Mr Lee Kuan Yew, from personal experience

Mr Liew responding to a question about Mr Lee from the audience

From his early years as an engineer in the Public Works Division (PWD), to his career in the public service and his stewardship of CapitaLand and Changi Airport Group, NUS Engineering alumnus Mr Liew Mun Leong’s life has been profoundly touched and affected by Singapore’s first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Liew’s many close encounters with Mr Lee throughout his 49-year career made him well placed to speak at In Memoriam: Lee Kuan Yew, an intimate event organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on 27 March to mark the fourth year of its namesake’s passing.

The trait that made Mr Lee the person Mr Liew respected and admired the most was the late statesman’s unwavering commitment to pragmatism. “What guided him was reality and reason. The acid test is, does it work? Can we make it work? That was his fundamental pragmatism,” recalled Mr Liew.

Mr Liew’s first personal experience with Mr Lee’s pragmatism happened while he was an engineer at the PWD working on the expansion of the Paya Lebar airport. Eight hundred million dollars had already been spent on building an arrival hall, apron and second runway at Paya Lebar to meet the growing demands of air travel, but a trip to Boston made Mr Lee realise that the US city’s Logan International Airport’s coastal location allowed it to expand towards the sea as needed. When he returned, Mr Lee suggested the airport be relocated to Changi, a decision met with shock and resistance. Despite this, the former Prime Minister appointed a team of top civil servants to study the feasibility of Changi Airport.

“If we had continued to expand Paya Lebar airport, forget about Tampines town, forget about Punggol. You wouldn’t be able to build them because of noise pollution and height restriction. We would not have Punggol, we would not have Tampines town and we would not have Changi Airport. We would not have the best airport in the world in Singapore…that was his pragmatic vision,” said Mr Liew.

But Mr Lee’s vision for Changi Airport was not complete. His deep involvement in the construction of the airport extended even to the areas outside the airport. He requested to be greeted with a “jungle” on his drive to the airport. The task of planting the canopy of trees that now line the road to Changi Airport fell to Mr Liew and his colleagues, who sent daily reports via telex to their superior stating how many trees and the types of trees they had planted.

Young people, they want to change the world. You want to change the world. But you change the world from a different lens from us…If you want to change the world you have to know where we come from.

Mr Liew added that being untethered to any theory or dogma allowed flexibility to be an important part of Mr Lee’s pragmatism. Citing the change in Singapore’s population control policy from “Stop at Two” to encouraging larger families to boost the nation’s birth rate, Mr Liew said, “Sometimes pragmatism can mean reversing your original option.”

Mr Liew shared more personal anecdotes; talking about Mr Lee’s commitment to lifelong learning, continuing with Mandarin lessons even in his old age; and his devotion to his wife, the late Mdm Kwa Geok Choo, whom he read to every night even when illness left her comatose.

During the question and answer session, Mr Liew addressed a question on Singapore youth’s opinion of Mr Lee, saying that he believed that Singaporean youths may not know enough about Mr Lee and how much of an impact he had on the Singapore that we know today.

“Young people, they want to change the world. You want to change the world. But you change the world from a different lens from us…If you want to change the world you have to know where we come from,” he added, saying that more of such events should be held to educate the young.

The event was attended by more than 80 people, including international students from France, Germany, Mongolia, China and Japan.