Speech by Ms Sim Ann at Special Parliamentary Sitting – Tribute to the Founding Prime Minister of Singapore, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew (English Translation of Speech Delivered in Mandarin)

I wish to pay tribute to Founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew in two particular aspects – his contributions to women’s advancement, and to bilingualism.

Mr Lee has never described himself as a feminist, and yet his policies had made an immense difference to women.

Mr Lee had always valued education, ensuring that a good part of the national budget went towards education even when our country’s resources were meagre.

This has helped many women get educated and get jobs. We now see successful women in many fields.

The Women’s Charter has given women in Singapore the right to property, and to be treated fairly. Women can walk on our streets without fearing for our personal safety, enjoying a degree of freedom yet to be fully realised in many other societies.

Mr Lee’s loving and lasting union with Mrs Lee has set an excellent example for many families.

But more importantly, Mr Lee’s basic attitude towards women was one of respect, and set the tone for gender equality in society. He believed that traditional notions of male dominance and men refusing to marry their equals were outdated, and must change with the times.

Without Mr Lee, the women of Singapore would not have enjoyed so many gains in so short a time.

Bilingualism could well be Mr Lee’s boldest and most radical policy. It could also be his most controversial. Debates have taken place many times on this topic within and outside of this House. We can expect such debates to continue into the future.

Mr Lee had realised in the early days of nation-building that, if different groups of Singaporeans were to continue using different languages, then our already limited shared space would be fragmented into separate little worlds. To unite all races and to expand the common space, and to connect with the wider world, Mr Lee decided on English as our working language. But, to preserve our cultural ballast, Mr Lee also maintained that each ethnic group must study its mother tongue. Mr Lee was also of the view that ethnic Chinese Singaporeans should speak less dialect and more Mandarin.

This was a tall order for a young nation with a complex linguistic environment. It was already hard for someone to learn a language that he does not speak at home. But for someone to make a significant adjustment, even a complete change in his daily language use, was even harder. For those who saw language as a core part of their identity, it was downright painful.

Yet, for a young nation with a complex linguistic environment which yearned for peace and unity, these changes were necessary. Mr Lee’s view was a rational one: better short-term pain than long-term agony. In every ethnic group, there were people who found it hard to adjust to the language policies he implemented, and who still feel aggrieved even to this day. But bilingualism undoubtedly widened our common space and laid the foundation for harmonious communication between all races. I have come across many Singaporeans of different ethnic groups of my age or younger, who have told me that they appreciate the bilingual education policy for giving them the tools to function effectively and comfortably in both Asian and Western settings.

While the policy might have been a rational one, Mr Lee was, at heart, a leader who cared. It is clear from the way he devoted much personal attention to bilingualism, over a large part of his life. He tracked our students’ performance, and constantly sought inputs from experts and researchers. In 1975, he spent four months helming the Education Ministry himself in order to ensure adjustments to the bilingualism policy were duly implemented. He created the Prime Minister’s Book Prize to encourage students who did well in both English and their mother tongue language. In his later years, he started the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism to help young children build a foundation for learning English and the mother tongue languages. His life’s work in this area was encapsulated in his book, “My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey”.

Mr Lee had stated that of all the combinations of English and the mother tongue, English/Mandarin was the most difficult combination. He walked the talk; he worked hard at learning Mandarin and never gave up on his lessons.

This morning, The Straits Times quoted a 49-year-old businessman who came to pay respects to Mr Lee. He said that he was from a Chinese school and used to feel very disadvantaged after Mr Lee introduced the bilingual policy. But now, as a businessman, knowing English has helped him to expand his semiconductor business overseas, in countries like the United States. The bilingual policy has changed his life. If Mr Lee could hear this, I believe he would feel comforted.

Mr Lee has brought us on a long journey towards excellence. We will soldier on, even after he has left us.

Madam, Mr Lee’s language policy stands among the iconic legacies he has created for Singaporeans. It has left a deep impact on many, especially educators and language professionals. This includes the men and women who are sitting in our interpreter booths who ensure that what transpires in this House can be understood in the four official languages. He has led us on the road to bilingualism, in pursuit of unity as one people, the preservation of our cultural ballast, and ease of interaction with the world at large. It is a long journey which we will continue long after he has left us.