Lessons from Mr Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died on March 23, 2015, at 3.18am.

Being the news junkie I am, I’ve been following every bit of news closely since it was announced that he was hospitalised. When the daily updates on his worsening condition came last week, I would tell my family about it. After several days of updates last week, Shannon started asking, how is Mr Lee Kuan Yew today?

The morning he died, I was up at 6am giving Jason Brufen for high fever and the Ventolin puff for wheezing. I checked my phone for news updates after Jason went back to bed, and saw the news.

The rest of the day was spent fervently following every update that came, from watching CNA at the clinic with Jason, listening to the news in the car, to devouring all the obituaries from media around the world on my handphone. Thankfully I did not have a work deadline the last few days.

Much has been written about Mr Lee as an astute statesman, a dedicated founding Prime Minister and an intellect revered by many world leaders. But the pieces I enjoyed the most were those from his children, this one by his tutor, and another by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on Mr Lee’s red box, which has been making its rounds online. They offer a glimpse into another side of the man not usually seen by the world.

As a parent, I’ve been wondering how to ensure my children know about the contributions of Mr Lee and other pioneering leaders of the country. My takeaway from history lessons in school were stories on Sir Stamford Raffles and Sang Nila Utama. Hopefully history textbooks have changed to include greater details on political leaders of modern Singapore. I was doing research last year for a speech I had to write, and began reading up on Singapore politics in 1965. Names like Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye and Lim Chin Siong were already familiar to me, but through the process, I found out more about the work of politicians like Ong Pang Boon, Jek Yeun Thong and Ahmad Mattar. My first thought after completing the research, was, why didn’t I learn about them in school? Perhaps I would not feel this way as a student, but in hindsight, and as a parent, I would like my children to know all the work that has gone into making Singapore what it is today and the people who did it. Coincidentally, the speech was for an event which was to take place this Friday, but has since been postponed.

My kids are born into a modern Singapore that is clean and green, and in a way, so was I. They have seen black and white images of a dirty Singapore River on TV this week and they have heard Mr Lee’s rousing speeches on the radio. I’ve been telling them what I could in the past few days. They were curious about Singaporeans crying at tribute sites and I explained why. But I’m not sure how much impact, if any, it has on them.

Mr Lee stepped down as PM when I was 12. So for my kids, he is even further removed from the world they now live in. For them to appreciate the country, they have to know what it was like in the past. As a friend wrote on FB, this past week has been a good crash course on Singapore history for many of us. Today, students in Singapore schools reflected on what Mr Lee has done for Singapore. Jason came back from school and said he thanked Mr Lee for cleaning up the Singapore River. (So the river image did go into his head!) But what happens after this week, after Mr Lee’s funeral is over on Sunday? The challenge now is to ensure this lesson continues in one way or another from next week onwards.

On a personal note, some of the sharing from Mr Lee’s children resonated with me. I’ve extracted their quotes below from media reports. He may be father of the nation, but at home, he is father to his three children, and there is much to learn from the way he and his late wife, Mdm Kwa Geok Choo, parent their children.

Not throwing their weight around:

Middle child Lee Wei Ling: “My parents always emphasised to my siblings and me that we should not behave like the PM’s children. As a result, we treated everyone – friends, labourers and Cabinet ministers – with equal respect.”

Being frugal

Lee Wei Ling: “We had to turn off water taps completely. If my parents found a dripping tap, we would get a ticking off. And when we left a room, we had to switch off lights and air-conditioners.”

Enjoying simple pleasures in life

Eldest son and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: “He used to take us to go and look at trains. And we used to go to Holland Road – Tanglin Halt is called Tanglin Halt because the train stops there and there used to be a railway station there. We would go there in the evening and watch the trains come, exchange tokens with the station master. And then it goes on. It’s a great thrill and outing for us, for me. I must have been 5 to 6 years old then. And we would do that.

When we went on holidays, we went to Cameron Highlands. We went there when I was a small child. We break journey at Kuala Lumpur – we’d stay at the railway station, there was a station hotel in KL in those days … and you go and look at the trains on the platform.”

On their studies

Lee Hsien Loong: “Most years I was not top student in class or in the school but as long as you were doing your best, managing, they were okay… If you have an interest, they helped us to pursue it.”

As a father

Youngest child Lee Hsien Yang: “He always had the best interests of the country at heart. And at home, it was always the interests of his children and our mother.”

“I think parents who are good manage to guide their children along without making them feel constrained.”


It is a good reminder that at the end of the day, when all is said and done, your legacy is lived out by your children.

May you rest in peace, Mr Lee.


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