Tributes to Mr Lee Kuan Yew poured in from the business community yesterday as corporate leaders reflected on the elder statesman’s contribution in developing the nation into an international business hub. Mr Lee engineered many of Singapore’s crowning achievements on the global stage, including the development of Changi Airport, which would not have existed without him, the airport said in a statement yesterday.
“Mr Lee took a personal interest in the development of the new airport at Changi. He flew over the site to oversee construction, ensuring that Changi Airport was to become a shining beacon of the Singapore brand in the global economy,” it stated.
The decision to move the international airport to Changi meant writing off the $800 million invested in Paya Lebar and investing a fresh $1.5 billion in the new development, but the bold move paid off, Changi Airport added.
Singapore Airlines (SIA) chief executive Goh Choon Phong reflected along similar lines: “His vision enabled Singapore to grow into a pre-eminent global air hub, and for SIA to prosper as a world-leading international airline.”
It was also through Mr Lee’s foresight that Singapore has developed strong business ties with China, said the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI). “Mr Lee always showed utmost concern for the development of the Chinese community. He urged local Chinese businesses to develop close links internationally, let Singapore integrate into the global market place,” the SCCCI added yesterday.
UOB chairman emeritus Wee Cho Yaw said that in the early days of Singapore’s economic development, he had the opportunity to interact more with Mr Lee and would seek his advice, for example, when he led a delegation to China. Mr Wee said that “Lee Kuan Yew was for Singapore… That’s why Singapore can be prosperous and do so well”.
Mr Wee recalled another experience with Mr Lee.
Out of concern for the career prospects of Chinese-educated Singaporeans, Mr Lee had proposed the merger of Nanyang University – or Nantah – and the University of Singapore in the late 1970s.
Mr Wee, then chairman of Nantah, said his hands were tied: “Unfortunately, I told him I could not take the initiative because Nantah was built by the Chinese community. He understood my position. He was very understanding and was very patient with us.”
Even as Mr Lee eventually proceeded with the merger, he did so only with Singaporeans’ future in mind, Mr Wee added.
Others in the banking industry agreed that the nation would not have become one of Asia’s leading financial hubs without Mr Lee.
DBS chairman Peter Seah said: “As Prime Minister, (Mr Lee) and (Finance Minister) Goh Keng Swee were the architects of the Asian dollar market and set their sights on making Singapore a leading financial centre. Later on, in a somewhat controversial move, he pushed for consolidation of the Singapore banking sector. He believed that… for Singapore banks to make it in the face of rising competition globally, they needed to be big and strong. Today, all three Singapore banks are among the world’s strongest and safest.”
Companies flourished in the pro-business environment. Hong Leong Singapore executive chairman Kwek Leng Beng said: “Mr Lee played an instrumental role in nurturing corporate Singapore. The private sector and the business community benefited tremendously from his pro-business policies and vision to establish Singapore as a major business hub for Asia. This enabled many of Singapore’s home-grown conglomerates, like our group, to thrive locally and globally.”
This story was originally published in The Straits Times on March 24, 2015.