Chapter 1 - Founding father - Part 4 : The greatest generation
The greatest generation
BY MAURICE BAKER
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Sept 14, 2003
Mr Lee Kuan Yew and members of the PAP Cabinet photographed outside the City Hall after the swearing-n ceremony on June 5, 1959: (from far left) Yong Nyuk Lin, Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, Lee Kuan Yew, Ong Eng Guan, Ahmad Ibrahim, K. M. Byrne, Ong Pang Boon and S. Rajaratnam. — ST PHOTO
IT is troubled times that produce the great men, thinkers, writers. People say the Swiss are very happy people, relaxed. And for a long time, they were remembered for having produced the cuckoo clock, whereas a turbulent Russia has produced Tolstoy, great writers and musicians.
In Singapore's early years, we went through some difficult times.
And we needed somebody like Lee Kuan Yew, who's strong and, if I may say so, can be ruthless when he needed to be to get things done.
I think Singapore is very fortunate that when it was at a low point after we left Malaysia, that men such as Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee were here and able to do what was needed.
It remains very characteristic of Kuan Yew that when you accept to do a job, you do it well - or else don't accept the position if you're incapable of doing it.
You do it well or not at all. That is how that generation thought, and it is what they lived by. There is no room for fakes and pretenders. Even today.
My generation will always regard him highly.
If not for him, and I will always add Keng Swee, I think Singapore will not be what it is today.
When it was needed, Singapore had the men to shape and develop it although we had no resources, except a good harbour, good geographical position and hardworking people.
Mr Othman Wok, one of the 10 ministers in Singapore’s first Cabinet, on the hard and soft sides of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
He knew what needed to be done: order, firm rule, authoritarian if necessary, to allow Singapore to develop economically.
Incidently, the late James Puthucheary - a founding PAP member who crossed over to the Barisan - once told me in Kuala Lumpur, where I was High Commissioner, that even if the Barisan had come to power, they could not have done for Singapore what Kuan Yew did.
That is a tremendous compliment, coming from James.
And it is a tribute to Kuan Yew's leadership, his ability.
Can you imagine what the situation would have been without his leadership and Keng Swee's economic genius?
When they took over the Government, we were practically bankrupt.
Kuan Yew emerged naturally as party leader, and others accepted him. He would take charge of any meeting, with his ideas, eloquence and command of the language.
I hear it was a free-flowing discussion in Cabinet. But once they made a decision, everyone supported it.
This collective responsibility has carried over to today.
The PAP was confronted by the communists, and to overcome them, they had to be united. Any disagreements among themselves might have led to disaster.
There were always fresh challenges ahead. It was highly doubtful if we would succeed after the separation from Malaysia.
But we had the right leaders: Kuan Yew, the creative genius of Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen, S. Rajaratnam, Eddie Barker, Toh Chin Chye.
As leader, he also, in the course of time, built up the next generation. And he was far-sighted in making way when the time came for the next generation of leaders, who were carefully selected.
He has stepped aside. But he'll be consulted, because his imprint, values, determination are still there.
Although some people have criticised the fact that he places great store on academic achievements, this is understandable, given his own achievements. His wife is also brilliant academically, and so are his children.
Has he changed on this?
I'd like to think that with age, he's grown more tolerant and philosophical - although there are moments when he tends to give no quarter to the opposition.
I first came to know him in 1940, when I was already in Raffles College, which was something of a seedbed for the future leaders in Singapore and Malaysia.
The year he joined us was also when Tun Abdul Razak joined. So that cohort, in fact, produced two Prime Ministers.
Sui Sen, Keng Swee, Eddie Barker, Toh Chin Chye were all also there. So too were Ghazali Shafie, Khadir Yusof. All became very prominent.
The British idea had been to provide a basic minimum: educate locals to a point where they could become clerks, schoolmasters and the like. There was this discrimination - not allowing Asian talent to emerge to challenge them. That rankled us.
Kuan Yew was out to prove, to show, as he says, that the Chinaman is as good as the white man. And he did it, of course, in Cambridge, when he beat them all with his First Class degree.
The fact that the Japanese could defeat the British opened our eyes. It certainly influenced Kuan Yew and those who eventually became political leaders. So did India's independence in 1947.
Maybe you can say they were rebels by nature.
However, they had to wait until they had full educational qualifications, which they acquired at Raffles College and later in Britain, before they could organise themselves.
What was different on their return from Britain was that they had proven themselves there: that as students, they were as good as any white man. That was a test.
The chaps that returned were all bright fellows. And David Marshall, Lim Yew Hock were ahead of them. So they watched them, saw how things were developing.
But Kuan Yew also had ambition. He knew that unless you go into politics, you are not going to achieve anything. Keng Swee also.
The idea was to work through the trade unions to gain ground support before aiming for political power. And Kuan Yew becoming the leading legal adviser to unions was important in that regard.
But you also had to be tough. The communists had penetrated the unions, and it was touch and go at times. But by then, the PAP had the British on its side.
Still, it was a risk. It was such a disparate society in Singapore at the time, with so many racial groups.
But what pulled them through was determination and taking a chance. As Kuan Yew said, if they had failed, they might well have been put up against a wall and shot.
But they thought it was a risk that had to be taken.
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