Remembering Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Top Performer with a Playful Streak
News | 23 March 2015
Leader and Rafflesian]
Institution mourns the passing of its most distinguished Rafflesian, Mr Lee
Kuan Yew, an illustrious Rafflesian who profoundly reshaped the destiny of our
Contributions to Singapore & Beyond
When he was only 36 years old, Mr Lee became
Singapore’s first Prime Minister, in 1959. The challenges that he and the other founding
fathers faced in the initial years are well-documented. History tells us that they overcame near insurmountable
odds to lay the foundation for our present success. During the 31 years when Me Lee served as
Singapore’s Prime Minister, he led Singapore from the Third World to the
First. He will always be honoured as the
chief architect of modern Singapore.
The Raffles Institution Days
Contrary to public belief, Mr
Lee shared that he was not a model student during this time in RI (1936 – 1940).
He confirmed this in his memoir, The
Singapore Story. He writes that he ‘never became a prefect, let alone head
prefect’. He also admitted to having a
‘mischievous, playful streak’ in him, and was ‘too often… caught not paying
attention in class, scribbling notes to fellow students, or mimicking some
teacher’s strange mannerisms’.
However, Mr Lee did exhibit
his trademark tenacity and intellect early in life. His standard VII form master wrote in his
report book that ‘Harry Lee Kuan Yew is a determined worker for a place of
distinction.’ The same teacher went on
to predict that ‘he is likely to attain a high position in life.’ At RI, Mr Lee sat for the Senior Cambridge
examinations, and emerged as the top student for Singapore and Malaya.
Mr Lee attributes his
beliefs in meritocracy and multiculturalism to his time as a student in RI. In a
preface he penned for The Eagle Breeds a
Gryphon, Mr Lee notes how he ‘grew up familiar and comfortable with people
of different races and different classes.’ The superiority of such a meritocratic system left
a deep impression on his ‘youthful mind’ and subsequently influenced the kind
of Singapore he went on to build – ‘a Singapore based on merit and not on race
or status or wealth of parents’.
Mr Lee also embodied another tradition of RI, the
spirit of public service. This spirit
led him to dedicate his life to serving Singapore.
The Faithful Rafflesian
Mr Lee has graced several key moments of
the school’s history over the decades. He spoke at RI’s 146th
Founder’s Day Celebrations on 6 June 1969. Mr Lee also laid the foundation
stone of the Boarding Complex on 25 March 1994, ahead of its first batch of
boarders that moved into the Complex in 1995.
Mr Lee’s final visit to RI on 13 September 2010
homecoming of sorts for him. The memories of his days as a student in RI were
triggered by a tour of the school’s Heritage Centre, as well as observations of
ongoing lessons. When the school presented a clay model of the Bras Basah
campus to him as a gift at the end of the visit, he was visibly moved and
declared that this was one of the most memorable gifts that he had ever
Mr Lee also
interacted with six Year 4 and 5 Rafflesians, who provided a snapshot of life
as a student in RI. They touched on their academic interests, their passion for
social advocacy, and their pursuits in sports, the performing arts, and other
When asked to pen
down his thoughts about his visit, this was what Mr Lee had to say: ‘Good bright students, experienced dedicated
teachers and principals inculcate the best values in [RI] students. RI
graduates owe Singapore society for giving them their education. It
behooves them to later contribute to society and to RI.’
The RI Gryphon Award
recognition of the man who led the country to independence, stability and
prosperity, Mr Lee was accorded the highest award of the school, RI’s inaugural
Gryphon Award which honours RI’s most distinguished alumni at the school’s Gala
Dinner on 13 January 2011.
gryphon which sits atop RI’s school crest is a mythical creature, half-eagle
and half-lion. It combines the speed and
penetrating vision of the eagle with the strength and courage of the lion. These are qualities that aptly describe Mr Lee
who, over the past five decades, has rallied and inspired Singaporeans of all
ages, with his foresight, leadership and service to the nation.
loss is deeply felt by all Rafflesians.
