By Carlton Tan
Over two days, 24 and 25 March, members of Australia’s Senate and the House of Representatives expressed their condolences at the passing of former Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew.
On 25 March, the Australian government passed a motion to “record its deep regret” at the death of Mr Lee, and “place on record its acknowledgement of his role as the founding father of the modern Singapore and tender its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.”
This was after 11 senators and house representatives delivered their tributes in Parliament.
The politicians praised Lee Kuan Yew for his astounding achievements in bringing Singapore economic prosperity and racial harmony despite its vulnerabilities, his creation of a corruption-free government and an attractive business environment, and his provision of affordable housing for Singaporeans.
They emphasised Lee’s huge role in all this and further recognised his contributions as a statesman. They credited him for Australia’s strong diplomatic and military ties with Singapore, and attributed ASEAN’s success to him. No mention was made of Singapore’s other founding fathers.
Here are the highlights of what they said.
Lee Kuan Yew’s role
Prime Minister Tony Abbott: “It is one of the great success stories of the modern world, thanks to the ideas, the drive and the judgement of Lee Kuan Yew and thanks to the talents of the Singaporean people which he unleashed.”
Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten: “Labor pays tribute to the father of modern Singapore and a principal architect of harmony and prosperity in our region. Lee Kuan Yew owns a giant legacy of many dimensions”
Tim Watts: “All of Singapore’s achievements are intrinsically linked to Lee Kuan Yew and his leadership.”
Lee Kuan Yew as role model
Chris Back: “Lee Kuan Yew was a towering figure throughout the region. He was very influential on China and its direction over time. I, for one, think the world is poorer for his absence.”
Joe Hockey: “The Singapore model has, in fact, become the template for much of the development of modern Asia as we know it. It is little wonder that Deng Xiaoping, in his transformation of China, found Singapore a model to follow. I have always been a great admirer of Lee Kuan Yew—an admirer of his intellect, his values and his generosity.”
Tony Abbott: “Lee Kuan Yew did not just lead his country; he made his country. In the mid-1950s, when he first came to prominence in Singapore, his country was poor and friendless. Today, it is rich and well connected.”
Tim Watts: “Under his leadership, Singapore moved from a Third World country devoid of natural resources to one of the world’s wealthiest nations. The scale of its rise is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Singapore is one of the safest and least corrupt places to do business, and it is the major banking and trade centre of the region.”
Kelly O’Dwyer: “Under Lee Kuan Yew’s direction, as Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, Singapore was transformed from a Third World economy to a wealthy and economically competitive nation.”
Tony Smith: “For a nation the size of Singapore, as previous speakers have said, a very small nation in a very unstable area, at the time of independence there was no reason to expect it would survive as a nation, let alone thrive in the way it has.”
Tony Smith: “When you think of the fragility of Singapore at its formation, that decade or so of breathing space where so much of the development occurred was a point that Lee Kuan Yew felt free to make at every opportunity because, as we have heard, in so many ways he was prepared to call things as he saw them and to do so in a very straightforward and blunt fashion.”
Joe Hockey: “How a tiny place, a fraction of the geographic size of Tasmania and devoid of natural resources, including limited water, could become one of the world’s most powerful and dynamic economies yet one of the world’s most stable nations is in itself something of a miracle. The man—the miracle worker—who made all this happen was unquestionably Lee Kuan Yew.”
Chris Back: “Singapore now has a population of some 5.5 million people and a tremendously harmonious society—which was not the case when Lee Kuan Yew first took responsibility for that island state. Approximately 75 per cent of the population are ethnic Chinese, around 13 per cent are Malays, 10 per cent are Indians and there is a smaller number of others.”
Tony Abbott: “He was once asked which of his decisions had made the biggest contribution to Singapore’s success. ‘Making English the common language’ was his response. This not only defused ethnic tensions inside Singapore but also gave Singapore easy entry into the global economy.”
Steve Irons: “In his time, Lee Kuan Yew overcame significant challenges and managed to unite the diverse ethnic groups in Singapore—the Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians—to form a harmonious and cohesive society.”
Housing and infrastructure
Chris Back: “Under the influence of the Singapore government, particularly through the Singapore Housing Development Board, in excess of 90 per cent of adult Singaporeans are living in a home that they either own or are buying through their provident fund; more than 90 per cent of adult Singaporeans are in their own home.”
Steve Irons: “He built an efficient public transport system via the MRT, mass rapid transit network, and implemented a universal superannuation scheme, the Central Provident Fund, to provide for citizens in their retirement.”
Tony Abbott: “He also maintained Singapore’s British based common-law legal system and ran an utterly clean and corruption-free administration.”
Tanya Plibersek: “Despite the considerable authority he exercised, he also made sure through Singapore’s strong institutions of governance that he was not indispensable to Singapore’s progress.”
Diplomatic and trade ties
Tony Abbott: “The relationship between Singapore and Australia is strong and growing stronger all the time, thanks to Lee Kuan Yew and his successors, especially his son, the current Prime Minister—and friend of Australia—Lee Hsien Loong, who should receive our deepest condolences today. Today, two-way trade between Singapore and Australia is some $30 billion a year. Singapore is our fourth largest source of inwards investment. Every year, some 300,000 Australians travel to Singapore, and every year about the same number of Singaporeans travel to Australia. Some 100,000 Singaporean citizens are alumni of Australian universities, and Singapore is a military ally of Australia. Under the Five Power Defence Arrangement, Singaporean forces regularly exercise and train here in this country.”
Bill Shorten: “Australians, in fact, owe a debt to Lee Kuan Yew. He built modern Singapore. Modern Singapore and modern Singaporeans are a dynamic people, amongst the first rank of Australia’s friends and allies. Lee Kuan Yew, the proud father and tireless servant of the nation he brought forth, is now at rest.”
Kelly O’Dwyer: “Singapore remains a significant strategic and economic partner for Australia. As one of our most important trading partners, we share longstanding links in politics, defence and education, and strong people-to-people ties.”
Tim Watts: “Lee’s role as a principal architect of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a particularly astonishing achievement. ASEAN was formed in 1967, at the height of Cold War tensions in the region and in the shadows of two earlier failed attempt to establish a similar regional body. ASEAN fostered economic cooperation and integration between its members, lowering trade and investment barriers in the region. It also gave South-East Asia a collective voice that ensured that the strategic interests of the region were more clearly heard by the world’s great powers. While Australia is not a member of ASEAN, we have benefited greatly from these achievements.”