Chapter 1 - Founding father - Part 3 : Why I am grateful to Mr Lee
Why I am grateful to Mr Lee
BY RICHARD LIM
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Sept 14, 2003
Singapore and its people owe a lot to Mr Lee Kuan Yew for getting the country to where it is today.
In 1959, Minister for National Development, Mr Ong Eng Guan, announced a gigantic $415-million government-building programme extending over the next five years. The plan would provide for 83,647 units, which were almost three times of the output of the Singapore Improvement Trust in the past 12 years, to accommodate at least 420,000 people. The plan was announced when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was touring several housing estates. — ST PHOTO: HAN HAI FONG
SINCE he initiated Tree Planting Day back in 1971, Mr Lee Kuan Yew would mark it each year by planting a seedling somewhere on the island in an informal ceremony.
In the early years, Mr Lee, Singapore's first Prime Minister, was shown wearing rubber boots at this annual ritual. The ground was likely to be muddy. But by the late 1970s or early 1980s, he would often be shown planting a seedling in a polo shirt, white shorts, and a pair of track shoes.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew officiating the opening of the $1.8 million swimming pool at the Police Academy in 1977. – ST PHOTO
Some time in the mid-1980s, when I thought I should start jogging, I went out and bought myself a relatively costly pair of New Balance running shoes. I bought New Balance because that was the brand Mr Lee was shown wearing in the tree-planting picture that year.
One of the attractions of my East Coast condominium was its large swimming pool. I had always feared going near water, but a remark made by Mr Lee in 1977 stung me, and I was determined to learn to swim.
At the opening of a new Police Academy swimming pool early that year, the Prime Minister said: "If you can't swim when we are surrounded by water and have a multitude of swimming pools, it is ridiculous."
That statement made me feel inadequate, and it stayed with me. So eight years later, when I moved into the condominium, with a pool literally in my backyard, I had no more reason to postpone learning to swim.
A colleague recommended a coach at a pool near my office. I went to him dutifully twice a week after work, until I had learnt at least the breast stroke and could do laps.
It was in the mid-1980s that I bought the condominium apartment. I was never a saver, but there was enough money accumulated in my Central Provident Fund account which, together with a housing loan from my company, allowed me to purchase the studio apartment.
I was 35, and I had my own private property. It was an arrival of sorts. The best part was, I didn't have to scrimp and save for it. It made me grateful for the CPF policy.
That a good part of an employee's salary should go into the CPF was Mr Lee's idea.
His lieutenant, Dr Goh Keng Swee, the economic architect of modern Singapore, had, by the end of the 1960s, assessed that the new nation was going to succeed in its economic take-off. Workers' wages would rise rapidly as multi-national companies were being wooed to set up shop here.
There would also be such a desperate shortage of workers that Singapore would have to import workers from Malaysia, he told an audience of university students. It sounded like bombast at the time.
But as surely as he had predicted, wages shot up during that decade, and thousands of Malaysians crossed the Causeway to work in factories which were set up here.
They rose again in the 1980s, when Mr Lee and Dr Goh shifted gears, moving Singapore's industrialisation up the value chain.
If Dr Goh had the foresight, it was Mr Lee who had the vision to see that if a significant portion of the wage increases were siphoned off into the CPF, the money could be put to good use in their nation-building project.
But in the first place, the MNCs had to want to come. As the Chinese say, you have to "zao chao ying feng", or build the nest so that the phoenix will come to lay its golden eggs.
So the infrastructure had to be put in place, and the people mobilised. Singapore had to show itself to be a safe and orderly place, its people disciplined and industrious. And so much the better if it could also be a secure financial hub in the region.
All this my leaders worked at and succeeded, against many odds.
Mr Lee's CPF idea proved to be a successful formula: in less than two decades, more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans got to own their HDB flats.
The enforced savings scheme had served the country well. But the world has turned. What had once helped made Singapore a winner could now hobble it, if no changes were made. Hence, the slaughter of what was once a sacred cow by the Goh Chok Tong government last month.
