The mourning is over. His presence is no more. But if we look around, we can see his imprints all around Singapore. In the trees, the water that we drink, the education that our children receive. From the many stories we have heard from others about Mr Lee, we summarize 9 worthy lessons to pass on to our next generation.

#1 Grit and Resilience


One of the hardest values I find hard to instil in children today. In Lee Wei Ling’s eulogy to her father at Mandai Crematorim, she demonstrated her father’s determination even when his body started to fail him.

“He developed Parkinson’s disease three years ago which severely limited his mobility. He had great difficulty standing and walking. But he refused to use a wheelchair or even a walking stick. He would walk, aided by his SOs. Papa was stubborn and determined. He would insist on walking down the steps at home, from the veranda to the porch where the car was parked. Ho Ching had a lift installed so Papa need not negotiate those steps. But… he refused the lift even though it was a struggle for him to walk down those steps.”

#2 Keeping To Your Word

Have you ever promised to take your child out for a show but cancelled it due to work? It’s important that we honour our word.

Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen wrote on his Facebook how Mr Lee believed in sticking to his promises – whether to individuals or to the nation.

#3 Never Too Old (or Young) To Keep Learning

Mr Lee only started learning Chinese when he was 32 years old. When he first started to campaign in a post-colonial Singapore, he also learned Hokkien as it was the language that got him the most receptive. He would speak in Hokkien every National Day Rally until the late 1970s when he introduced the bilingual policy.

In his eulogy, PM Lee mentioned how Lee Kuan Yew had a relentless drive to improve, and this was evident when he started learning how to use the computer at 70.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew Learning the computer

Mr Lee Kuan Yew at home, in his study. Photo: People’s Action Party Facebook Page

Even at the ripe old age of 90, he was still having Chinese lessons with his Chinese tutor. Koh Hock Kiat, 54, the former director of the Confucius Institute at the Nanyang Technological University, and Mr Lee’s ex-Chinese tutor told Straits Times When Mrs Lee passed away in 2010, their Chinese lessons were put on hold.

“It would have been understandable if Mr Lee had decided then to permanently set aside the classes. But remarkably, within a month, he chose to resume lessons, and at a normal frequency, no less. Even in the later years, when his health did not permit for lessons to be held as frequently, he never completely gave them up…”

#4 Love Relentlessly

Your kids may seem too young to understand what love is at this point. They may tease at the opposite gender but one day, we hope they come to love someone who will treasure and cherish them, just like how Mr Lee showed his love for Mrs Lee.

Lee kwan yew and kua geok choo

Lee Kuan Yew and wife Kwa Geok Choo at Sentosa, taken on Valentine’s Day in 2008. – ST Photo: Kwa Kim Li 

We all know how Mr Lee loved his wife dearly. How he read her poems from her favourite poetry collections when she was bed-ridden. When Mrs Lee suffered her second stroke, Mr Lee promised her he will make her life worthy living despite her physical handicap. And he did. Even as she was no long able to respond, he called her every night to speak with her over the phone.

Wei Ling’s article for Straits Times “Love does indeed spring eternal” shed more light on Mr Lee’s commitment to Mrs Lee.

“When Papa travelled, she would stay awake at night waiting for his phone call. When I began travelling with him, he usually would tell her on the phone: “Bye dear, I am passing the phone to Ling.” Those were the times when I could hear her actively trying to vocalise.”

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen shared how Mr Lee was a man of true devotion.

#5 A Thirst for Knowledge

In an interview with TODAY, Mr Yap Kheng Guan, former director in charge of the Marina Barrage project shared how the former Prime Minister had a deep sense of curiosity.

“Like an inquisitive child, Mr Lee would ask questions, ranging from the type of grass used at the Marina Barrage’s rooftop to the different shades of blue between the waters in the open sea, compared with those in the catchment area.

But he would also offer nuggets of wisdom on the most unexpected topic. “He was sharing his knowledge about how grass grew, how you should maintain it, the type of soil to use… it was almost as if this was a man from NParks (National Parks Board),” quipped Mr Yap. “This is a man who knew all the big things around the world. Yet, he (also) knew the minute details of how grass should be grown.”

In his later years, as his health declined and his steps grew slower, Mr Lee’s visits to Marina Barrage became less frequent. But the questions never stopped when he visited.