We would like to share two articles - 'Top Performer with a Playful Streak', which describes Mr Lee's school days in RI and his schoolmates' fond memories of him, and 'MM Lee Revisits RI', which describes Mr Lee's visit to the RI Heritage Centre in 2010 (now extended to become the Raffles Institution Archives & Museum). This article was originally published in the third issue of ONE, our now-defunct alumni magazine
MINISTER Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is arguably Raffles Institution's most distinguished alumnus, but he was far from a model student in his time at the school. Still, as some RI teachers today note, it is the naughty boys who seem to do really well in the rough and tumble world out there. Mr Lee first walked through the gates of RI at Bras Basah, where Raffles City today stands, in 1936, having been the top student at Telok Kurau English School. There were about 150 students in each cohort at the time.
At RI, he did very well, collecting several awards for academic achievement and attracting the notice of principal D.W. McLeod.
But as Mr Lee notes in his memoirs, The Singapore Story, McLeod was a strict disciplinarian, who enforced rules impartially, and one of them was that a boy who was late for school three times during one term would get three strokes of the cane.
Mr Lee wrote: ‘I was always a late riser, an owl more than a lark, and when I was late for school the third time in a term in 1938, the form master sent me to see McLeod. The principal knew me from the number of prizes I had been collecting on prize-giving days and the scholarships I had won.
But I was not let off with an admonition. I bent over a chair and was given three of the best with my trousers on. I did not think he lightened his strokes.’ Reflecting on the episode, he added: ‘I have never understood why Western educationists are so much against corporal punishment. It did my fellow students and me no harm.’
‘Nevertheless, I was learning to take life seriously.’
He also said he enjoyed his years in RI. ‘I coped with the work comfortably, was active in the Scout movement, played cricket and some tennis, swam and took part in many debates. But I never became a prefect, let alone head prefect. There was a mischievous, playful streak in me,’ he wrote in his memoirs. However, Mr E W Barker, who would later be a close friend and Cabinet colleague, was head prefect in 1938.
‘Too often, I was caught not paying attention in class, scribbling notes to fellow students, or mimicking some teacher's strange mannerisms. In the case of a rather ponderous Indian science teacher, I was caught in the laboratory drawing the back of his head with its bald patch,’ he added.
These lapses did not, however, detract from Mr Lee's record of academic excellence. As he recalled in The Singapore Story: ‘I was not very hardworking, but I was good at mathematics and the sciences and had a solid grounding in the English language.’
At the end of Standard VI (Secondary One), he was among the better students and promoted to standard VIIA (Secondary Two), where he usually came in among the top three without much effort.
‘I was still not very attentive in class, and tried to catch up by peeking into the notebook of the boy who sat next to me,’ he added.
‘Teo Kah Leong was not only top of the class, he kept beautiful notes of our lessons. But he would cover the pages with his hands.’
Mr Teo, a former senior civil servant, pipped him to top spot several times. But Mr Lee had the upper hand in the Senior Cambridge examinations, coming out tops not just in RI but in all Malaya and the Straits Settlements.
His form teacher in Standard VIIA, Mr M N Campos, wrote in his report card: ‘Harry Lee Kuan Yew is a determined worker for a place of distinction. He is likely to attain a high position in life.’
In Junior A (Secondary Three), Mr Lee's performance in the English language improved, and he did well, coming in first in school in the Junior Cambridge examinations.
He also won two awards that year, the Raffles Institution and the Tan Jiak Kim scholarships, which together came with the then-princely sum of 350 Straits dollars. ‘It was enough to buy me a beautiful Raleigh bicycle for $70, with a three-speed gear and an encased chain box – I rode to school in style and still had money to spare. But even better was to come.’
‘I had set my heart on distinguishing myself in the Senior Cambridge examinations, and I was happy when the results in early 1940 showed I had come first in school, and first among all the students in Singapore and Malaya,’ he wrote.
His plan was to read law in London, but as the war in Europe was going badly, it was best to postpone that step. He was offered the John Anderson scholarship to study at Raffles College in light of his Senior Cambridge performance, and decided to take it up.
His classmate Mr Teo told The Straits Times' journalist Sumiko Tan in 1995: ‘We were friends but not close friends because there was this rivalry between us. Every time there was an exam, I was trying to beat him and he to beat me.’
