Senate debates

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Statements by Senators

Mr Lee Kuan Yew GCMG CH

1:40 pm

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to express my condolence at the passing away on Monday of this week of past Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew and extend that sympathy to his family and indeed to the people of Singapore. It was his oldest son, now Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong who said on the death of his father the other morning:

The first of our founding fathers is no more. He inspired us, gave us courage, and brought us here. To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore.

I join with those comments by Prime Minister Lee.

Lee Kuan Yew had a most interesting history. Born in 1923, he was 91 years of age when he passed away. Obviously he was in Singapore as a young man during the Japanese occupation. He actually had an interaction with the Japanese and I think was eventually able to escape from the activities associated with the Japanese occupation. He then went to the London School of Economics and obtained a degree in law from Cambridge University. He was very active in the trade union movement at the time, and on his return to Singapore formed the party of which he was the leader for much of his adult life and indeed in 1959 was able to lead the negotiations for independence from Britain. In 1963 Singapore merged with Malaysia to become Malaya, and only two years later he took Singapore away from that relationship, and it celebrates its 50th anniversary as an independent country on 9 August this year. It is somewhat ironic that Lee Kuan Yew did not live long enough to actually be there for the 50th anniversary.

What is his legacy? He took an island that is only one-third the size of the ACT from a very backward, Third World, underdeveloped country and he simply jumped it across the agrarian, across the industrial and created it as a First World, high-tech, high-IT country. And it would be fair to say that it was the shadow cast by Lee Kuan Yew that was largely responsible for that incredible transition. Between the years 1960 and 1980, the gross national product of Singapore increased some 15-fold, which was an amazing result. On his retirement as Prime Minister in 1990, a period of some 31 years, he was indeed the longest-serving Prime Minister in the world. He passed over the prime ministership to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1990, and the position of Minister Mentor was created. And then when his own son, now Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, became Prime Minister in 2004 he was, if I recall correctly, given the title of Senior Minister. And of course many believe that even from beyond the grave Lee Kuan Yew will continue to have a profound effect on Singapore and indeed on the region.

I ask you to reflect again on the fact that Lee Kuan Yew had responsibility for an island only one-third the size of the Australian Capital Territory—no natural resources, no capacity for agriculture, little opportunity for any industrial development, and a shortage of water on the island. He had to negotiate, despite the tensions when Singapore split from Malaysia, that there would continue to be a water pipeline from Malaysia across the causeway into Singapore, and I believe even to this day water of a lesser quality is piped from the Malaysian mainland into Singapore, where value is added, where it is treated and where, at a higher price, water is sold back to Malaysia.

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. Despite Singapore being such a small island with no natural resources it has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world—I think it is currently US$63,000. Singapore has one of the largest sovereign wealth funds anywhere in the world and it has been this that has allowed Singapore to withstand many of the economic and other crises that have befallen much of Asia, simply because of the tremendous security that has been attached to that country.

Having been the chief executive officer of a company with an office in Singapore through much of the last decade, I can tell you from my own experience what a wonderful place Singapore is in which to do business. There is no corruption in Singapore. The work ethic of Singaporeans is very, very high. The quality of the finished product, particularly in the IT space, is enviable. Referring back to my colleague Senator Day's comments in the last few minutes, both the company and personal tax rate in Singapore is 15 per cent. That makes it very, very attractive for people to live and work in that country.

It is interesting that 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. We have had a debate in this place in recent times about what an aspiration it would be if we could move in that direction for Australians.

All three of my children resided in Singapore until three or four years ago when two of them left to go to the United States. My middle son remains in Singapore and has a business there which is absolutely flourishing. I can tell you what a safe place Singapore is. My wife and I would often visit our daughter there. She did not know where her front door key was—simply because no-one in Singapore locks their front door. Isn't that an incredible reflection in contrast to Australia. If you leave a mobile phone in a taxi, generally by the time you realise it the taxi driver has returned to the location where they dropped you off and the phone is there waiting for you.

So what is the miracle that Lee Kuan Yew established in this country? On the negative side, there would certainly be those who say he was far too dictatorial. Young Singaporeans today resist that level of interference in their day-to-day lives but of course their parents would say that Lee Kuan Yew was a man who took them from being an undeveloped Third World country to a First World highly IT economy. We know of course that Singapore is a transport hub. All of us who have flown to Europe would know of the quality of the Singapore airport; it is consistently judged to be the best airport in the world. We know about the tonnage of shipping that goes through Singapore. In terms of the movement of containers, the port of Singapore remains the world benchmark in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. We know that Singapore is an excellent banking, industrial and insurance country. In fact, Australia interacts and engages continually with that country. Much of this is the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew. I speak as a Western Australian because of the closeness of the association between Singapore and my home state. Those of us in any way associated with higher education in WA would know of the very high proportion of Singaporean students who have been at our colleges of advanced education and our universities, and we retain and maintain that very close link with Singapore as a result.

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.


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