“We were looking at the sea… He asked me why there are so many ships out there,” said Mr Yap.

“I said, ‘Sir, I don’t know.’ And he laughed.”

#6 Respect

Ex-Foreign Minister George Yeo recalled a trip he went with Mr Lee to visit Tunku while they were in Malaysia. This was his last trip as Prime Minister.

“…Tunku was at the door to welcome Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mrs Lee and during the conversation they sat on the sofa then Tunku slung back, Lee Kuan Yew sat on the edge. And every sentence he ended with: “How are you, Tunku?”, “What do you think of that, Tunku?” I never saw Lee Kuan Yew talk like that to anyone else. Not to the most powerful leaders on earth.”

From his observation, Mr Yeo came to realise the prior relationship that Mr Lee had with Tunku; when he was a young leader and Tunku was already an established Prime Minister.

“He had managed Tunku to achieve merger and later on to achieve separation… in that final encounter with Tunku, I saw he had deep respect for him and that earlier relationship of a young man and older leader continued to be part of him.”

In her eulgogy, Wei Ling shared the most important lesson she learnt from her father was “never to push around anyone simply because he or she is weaker than me or in a socially inferior position.”

#7 Service before Self

Foreign Minister and Minister for Law, K Shanmugam shared a piece of advice that Mr Lee gave him before he entered politics.

A few of you have asked me about my speech at the memorial for Mr Lee, which was held in Nee Soon on Fri, 27 March. One of my volunteers made this video of parts of the speech and sent it to me.

Posted by K Shanmugam Sc on Sunday, March 29, 2015

“Mr Lee asked me in my 30s what career he was thinking about. I told him I saw myself as a lawyer, I told him I did not see himself as a full time politician…”

Mr Lee’s reply was, “I know you. You are a good layer. You will be successful; you will be even more successful. But you should serve Singapore. Don’t spend all your time purely staying in the law.
You can help you clients, you can make more money… but you can do much more for your country. If everyone stays outside, who is going to work in the public service?

You should serve the people in the broader way, you can do it. As a minister you can make a bigger difference to the people.”

#8 Staying Open To What Others Say (Even if your views are different)

In his speech at the memorial for Mr Lee held in Nee Soon, Mr Shanmugam shared his personal anecdotes with Mr Lee. He was interviewed by him in 1987 and after being cross-examined; Mr Shanmugam told Mr Lee that he disagreed with some of his policies and why he disagreed with them. Mr Lee said he understood his position though he disagreed with Mr Shanmgam. And then he said this,

“Young man, one day you will grow up, you will have experience, then you will understand.”

Even in world views, Mr Yeo recounted in a Channel News Asia interview how Mr Lee had strong views but was open to adjusting them and did not have a closed mind. Mr Yeo led a delegation to India in early 1993. Their visit helped pave the way for closer cultural and economic ties between Singapore and India and they put up a very positive report on India. It went up to Cabinet and Mr Lee, as expected, poured scorn on it, saying the team was just naive and so on.

“He seriously doubted India’s reform policies would happen. Every time he read a negative report on India, he would send it down to me, you know, “For information”, as if just to remind me. But at the same time, every time I went to India, which I did quite often in those days, he would ask me about it. He was curious and he wanted the inputs.”

#9 Live Simply and Frugally

Do your children complain about not having hot water? Or how they would want you to buy them another toy when they have 10 toys lying on their shelf? Mr Lee exercised frugality both in his personal life and in government.

“He wore the same exercise shorts for 17 years. And when he broke or tore, he patched it up, or his wife patched it up for him.” Mr Shanmugam stated in his speech at the memorial service in Nee Soon.

lee-kuan-yew-runningLee Kuan Yew, accompanied by security personnel – all in jogging outfits – went on a morning jog during a visit in September 1985 to China. Photo: Straits Times

His daughter, Wei Ling mentioned in Straits Times that although she grew up in a middle-class family and were well-off, her parents trained her and her brothers to be frugal from young. They had to switch off lights and air-conditioners, and had to turn off water taps completely. She remembered how they would get reprimanded if her parents found a dripping tap.

What other life lessons from Mr Lee can we add to this list? Share your thoughts with us in our comments below.

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