On what Mr Lee was like in school,he said: ‘He struck me right from the beginning as a very ambitious, forceful character. He was also a bit arrogant, but not to the extent of being hateful. His head was always held high in the air.’
But the future Prime Minister was also well-behaved, he added in the Straits Times interview: ‘When I beat him, he took it gentlemanly. There was no ill-will. The last time when he triumphed over me, he just said, “At last, I have beaten you.”’
Mr Teo remembered Mr Lee excelling at mock trials, including convicting him of murder at a Debating Society mock trial in which Mr Lee played the part of prosecutor.
‘He was very good in cross-examination. He caught me. In my utter confusion, I made an admission, so that cooked me,’ Mr Teo recalled. ‘He was quick-witted, very good in repartees, and he was laying traps, which was how I got convicted.’ Mr Teo joined the civil service in 1951, and rose to be permanent secretary in the Ministry of National Development and the Ministry of Social Affairs between 1959 and 1968, when he left to join the Bank of Singapore and later a stockbroking firm. He said of Mr Lee: ‘It never really struck me then that he would become Prime Minister. I would say Singapore today is all his work. I am proud to have been associated with him.’
And he, like Mr Lee, had carefully kept the dark green report books of their time in RI as a record of the academic achievements of their youth.
There was one more facet to Mr Lee's time in RI: He met his future wife, a Miss Kwa Geok Choo, for the first time. As the only girl in a boys' school in 1939, Miss Kwa had been asked by the principal to present prizes on the annual prize-giving day and that was how the two met. Mr Lee had collected three books from her.
Their friendship, followed by love, would only blossom during the war. But the seed was planted in RI, and it proved decisive in Mr Lee's later contributions to Singapore.
As Mr Lee said in his eulogy to his late wife at her funeral on October 6, 2010: ‘Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life.’
MM Lee Revisits RI
The last time Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew visited RI was 16 years ago, when he laid the foundation stone for the RI Boarding complex in 1994. Much has changed since then – the six-yearRaffles Programme was established with Raffles Girls’ School in 2004, Raffles Junior College (RJC) became independent in 2005, and RI and RJC re-integrated to form a single institution in 2009.
It was in this context of a re-invigoratedRI that MM Lee visited his alma mater on 13 September 2010. This was a different RI from the one MM Lee attended from 1936 to 1940, something that he remarked upon after his visit.
Nevertheless, it was a homecoming of sorts for MM Lee. The memories of his days as a student in RI were triggered by a tour of the school’s Heritage Centre, as well as observations of ongoing lessons.
When the school presented a clay model of the Bras Basah campus to him as a gift at the end of the visit, he was visibly moved and declared that this was one of the most memorable gifts that he had ever received.
MM Lee also interacted with six Year 4 and 5 Rafflesians, who provided a snapshot of life as a student in RI. They touched on their academic interests, their passion for social advocacy, and their pursuits in sports, the performing arts, and other co-curricular areas.
Kirk D’Souza, the current President of the Students’ Council, was one of these students. ‘Sharing with MM Lee about my experiences in RI was a great privilege. It was also quite a touching moment when he recognised his late wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, in one of the photographs in the Heritage Centre, taken when she was a student at RI.’
When asked to pen down his thoughts about his visit, this was what MM Lee had to say: ‘Good bright students, experienced dedicated teachers and principals inculcate the best values in [RI] students. RI graduates owe Singapore society for giving them their education. It behooves them to later contribute to society and to RI.’
To honour the contributions that MM Lee has made to the community and nation as one of RI’s most distinguished alumni, the school [awarded] the inaugural Gryphon Award to MM Lee [in 2011 during the Gala Dinner held on 13 January 2011 at the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore.]
The Gryphon Award is named after the mythical creature that sits atop the school’s crest. The gryphon combines the speed, flight and penetrating vision of an eagle with the strength, courage and majesty of a lion. These are the qualities that aptly describe the recipients of this award, who are not only able to rally Rafflesians young and old, but also inspire others with their spirit of serving and giving.