SM Lee Hsien Loong at the Founders’ Memorial Groundbreaking (2024)

Please scroll down for the Mandarin translation of the English transcript.

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Mr Lee Tzu Yang, Chairman, Founders’ Memorial Committee
Professor Tan Tai Yong, Co-chair
Family members and associates of founding leaders
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

Good morning!

I am very happy to be here at Gardens by the Bay this morning to break ground for the Founders’ Memorial.

Remembering our Roots

This Memorial honours our founding leaders and our nation building journey. It will tell the story of how they overcame the odds to build a strong, united, and independent Singapore; how they led the people of Singapore through successive battles first against colonialism, then communism, and finally communalism; and how they then built a nation based on the values and ideals embodied in The Pledge, launching us on the journey that has led to the Singapore we see today.

After the Second World War, the generation of Singaporeans who had survived the Japanese Occupation decided to take their future in their own hands. They were determined to be rid of the British colonial masters, and instead to be governed by themselves, for themselves. It was a time of great ferment and excitement, upheaval and anticipation. There was intense political contestation, as different groups propounded diverse ideologies and views of Singapore’s future. But representatives of all political parties came together in the anti-colonial struggle, and settled the terms for decolonisation with the British government.

In 1959, the Colony of Singapore became the State of Singapore. We were now a self-governing state, though not yet a fully independent country. A general election was held, and for the first time, the People’s Action Party (PAP), led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, was elected to power. On 5th June 1959, 65 years ago to the day, the first Cabinet of self-governing Singapore was sworn into office. That is why we have chosen today – 5th June – for the ground-breaking of the Founders’ Memorial.

That first Government in 1959 had urgent problems to deal with – unemployment, worker strikes, homelessness, lack of schools, corruption, and much more. But the central political issues were: What was Singapore’s path to full independence? What sort of society should we be? And how should we govern ourselves?

These issues precipitated a parting of ways within the PAP. Earlier, in 1954, two anti-colonial groups had come together to form the PAP: A non-Communist, democratic socialist group, which sought independence through merger with a democratic and non-Communist Malaya; and a radical, left-wing group, closely associated with the Communist Party of Malaya, which had a very different vision of Singapore’s future. The two groups had made common cause to fight colonialism. But both knew that once the British had been defeated, a clash between them was inevitable.

The parting of ways happened in 1961. Very narrowly, the non-Communist group retained control of the party and government, while the pro-Communist group went into the opposition. A fierce political fight followed for the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. There were idealistic and passionate people on both sides, striving to convince Singaporeans that theirs was the right way forward. At stake were the lives of Singaporeans, and the future of Singapore.

Fortunately, through courageous leadership and “superb political generalship”, as Dr Goh Keng Swee described it, Mr Lee and his team convinced Singaporeans that their way forward would deliver growth and investments, jobs and education, good homes and a brighter future for all. Singaporeans supported them and their vision, and gave the non-Communists a clear mandate in the next general election in 1963.

That year, Singapore merged with Malaya, along with Sabah and Sarawak, to form the new Federation of Malaysia. The Communist threat receded, but only to be replaced by a communalist one. Tensions soon arose between Singapore’s state government and the central government in Kuala Lumpur. The basic issue was what it meant to be a citizen of Malaysia, and the equal rights of citizens of different races and religions. The Singapore leaders fought for what had been negotiated and agreed to in the Malaysia Agreement, what they called a “Malaysian Malaysia”. The central government took a different view, which emphasised the primacy of bumiputera Malaysians.

It was much more than a legal or constitutional dispute. The differences with the Federal government were too stark to be reconciled through civil debate. The fight involved power and force, putting Singapore and its leaders in great danger. Tragically, it led to race riots and bloodshed. Mr Lee and his colleagues displayed great personal courage to rally Singaporeans, to stand and fight for what they deeply believed in. Because they held firm at this critical moment, so did Singaporeans.

Thus on 9th August 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia to become “forever a sovereign, democratic and independent nation,” as Mr Lee proclaimed.

But unlike upon the independence of every other post-colonial nation, the mood in Singapore was sombre. Memories of the 1964 race riots were still raw. Indonesia’s Konfrontasi continued to pose a threat. Without a proper defence force, our sovereignty and security were precarious. With neither natural resources nor a hinterland, our economic prospects were uncertain. There was no assurance that Singapore had any future.

In this dire situation, the founding leaders rallied the population. Singaporeans, whatever their previous political allegiances, united behind Mr Lee and his team, and together set about building a nation. They saw through the withdrawal of British forces, the oil price shock in the early 1970s, and many other crises. They grew the economy, built up the SAF, educated our people, reshaped our society, housed our population, and transformed everyone’s lives.

Even more importantly, the founding leaders established fundamental values and ideals that set the long-term direction of our nation: democracy, justice and equality, meritocracy and a drive for excellence, an unwavering commitment to honest, clean government; above all, a multi-racial society.

One of them, Mr S Rajaratnam, gave voice to these ideals in The Pledge, stressing that “We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion.” For the founding leaders were determined that every race would have an equal place in Singapore. Why?

Firstly, having had such recent bitter experience of being a racial minority, the founding leaders resolved never to place independent Singapore’s majority race, language, and culture above others, and never to allow our minority communities to be disadvantaged and marginalised. Secondly, while Singapore was a Chinese majority and Malay minority society, all our neighbours were Malay majority and Chinese minority societies. Racial politics in Singapore would have made our position in Southeast Asia untenable. Finally and decisively, the founding leaders had a profound, unshakeable conviction in multiracialism. They passionately believed this was how Singapore should be, and had to be, for the sake of all its citizens. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said on Separation Day itself: “We are going to have a multi-racial nation. This is not a Malay nation. This is not a Chinese nation. This is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have a place here, equal: language, culture, religion”.

Guided by these values and ideals, and solidly supported by Singaporeans, the founding leaders took our nation from Third World to First. There were difficult choices to make, painful trade-offs to weigh, and different views to reconcile, especially in the first decade. The founding leaders did not get everything right. But on the most important issues, they made the right choices, Singaporeans responded, and Singapore succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Out of this shared experience of crises and successes, sacrifices and celebrations, there emerged a Singaporean identity and a recognisable national ethos. We became a society that is open to the world, resilient and united in the face of crises, and bold and courageous in our dreams.

Ours is a unique origin story, which stands out amongst newly independent countries of the post-war era. Many former colonies became independent countries like us. But not many successfully shifted from the independence struggle to nation building, from rousing revolutionary mobilisation to the patient slog of improving people’s lives. Singapore did.

Think about it: had our founding leaders not fought for independence, democracy, and multiculturalism; had they faltered at any stage in the trajectory; had they been defeated in 1959 or 1963 or 1965; indeed, had they been replaced by a different group of people altogether; or had the people of Singapore not supported them at any stage of the journey – an independent Singapore would not exist, this city would not have become a metropolis, and there would be no Singapore Story to tell.

Our nation building journey deserves to be commemorated and remembered. We have several memorials that mark significant events in our modern history, including the Civilian War Memorial, the Kranji War Memorial, and the Konfrontasi Memorial. At the Esplanade Park, there is a marker honouring those who participated in the “Struggle against the Communist Party of Malaya”, and supported the democratic, non-Communist path to independence. But we do not yet have a memorial to commemorate our nation building journey – to tell the story of how Singapore became what it is today, and to bring to life the ideals, impulses, and spirit that drove our founding leaders. Now, almost 60 years after Separation, and 80 years after World War II, the time has come for us to build one.

I first suggested the idea of a Founders’ Memorial in 2015, a few weeks after Mr Lee Kuan Yew had passed away. It was an emotional period for the nation, and Parliament was debating the best way to honour Mr Lee’s memory. I explained to MPs that Mr Lee did not want any monument dedicated to himself. He was always conscious that he did not act alone, but as a member of a multi-racial core team. Therefore, instead of honouring Mr Lee alone, I proposed that we consider a memorial dedicated to the team of people – our founding leaders – who fought together with him and brought us here, and to the ideals, values, hopes, and aspirations that they held dear. As I said then: “Whatever memorial we decide upon should not only be right for Singaporeans living today, but also for generations not yet born. The memorial should reflect and strengthen in all of us our sense of what it means to be a Singaporean, why Singapore is worth striving and fighting for, and how we can continue to build a harmonious and successful Singapore for future generations.”

Designing the Memorial

Since then, we have put much thought into the concept and design of the Founders’ Memorial. I thank the 200,000 Singaporeans who have contributed views and ideas. I am especially grateful to Mr Lee Tzu Yang, Chairman of the Founders’ Memorial Committee, and his co-chair, Professor Tan Tai Yong, for their dedication and hard work, guiding and overseeing this national project, and also to the architects, Kengo Kuma & Associates (Japan) and K2LD Architects (Singapore), who have designed a dignified, understated memorial that expresses well the spirit of our nation.

The Memorial will focus on the key leaders in Singapore’s first two decades of nation building (1950s-1970s), including Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his core team, as well as other important leaders in the public, private and people sectors. I am happy that the project team is curating an installation specially to commemorate the founding generation. Through their words and deeds, the Memorial will bring alive the values and ideals these pioneers exemplified, championed, and inculcated into Singaporeans. These crucial intangibles are foundational to the ethos of our society and our national identity. They continue to guide and inspire us today.

The Memorial will be sited in Bay East Gardens. It will occupy reclaimed land fronting Marina Bay, the result of a visionary project launched by the founding leaders soon after independence, to provide for the long-term development of our city. As Mr Lee said just a few months after we became independent: “Over 100 years ago, this was a mudflat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.”

But at a deeper level, the living monument to the founders is the beautiful Marina Bay which it faces, and the vibrant metropolis stretching beyond the iconic skyline, home to 3.5 million Singaporeans, which continues to thrive and develop year after year.


The project team held an exhibition, “Semangat yang Baru: Forging a New Singapore Spirit,” at the National Museum last year. Like many visitors, I found the exhibition meaningful and moving. If you viewed it, you may remember that afterwards, you were invited to pen your reflections and hopes for Singapore. One visitor wrote: “May the younger generations understand, appreciate, and sustain the effort of the pioneers in building a prosperous, safe, and lovely home for all Singaporeans and those who call it home.”

I hope this Founders’ Memorial will become a space where Singaporeans reflect on our ongoing nation-building journey; appreciate our precious inheritance from the founding generation; and resolve to continue building a harmonious and successful Singapore, based on our foundational values and ideals, for generations to come.

SM Lee Hsien Loong at the Founders’ Memorial Groundbreaking (1)

(T)he founding leaders established fundamental values and ideals that set the long-term direction of our nation: democracy, justice and equality, meritocracy and a drive for excellence, an unwavering commitment to honest, clean government; above all, a multi-racial society.

SM Lee Hsien Loong

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Mandarin translation of the English speech























从那时起,我们深入构思了建国先贤纪念园的概念和设计。我要感谢20万新加坡人提出自己的想法和理念。尤其感谢建国先贤纪念园委员会主席李子扬先生和联合主席陈大荣教授,感谢他们的奉献和辛勤工作,承担了这个国家项目的指导和监督任务。还要感谢纪念园的建筑师,隈研吾建筑都市设计事务所(日本)和本地公司K2LD Architects设计了一座庄严、低调,同时又充分表达我国精神面貌的纪念园。




去年,纪念园项目团队在国家博物馆举办了试点展览“共创狮城新精神”(Semangat yang Baru)。我和许多访客一样,觉得展览意义非凡,感人心脾。看过展览的人或许还记得,观展后会受邀写下自己的反思和对新加坡的期许。有位访客是这么写的:“愿年轻一代了解和珍惜建国先贤为所有新加坡人和以此为家的人建设繁荣、安全和美丽家园所作的努力,并在先贤的基础上踵事增华。”


SM Lee Hsien Loong at the Founders’ Memorial Groundbreaking (2024)
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