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Prof. Simon Tay shares his view of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew on Channel NewsAsia

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27 Mar Prof. Simon Tay shares his view of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew on Channel NewsAsia

Associate Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute Of International Affairs Chairman and a former NMP, speaks to Channel NewsAsia on Wednesday, 25 March, about the important principles established by Mr Lee that worked for the Singapore economy and how politics have changed since Mr Lee was Prime Minister. A transcript is below.

Q. What were the important principles that were established by Mr Lee, for the Singapore economy – those that specifically worked for the Singapore economy?

Prof. Tay:You must remember that at the time when he became our Prime Minister, the whole world was caught up in this ideology of closing off your economy, developing  your own companies and really he, Dr Goh Keng Swee, and others, changed the paradigm to make Singapore really a much more open, fair level playing field. Of course, this benefitted the multi-nationals and the government-led companies, the GLCs.

But, importantly, we recognize that it really helped the Singapore private sector – whether it was a bank, or a property developer. Property developers say location, location, location…well, is Singapore a viable location? He created the conditions for the private sector to really flourish in Singapore. That’s why we see so many companies also taking the time to stop their work, and pay their homage to the late Mr Lee.

Q. You also observed the transition from the Lee Kuan Yew government to the Goh Chok Tong government – what do you think changed for Singapore politics with that leadership change? 

Prof. Tay: I think the first (reaction) was a gasp of astonishment, that somebody with so much influence and power really should let it go, at a relatively early age, to a younger generation. The world is so replete of people who don’t let go and still cling to power. When I was a Nominated Member of Parliament, from 1997 to 2001, we literally crossed into the new Parliament House and we could see Mr Lee, though still very active and able, still listening and still debating, while really trying to let things go. There were occasions where perhaps things weren’t exactly the way he would’ve done it, but he gave the Members of Parliament, the government of Goh Chok Tong, the leeway. And, I would say that also this helped the society to move on.

Q. Right, so from the Goh Chok Tong era to the Lee Hsien Loong era, what changes have you observed in terms of the style and leadership from that transition? 

Prof. Tay: I think Mr Lee Hsien Loong has his own style. But more than that, the society again has changed – with the new media, the expectations of the younger generation… You know, they have been much more demanding, with different aspirations. And, we often feel that because they didn’t know the Singapore I knew in the 60s when I was a child, they didn’t see the poverty. They will have much higher expectations. But one good sign is, clearly, the sorrow that has been expressed across all generations of Singapore. I think that shows that even today, the mark of respect for what Mr Lee has helped us all achieve – I think that’s there even for the younger generation.

So it is a much more complicated politic, but I’m sure the leadership will find its own way. The key is to have Mr Lee Kuan Yew inspire us, but not to try to copy him. If we just copy his ideas, it won’t work for a new generation.

Q. Alright, so you’ve mentioned the complexities of the higher expectation and so on. What’s next then for the political leadership of Singapore?

Prof. Tay: I think one of the harder lessons will be that the PAP’s complete monopoly of parliament will have to shift. This won’t be by them giving up. No party can give up power. But I think there has to be some equanimity that while they want to have a solid majority, increasingly a diverse society will expect more diverse voices. And, the period that I sat in parliament was just the beginning of that for the NMPs. It will continue to mature. And, I think Mr Lee will be happy that our society will mature if we can avoid some of the bad effects of too much of that diversity, too much noise.

Q. Well, one final question- you mentioned that you were in parliament, and you had chances to meet with Mr Lee and to speak with him. Is there one moment that you would like to share with us? (That sticks fondly in your memory)

Prof Tay: I was part of the Singapore 21 committee looking forward and I think I gave a speech about civil society. Mr Lee wasn’t scheduled to speak but he rose and spoke and he disagreed with me. It wasn’t until later that people said to me ‘wow he wasn’t supposed to speak”. But, the point about that is that Mr Lee was listening. And, the people forget that when they think of him as an authoritative figure. He listens. He may have disagreed with you, he may have tried to persuade you to his point of view, but he never bullied me in that raw sense that people, sometimes in the West, might think of him.

I have another Lee Kuan Yew story if I could – because all of us grew up (here), I think we all have a Lee Kuan Yew story.

I was very honoured, as my father was part of the pioneer generation who served with Mr Lee, Dr Goh, and it was really one of the tense times in security issues. I think all of us should look back to that founding generation, during Mr Lee’s time, to see how our society has come, and where it has taken all of us.