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Commentary: Remembering Lee Kuan Yew and the founding fathers as we celebrate Singapore's independence and success today

In former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s latest book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, he described  former Singapore’s founding prime minister Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as one of the six transformational leaders.

As Singapore celebrates its birthday, let us recall the final words of Mr Lee at a press conference 57 years ago on August 9 over the separation: “We unite regardless of race, language, religion, culture.”

As Singapore celebrates its birthday, let us recall the final words of Mr Lee at a press conference 57 years ago on August 9 over the separation: “We unite regardless of race, language, religion, culture.”

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In former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s latest book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, he described former Singapore’s founding prime minister Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as one of the six transformational leaders.

These outstanding leaders, which also included ex-US president Richard Nixon and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, had two key leadership modes of “prophet” which is transformational and visionary, as well as “statesman” which is managerial and pragmatic.

Mr Lee displayed these core qualities in his leadership of the country over the decades, as well as in the establishment and development of Singapore as an independent nation on Aug 9 that year, a date we celebrate today.

EVENTS BEFORE AUG 9

These two fundamental modes of leadership were clearly manifest in 1965 when our leaders negotiated a separation from Malaysia so that Singapore could become independent.

In early 1965, Mr Lee expressed his vision for Singapore and personal thoughts to his cabinet in a typewritten document entitled “Memorandum from the Prime Minister”, and marked “Top Secret”.

He noted with foresight in the first paragraph, “It will not be long before we will have to take a decision on the future of Singapore and of Malaysia. I believe that soon after the Puasa month we will have to respond to an open move by the Tunku. It will demand that we take a public position.”

In 1965, Hari Raya Puasa was on the third of February, on the third day of Chinese New Year. Mr Lee was anticipating the potential developments with the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who also played a leading role in our separation and independence.

With a practical and analytical mindset, Mr Lee wrote, “Before we make this decision we should be clear in our minds on the options open to us and on the consequences not only of the short term but also the long term of each and every one of the possible decisions we make.”

Before this memo was written, in December 1964, Tunku Abdul Rahman raised to Mr Lee and Dr Goh Keng Swee, the Finance Minister, the possibility of constitutional arrangements.

In addition, in January 1965, Tunku wrote to Dr Goh and offered Singapore complete autonomy, excluding the domains of defence and foreign affairs, if Singapore gave up its Federal Parliament seats.

Mr Lee shared his analysis in his memo, stating “When the Tunku first informed Keng Swee in December last year (1964) of his desire to have Singapore ‘hive off’ from Malaya, it generated considerable excitement amongst us first because this showed their realisation that we cannot be fixed in Malaysia and the supremacy of Malay communalists assured forever.

“Next, it gave us an escape, if there is to be trouble in Malaya with communal clashes over language and other issues. We might in such a rearrangement insulate ourselves from communal conflict which is building up in Malaya.”

BENEFITS OF ALL WORLDS

As a statesman and leader of Singapore, Mr Lee was concerned about managing the racial tensions and potential communal clashes that could affect Singapore. He was also considering ways to transform Singapore.

Thinking of the future, Mr Lee stated the “greatest attraction of this rearrangement is our hope to get the benefits of all worlds- the common market, political stability with economic expansion, and autonomy in Singapore without interference from KL”, which refers to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.

In January 1965, Mr Lee had the optimistic vision, which he articulated to his cabinet colleagues: “The picture of a prosperous and flourishing Singapore doing better than the rest of Malaysia is most attractive.”

He also noted the trade-offs which included having to “give up our ability to influence events in Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak”.

By the start of 1965, Mr Lee was open to the negotiations to “hive-off” Singapore, leading to “political stability with economic expansion, and autonomy in Singapore without interference from KL”. He had the vision of a “prosperous and flourishing Singapore”, which became a thriving reality in the subsequent decades.

The negotiations resulting in the separation of Singapore from Malaysia were carefully managed. Mr Lee appointed his trusted minister and friend, Dr Goh, to lead in the negotiations.

Mr Lee provided Dr Goh with a handwritten letter that stated “I authorise Goh Keng Swee to discuss with Tun Razak, Dato Ismail and such other Federal Ministers of comparable authority concerned in these matters in the Central Govt any proposal for rearrangements of Malaysia.”

Between July to August 1965, Dr Goh engaged in meetings with Malaysia’s First Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia,  Tun Abdul Razak Hussein and Malaysian Minister for Home Affairs, Dato (Dr) Ismail Abdul Rahman.

Dr Goh,  who shared Mr Lee’s vision of a “prosperous and flourishing Singapore”, took the active step of proposing to the Malaysian leaders the full separation of Singapore from Malaysia.

During the meeting with the Malaysian leaders on July 13, Dr Goh shared the view that “the best thing would be to call it quits…we leave Malaysia become an independent state and you will be relieved of all these troubles and we would also have been relieved of troubles from you…We are on our own, you are on your own”.

According to Dr Goh’s notes, he met Tun Razak and Dato Ismail on July 20 in Tun Razak’s office from 11:05am to 11:55am.

He persuaded them that the sole way “was for Singapore to secede completely” and “it must be done very quickly, and very quietly, and presented as a fait accompli”. Dr Goh and Mr Lee managed the plans and process for separation purposefully and systematically.

Pragmatic Mr Lee got Law Minister Eddie Barker to draft the necessary documents such as the separation agreement and proclamation of independence.

At that time, only a few key leaders and Mrs Lee knew about this confidential matter. The British officials did not realise what was happening behind the scenes until the secession was announced in public.

Mr Lee’s trip to KL to meet Tunku was done in secret too. He noted in his memoirs, “On the morning of Friday, 6 August, I travelled by car to Kuala Lumpur. Choo (Mrs Lee) and the children stayed behind in Cameron until Saturday so people would see them and think I was still there.”

A VISIONARY LEADER

Amidst many challenges, Mr Lee, as a visionary leader, articulated the vision of a thriving Singapore and strove to enable it to be an independent nation that could progress towards this aspiration.

As a statesman, he managed the separation process with his ministers such as Dr Goh and Mr Eddie Barker, along with the support of Malaysian counterparts such as Tunku Abdul Raham, Tun Razak and Dato Ismail.

In The Singapore Story, Mr Lee stated, “At very little notice, we had thought of a way to achieve what Tunku could not accomplish with his own staff because it had to be carried out in great secrecy and the shortest possible time, including three readings of the bill in one session of parliament on a certificate of urgency, or it could never have succeeded.”

The two major leadership modes of “prophet” and “statesman” were evident in Mr Lee during this crucial period in the history of Singapore and over the decades.

Contrary to earlier narratives and views, Singapore was not booted or kicked out. The separation from Malaysia was a thoughtfully negotiated and carefully managed process where Singapore gained its independence to prosper and flourish.

Access to previously confidential documents and first-hand accounts of our leaders have enabled us to have a more accurate understanding of our history, as well as a better appreciation of our pioneer leaders and their contributions.

It is also a reminder that for Singapore to continue to flourish and prosper, it would do well to have leaders with the dual qualities of the “prophet” and “statesman”.

As Singapore celebrates its birthday, let us recall the final words of Mr Lee at a press conference 57 years ago on August 9 over the separation: “We unite regardless of race, language, religion, culture.”

As one united nation, may we continue to strive towards the vision of an independent Singapore where we seek to “achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Edmund Lim is a Singaporean executive director at an international cybersecurity education company. He once taught history and social studies at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. 

Related topics

national day independence Lee Kuan Yew history

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