we took heart and which now defines us as a people and a nation – the spirit of Singapore.
His journey has ended. He is now at rest.
Rest in peace, Mr Lee.
And know, that because of your legacy, Singapore and the Singapore spirit will live on and prosper.
Thank you, Madam Speaker.