The Government’s weekly Cabinet meeting began on an unusual note yesterday, to mark the first anniversary of the death of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
The first 10 minutes of the usually closed-door meeting were streamed live on the Facebook of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, showing him addressing the Cabinet as he gave an insight on the way Mr Lee mentored the younger ministers.
When he was the prime minister, Mr Lee kept an eagle eye on every aspect of Singapore, said PM Lee.
“Yet (he) knew that he could not control everything personally, and that even more so, another prime minister would have to govern in a different way.
“He advised us that one could not use 10 fingers to catch 10 fleas, quoting Mao (Zedong). One had to focus on the important things and build a team,” PM Lee recounted.
Mr Lee also made an enormous effort to ensure that those who came after him succeeded in the running of the country, he added.
The Prime Minister pledged his Cabinet ministers will hold firm to the ethos and values Mr Lee had stood and fought for as they face new challenges in a changing world.
The Prime Minister was wearing a badge with the phrase “follow that rainbow”, used by Mr Lee in 1996 to urge Singaporeans to chase their dreams. The Cabinet then observed a minute of silence.
PM Lee spoke in the very room that Mr Lee had chaired or attended meetings for four decades. He said: “This Cabinet Room was Mr Lee’s command tent, where issues were examined and debated, decisions were taken, instructions given, and progress tracked.”
After Mr Lee stepped aside as prime minister in 1990, he continued to attend Cabinet meetings as senior minister until 2004, and then as minister mentor until 2011.
Mr Lee would recount the history and considerations behind the topic at hand so that the Cabinet was aware of the context when making fresh decisions, PM Lee said.
But he also encouraged ministers holding different views to argue their case, and he was prepared to make hard decisions.
To illustrate, PM Lee cited the decision to cut Central Provident Fund contribution rates in 1985, when Singapore suffered its first recession since independence.
Mr Lee had systematically raised contributions to 50 per cent of wages during a period of rapid growth, PM Lee recounted.
But the Economic Committee – which PM Lee had chaired at the time when he was minister of state for trade and industry – concluded that costs had got out of line and a reversal in policy was needed to jump-start the economy.
His ministry proposed cutting the rate from 50 per cent to 40 per cent.
“Then, to our surprise, he said if you are going to do it, do it properly. 40 per cent is neither here nor there.
“Make a decisive move, and cut it to 35 per cent.
“Furthermore, cut only the employer’s contributions. Do not cut employee’s contributions to increase take-home pay.
“That may sweeten the package but it will do nothing to make us more competitive,” PM Lee recounted.
This was a lesson “not just in economic management but in political leadership”, PM Lee said.
It was through such lessons that three generations of younger ministers have “benefited from his experience and insights, his views and concerns, and increasingly, his thoughts for Singapore’s future”.
PM Lee said: “Now we are a new team, dealing with a changed world in new ways, but always inspired by Mr Lee’s example and his memory, and holding firm the ethos and the values that he stood and fought for.
“These will guide us as we, in turn, follow the rainbow that Mr Lee himself chased all his life: to build an exceptional nation and to improve the lives of all Singaporeans.”
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