The many changes to the CPF will have some impact on me, a bachelor past his sell-by date, but not as much as it will have on those who have families or who are younger.
Until I owned my first home, I had felt myself a misfit in Mr Lee Kuan Yew's new rugged society. Adrift, I sought security in the company of a group of other misfits, who sought escape through drugs and rock n' roll.
It was the Age of Aquarius, after all. We mimicked the Western counterculture youths, unaware that closer to home, in China, people of our age and younger were wrecking the country in a revolution that could spill over its Great Wall.
At the same time, American soldiers as young as we were were stopping over in Singapore, before they were flown off to fight the war in Vietnam. The convulsions in China and the Vietnam War could have caused havoc in a very vulnerable South-east Asia.
As it was, Indonesia was going through a massive upheaval of its own, as its first president Sukarno was deposed in an army coup, and replaced by Suharto. For two years, the country was plunged into chaos, and there was blood on the streets. More than a million people, many of them innocent, were killed in a fit of anti-communist madness.
It was against this turbulent backdrop that Prime Minister Lee and his team set about remaking colonial Singapore.
It was a profound undertaking. People were uprooted en masse and moved into simple but functional HDB high-rise blocks, which were being built as quickly as the bulldozers could move into their ramshackle squatters.
Those people who had lived with pigs and fowl suddenly found they could no longer do so. Elderly folks like my grandmother found themselves prisoners in their new high-rise homes, because they feared taking the lifts.
The Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian enclaves were broken up, as the people found themselves with new neighbours who were of different races. I moved from a shophouse to a three-room HDB flat. An Indian family was my next-door neighbour.
No one's life was left untouched in the re-ordering of Singapore. Old ways of life had to make way for the new. The adjustment was not easy for many people, and there were those who were dislocated, like myself. Talk about mindset change!
Yet, the people trusted the small band of men who had planned this massive disruption to their fairly routine, if generally meagre, post-war lives. On them, they pinned their hope for a better future.
For those of us growing up at the time, we found that suddenly, many of our familiar landmarks were wiped out in the fast-changing landscape. Schools, kampungs, favourite hang-out spots - they disappeared overnight. We lost all points of reference.
Well, not quite. There was one point of reference which loomed over us, and never got out of sight. We could run, but we could not hide from Mr Lee Kuan Yew, our fearless but most fearsome Prime Minister.
He was indefatigable in the way he drove us. Open the newspapers and turn on the radio, and there he was, exhorting us to work harder, to be more disciplined, to be rugged, to use our hands, and to cut our hair. When we had TV, he popped up on the small screen, repeating his exhortations. But such was his charisma and so palpable was his passion that few of us switched him off. The two comics, Wang Sha and Ye Feng, provided relief in between.
Mr Lee set impossibly high standards, then kept raising the bar each time his people cleared it.
Yet, harsh as he was, he believed everyone counted in the Great Singapore Race, and he spurred those who were dislocated, who tripped and were left behind, to catch up.
And when you did, effort turned into exhilaration. You found yourself in a fast winning team, snapping at the heels of the bigger teams ahead of you.
When I began to have the means to travel and visit other post-colonial societies, I could compare myself with my peers in those countries. Sadly, their lot was invariably a much meaner one than mine. They had suffered disorder, were denied education, and now, as adults, were mired in poverty.
Their revolutionary leaders proved to be poor administrators when they took power. They could not contain the communal tensions of the different races of people who had been brought together by empire, and held down for so long by it. They watched helplessly as these tensions exploded into bloody strife. Meanwhile, they nationalised all businesses, and ran down whatever resources the colonialists had left behind.
Ambitious projects were started but left unfinished. Broken-down vehicles and other mechanical junk littered the landscape.
The squalor in these places was picturesque to well-fed tourists, in the way ours was in the early 1960s, when the natives were out in the streets till late at night, only because their living quarters were often too cramped to even sleep in.
