Remembering Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

flag at half mast

Our nation grieves. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of Singapore, has passed on.

Amid the deep sadness, I also fondly recall the work I did as a young civil servant. Even though I never met Mr. Lee in person or reported to him directly, I feel privileged to have played tiny parts towards building the Singapore he envisioned.

My first job was in MND, where I spent some time working on greenery policies such as streetscape greenery and sky-rise greenery. Word has it that those policies were part of the vision that Mr. Lee had laid out back in the ‘70s. That we were still implementing pieces of his vision more than 30 years on is not a reflection of slow implementation but of his far-sighted vision.

Mr. Lee took Singapore on the green path long before sustainability became important. Based on the conventional wisdom then, the cost-benefit analysis would not have made sense. Perhaps that’s why few cities pursued it seriously. Furthermore, we were a young nation then and there were many other pressing issues to invest our few resources on. But Mr. Lee had the foresight and courage to go against the conventional wisdom, and in doing so, create a new wisdom. It says a lot about his brand of leadership that was ready to make bold decisions when very little was clear or obvious.

My second job was in MEWR, where I worked on water issues. A key project at the time was the construction of the barrage and Marina Reservoir. The work was tough and we were kept very busy. But the reality was that much of the work had been done decades earlier. The barrage and reservoir would not have been possible if not for earlier efforts such as the cleaning of the Singapore River in the 70’s, and the harnessing of membrane technology for NEWater in the 80’s and 90’s – all of which were pieces of Mr. Lee’s vision.

Singapore’s achievements in water sufficiency and greenery highlight the power when a clear vision is sustained over time. Just like money that compounds at a steady interest over many years. Today, we seem to favor more frequent changes. We justify it by claiming to live in a highly complex and uncertain world. Was the world less complex and uncertain during Mr. Lee’s time? I don’t think so. Perhaps it takes a certain talent to be able to find the constancy in uncertainty, and to see order in chaos. It’s a rare talent, and we are blessed to have a leader in Mr. Lee who possessed so much of it.

As I reflect on Mr. Lee’s legacy, two sayings related to my (past) work in water and greenery strike me.

One is the Chinese saying, 饮水思源, which translates to, “when you drink water, think about where it comes from”. We owe many thanks to the pioneer generation and to visionary leaders like Mr. Lee. It is a gratitude we can never hope to repay, but can only hope to pay forward.

The other is a Greek proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in”. Even when old age and illness took its toll on Mr. Lee’s health, he continued to plant more trees for future generations. It is such selfless contribution to the larger good that makes our world a better place.

Thank you Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. We will always remember you.

Photo credit:

Ministry of Communications and Information

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