Remembering Mr S Rajaratnam
Remembering Mr S Rajaratnam:
The Man and His Ideas His Ideals and Visions Biographical Outline Biographical Outline Key Speeches Key Speeches Special Video Features Special Video Features Tributes Tributes


“Political service,” Mr S Rajaratnam once said in 1978, “is a unique form of service in that it tests and stretches the intellectual and moral resources of an individual as no other service can. Many fail and break under the strain. Many degenerate into corrupt, mean and vicious individuals.” He added: “But those who pass the test find the answer to a very old philosophical and religious question: ‘What is the meaning of existence? What is a man's destiny?’”

Mr Rajaratnam, Singapore’s philosopher king, found his own answer in joining politics in 1959. He gave up his illustrious career as a famous journalist, and put his life in service to the greater vision of an independent Singapore free from colonial rule and communal strife. A founding leader of the People’s Action Party in 1954, he was indispensable as its ideologue and wordsmith. When he became the Culture Minister in the first fully-elected government of self-governing Singapore in 1959, he found his true calling. He envisioned the creation of a united nation out of the diverse peoples divided by race, religion and language, and inspired the people to believe in it. A far-thinking visionary, he occupies a special place in the country’s history for his role in shaping the country’s national ideology at a turbulent time, employing a muscular idiom and prose to that end. One of his most enduring legacies is Singapore’s National Pledge, which he drafted in 1966 after the trauma of two racial riots in 1964.

After Singapore was separated from Malaysia in 1965, he became its first Foreign Minister and became seized with the question of its survival. It was a daunting prospect, confronted with high unemployment rates, Communist threats and turbulent relations within the region. In that new office, he focused on establishing good relations with other countries and became a founding leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967 to promote regional cooperation. Over the years, he played a key role in giving Singapore a regional influence out of proportion to its size. He did not flinch from threatening geopolitical issues and was indefatigable in drawing international attention to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978.

From 1968 to 1971, he took on a concurrent appointment as Labour Minister to lay the framework for industrial peace, so crucial for the country’s stability. It was a task that required considerable political courage. Decent, consistent and incorruptible, he won over the unions and workers to the national imperative of social discipline and economic development.

In 1972, Mr Rajaratnam was an early thinker on how Singapore should become a new kind of city – a Global City. Throughout his political career, he came up with many such big-picture ideals that embrace the future, and led by example in establishing the fundamentals of good leadership for a vulnerable country with no natural resources.

One of the longest-serving Old Guard minister in Cabinet, he was later Second Deputy Prime Minister (Foreign Affairs) from 1980 to 1985 and Senior Minister, Prime Minister’s Office from 1985 to 1988 before he retired from politics.

His life is a testimony of the triumph of the human spirit and of the power of imagination. Born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka in 1915, he was subsequently raised in Seremban in Malaya. At the age of 19 in 1934, he came to Singapore to study before leaving for London to pursue a law degree at King’s College. He lost interest in his studies as more urgent – and to him, more important – tasks consumed him. He was swept up by the moral and political ferment of the times and established links with Indian and African nationalist fighters and British left-wing writers. In the process, he discovered a gift for writing, and nurtured a passion for grand ideals. He turned to journalism and short story writing to expose social and political injustice. He was concerned with the causes and effects of prejudice, poverty, injustice, oppression, moral blindness, cruelty, greed, and despair, and wanted to play his part in bringing about a better order. He returned to Malaya in 1947 and fought for his ideals. For them, he had weathered great storms. In his private moments, he drew solace from the knowledge that he had given his all in the pursuit of something larger than himself, something worthwhile, something worth fighting and dying for, and that hopefully, after his death, his ideas and ideals will live on.

“Human happiness,” as he said in 1981, “has to do with things like mind, spirit, courage, discipline, creativity, justice, law, order, achievement and civilisation. It has to do with responsibility to society – returning to society as much as, if not more than, it gave you. In fact, those who got more should give more and those who give more than they get are the greatest of them all.”