I saw that my leaders had made the right bets when they formed the government. They followed no doctrine, choosing only what worked. And they were very clear about their goal: to build an orderly and prosperous society, whose people share a common destiny, and who are ready to defend themselves against others.
To win a battle is one thing. To run a country and keep it in fighting-fit form, that is another altogether.
In that speech at the opening of the Police Academy pool, besides pointing out how every Singaporean should be able to swim, Mr Lee had also said: It was easy to build a pool, but to keep the changing rooms, the shower stalls and the toilets clean and functioning, required constant maintenance. These were the areas not seen by the public, but the users would know if they were not properly maintained.
This was a signature riff of Mr Lee's: build, maintain, and make sure everything works, all the time.
It is to have that quality which the British historian Arnold Toynbee calls "the arduousness of excellence". A slackening of the will, a dampening of the ardour, and all that is excellent, that has taken years to build, can be turned to ruins.
Today's asset-rich and cash-poor Singaporeans who are stuck with a second property should know how quickly dereliction sets in when a tenant cannot be found and the place is left vacant.
In his tome, A Study Of History - I must confess I have only the abridged edition - Toynbee cites as example the once remarkable system of irrigation in Ceylon. An astounding achievement in early civil engineering, it was developed by the Sinhalese over many generations.
"But this fertile countryside survived in its man-made state only so long as Man did not relax his grip upon his hostile environment.
"When the internecine wars of the 11th century...destroyed the tank-building dynasty and checked the continuous human exertions which had been required to produce and maintain this miraculous transformation in the face of Nature, those irrigated and cultivated and populated plains relapsed into their primeval state..."
I visited Sri Lanka in 1980.
There was civil strife, as the Tamil minority, who saw themselves marginalised by the Sinhalese leadership, raged against the Sinhalese majority.
It was such a lovely country, but such a sad state of affairs. Everywhere I turned, I saw poverty.
On a sunny morning, when I was in Cambridge on a two-month fellowship programme, I chanced upon a gathering of students in a college rectangle, happy and busy preparing themselves for the convocation ceremony.
Watching them, I felt a stab of sadness. I wished I had won a glamorous government scholarship after I had finished my pre-university examinations, and sent over here. But I did not even go on to the university at home. I was here now, but it was 25 years too late.
In Mr Lee's Singapore, to be a government scholar was to belong to a select mandarin class. Those outside of the class were what Hollywood used to call a cast of thousands, before technology made the minimum-wage extras redundant. Rightly or wrongly, that was how many of us non-scholars felt.
We were "chow ka peng", as they said in the Hokkien platoons in the old National Service days, or unwashed foot-soldiers. But Mr Lee had taught us well. Over the years, we had internalised at least some of his values. We were not going to be content to stay in our ranks and "cari makan", earn a livelihood.
We might not have the stuff to make it to generals, but we would fight to become captains or majors, in our own ways.
If we could not get into the scholar mandarin suite, we wanted access at least to the officers' mess. The privilege would come with responsibilities, but we would bear them.
It was largely unspoken, but it was a challenge many of us responded to - "look me no up, is it?" - and not an insignificant number of us have made the officer grade.
So what has been generally seen as an elitist policy has worked its magic of levelling up the society. When you pretend to be egalitarian, as in the former communist states, it goes the other way round. You lower the people to the mean, then you find you have to keep lowering the mean, because that is the way human nature is, and you get caught in a slippery spiral down to the bottom of the well.
I cannot say I am Mr Lee Kuan Yew's ideal Singaporean - not too bright, not rugged enough, not married, so not a father - but my life has been given meaning, and my patch of real estate is worth more than just its price in hard cash.
How many men in their mid-50s in other post-colonial societies can boast of a similar sweet spot? The sad fact is, many are no longer around, they had perished in the upheavals that took over their countries following the end of empire.
I do owe Mr Lee.
Please Click following link to continue on STORIES on Related Post: