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Obituary: Sinnathamby Rajaratnam

Singapore has laid to rest one of its founding fathers - the former Deputy Prime Minister and senior statesman, Mr. Sinnathamby Rajaratnam. Born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka on Feb 25, 1915, Rajaratnam, of Tamil descent, grew up in Malaysia.

More than 1,000 people attended the state funeral on Saturday February 25, culminating in a solemn service at the Esplanade. They included President S.R. Nathan, Cabinet ministers, members of parliament and foreign dignitaries.

Mr Rajaratnam died the previous Wednesday of heart failure. He would have turned 91 on the day of his funeral.

An anti-colonial firebrand under British rule, Rajaratnam became a journalist and political activist. He went to King’s College, London to pursue a law degree, but due to World War II, unable to receive funding from his family to continue his studies. So, instead, he turned to journalism.

He threw in his lot as a founding member of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in November 1954 together with Lee Kuan Yew, who subsequently became Singapore’s first prime minister.

The PAP still rules the city-state.

He became the “ideas man” as culture minister from 1959 to 1965, through racial riots, merger with Malaysia and then independence.

Among his visions was a “Singaporean Singapore” - a multi-racial society whose citizens lived in harmony and progressed on merit - an ideal he enshrined into the Singapore pledge of allegiance.

Rajaratnam was Singapore’s first foreign minister, following its abrupt independence in 1965 and remained in the post until 1980, also taking on the position of labour minister from 1968 to 1971.

Rajaratnam was one of the five “founding fathers” of ASEAN in 1967.

From 1980 to 1984, he was second deputy prime minister and then became senior minister in the prime minister’s office. He left politics in 1988.

“On my identity card, it says my race is Indian,” Mr. Rajaratnam often said in his later years. “But I don’t care if you call me an Indian or an Eskimo. What is important is whether you consider me a good man.”

Rajaratnam was a strong believer in multi-racialism in Singapore, and when drafting the Singapore National Pledge in 1966 just two years after the 1964 Race Riots, he wrote the words “One united people, regardless of race, language or religion.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, when the government began implementing several policies to promote the use of “mother tongue” languages and ethnic-based self-help groups such as Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) and Mendaki, Rajaratnam expressed his opposition to these policies which, in his view, ran counter to the vision of establishing a common Singaporean identity where “where race, religion, language does not matter”. He advocated for greater racial integration which he felt was still lacking in the country.

In his eulogy, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hailed Mr. Rajaratnam as a Singapore hero and a champion for multi-racialism.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew also spoke at the funeral, and gave an emotional tribute to the man who was one of his oldest friends and colleagues.

Giving his eulogy at the service, Prime Minister Lee called Mr. Rajaratnam an extraordinary leader with the ideals, courage and passion.

He said Singapore would not be here today if not for men like the late politician who fought and changed history.

Prime Minister Lee said: “Throughout his years in public life, Raja would continue to think deeply and speak ardently about Singapore - our values, our future and our relevance to the world.

“He was an idealist and a visionary. He believed profoundly in a multi-racial, multi-religious society. The National Pledge which he drafted has helped to shape the nation’s psyche and entrench a core value for Singa­pore.

“In this age of extremist terrorism and tensions between Islam and the West, multi-racialism and harmony is more vital than ever to our very survival, both as a nation and a civilised society.”

Prime Minister Lee remembered the late statesman fondly - as “Uncle Raja” and said that he had benefited much from his political guidance.

One of his most vivid memories were of Mr Rajaratnam’s impassioned speeches both at home and defending Singapore’s interests abroad.

Prime Minister Lee said: “His speeches not only convinced the mind but stirred the soul. He was genuine and considerate; he spoke with conviction and passion, and even when he stuck a stiletto into an opponent - for he knew how to defend himself - it was done so nicely that the victim would smile with him.”

In his eulogy, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew recalled his first meeting with Mr Rajaratnam in April 1952 just as the postman’s union was striking.

He spoke of how they had worked together to form the PAP, and remembered Mr Rajaratnam as a tireless fighter who enjoyed stringing words together to influence the people.

Minister Mentor Lee said: “His strength was as a thinker and a writer, a man of honour, with great moral courage. He had a way with people, enormous charm, integrity and character. He was self-possessed, had a good strong voice, and won the confidence of those who dealt with him.

“With his passing, Singaporeans have lost a patriot, a man of deep conviction and principle. His contribution was not in bricks and mortar, or concrete and glass, but in ideas, sentiments and spirit. Everyday when the pledge is recited in our schools, our children are reminded to live up to our aspirations as Raja expressed them.”

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