Mr. Lee: The hardworking politician

The 23rd of March will mark the anniversary of Mr. Lee’s passing. FiveStarsAndAMoon will publish a short series about his contribution to the nation.

It was April 2011. The PAP had won a small victory and they went on a traditional “thank you” parade on the Hippo buses. Almost all the Hippo buses used recorded messages broadcasted over loudspeakers to thank the residents for their support and vote.

Many used recorded messages, but one bus in Tanjong Pagar refused to have it automated.

Mr. Lee had a microphone in hand, connected to a loudspeaker. He stood on the deck of the bus and thanked residents with that personal touch.

He was a hands-on man. He hailed from a time where instant messaging, Facebook, blogs and You Tube didn’t exist. His brand of politics was one that demanded him to be genuine, to go from estate to estate to give speeches, shake hands and help out in community work. Even for that age, it wasn’t productive, it wasn’t effective – but it won trust.

It was this belief in grit and work that led him to build a merit based society, no one is more equal than the other. In a time when the region was arguing about pedigree of race and language, Mr. Lee pushed for meritocracy.

…I can give you this assurance that in Singapore, you will get equal misery or equal prosperity as the cause may be regardless of whether you are black or brown or yellow or any of the shades in between. Anybody who wants ‘special rights’ had better put in some special effortt for me to see,” said Lee at the opening of NTUC’s Trade Union House at Shenton Way. “Then we will give special rewards. It is only on this basis that we can survive and continue to thrive and prosper in the years ahead”.

In this speech, he gave the workers of Singapore a strong message: we must work if we are to survive.  In order to survive, there must be sacrifice.

“The man who believes he can come in with nothing to learn a job, then the moment he has learnt the job the union calls a strike (because the employer has just got his first contract and signed it and the deadline is delivery by March) and a strike is scheduled to strike three months before that – that man is out”. 

It is about survival more than anything else. If economic climate is down, the propensity for mischief from communists goes up.

Holding fast to this struggle for survival, Mr. Lee fought alongside workers at the trade unions very closely.

“Mr Lee greatly encouraged and emboldened Indian women to join the workforce, to learn a skill and help their families financially. As more Indian women started to work, their families began to earn higher incomes. Because Mr Lee had also made sure that public housing was affordable, the combined incomes of the husband and wife enabled Indian families to purchase a basic house and start families. Today, we see many dual-income families in the Indian community,” recalled G. Muthukumarasamy, the General Secretary for the Amalgamated Union of Public Daily Rated Workers.

Muthu also recalled how fiercely Mr. Lee felt about doing one’s job personally. He talked about how angry Mr. Lee got when he tasked a supervisor to service an air-conditioning, but the supervisor delegated the job to Muthu (whom was then a young apprentice). “When a job is given to you, you should do it. I asked you to service the air-conditioning. Please service it now.”

Modern management theory would not have agreed with Mr. Lee. Yet his methods did work; Singapore sacrificed some rights to industrial action, had to put in more effort and pride in our work and eventually the city established itself as an industrial powerhouse.

Mr. Lee made this pledge in 1965 at the Trade Union House:

“And I give you a solemn pledge which I have not the slightest intention of fighting this battle to lose. I fight to win. It is on that basis that I look forward to co-operation and verve from the NTUC and from the organised working-class movement in Singapore.”

He held true to his words and generations after are all better off for it.



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