CB13. Lee Kuan Yew, Past Prime Minister of Singapore, A Review

03 Aug CB13. Lee Kuan Yew, Past Prime Minister of Singapore, A Review

A member of the Chinese diaspora, the ‘English university qualified’ Lee Kuan Yew, as Singapore’s prime minister transitioned the nation from ‘third world’ to first, in just three decades. China’s Deng Xiaoping, the undisputed leader after Mao Zedong, in late 1970s met with Lee and had modelled (the forthcoming) China’s phenomenal economic growth on Singapore’s. The transformation of both Singapore and China have their root in the know-how, pragmatism and political skills of Lee Kuan Yew.

  1. In approximately 1,000 words, I will show why Lee Kuan Yew is remembered as a most successful politician who helped put Asia as the new centre of the world. I possess several books by, and on, Lee including “The Singapore Story” and “From Third World to First”.
  2. Harry Lee Kuan Yew (16 September 1923 – 23 March 2015; 91 years) was the first prime minister of Singapore serving from 1959 to 1990 (31 years). He was a fourth-generation Singaporean of ethnic Chinese Hakka descent. His Hakka great-grandfather emigrated Guangdong, China, to Singapore in 1863.
  3. Lee Kuan Yew attended Raffles Institution where he came top in the School Certificate examinations in 1940.
  4. Lee’s university education was delayed by World War II and the Japanese occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945. Lee learnt Japanese and worked in Sentosa islands. The Japanese occupation had a profound impact on the young Lee, who recalled being slapped and forced to kneel for failing to bow to a Japanese soldier. He emerged determined that “no one – neither Japanese nor British – had the right to push and kick us around … (and) we could govern ourselves.” The occupation also drove home lessons about raw power and the effectiveness of harsh punishment in deterring crime.
  5. After the war, Lee went on to study in England. Lee graduated from Cambridge University with first class honours in law.
  6. Lee returned to Singapore in 1949, became a barrister in 1950 and practised law until 1959. He decided to omit his English name, Harry, and simply be known as Lee Kuan Yew.
  7. Lee and Kwa Geok Choo, also a lawyer, married in 1950. Both spoke English as their first language; Lee first started learning Chinese in 1955, aged 32. Lee and Kwa had two sons and a daughter. Lee’s elder son Lee Hsien Loong became Prime Minister of Singapore in 2004.
  8. In 1954, Lee co-founded the People’s Action Party (PAP). He won the Tanjong Pagar seat in the 1955 elections, and later became the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.
  9. In the national elections held on 30 May 1959, the PAP won. Singapore gained self-government from the British with autonomy in all state matters except defence and foreign affairs, and Lee became the first prime minister of Singapore on 5 June 1959.
  10. On 16 September 1963, Singapore became part of the new Federation of Malaysia. However, the Singapore’s union with Malaysia was short-lived. During the 1964 race riots in Singapore on 21 July 1964, 23 people were killed and hundreds injured as Chinese and Malays attacked each other. In 1965, Singapore separated from the Malaysian federation.
  11. The failure of the union was a blow to Lee, who believed that it was crucial for Singapore’s survival. In a televised press conference, he fought back tears. Singapore’s lack of natural resources, a water supply that was derived primarily from Malaysia and a very limited defensive capability were the major challenges which Lee and the new Singaporean government faced.
  12. Lee tried to create a unique Singaporean identity in the 1970s and 1980s – one which heavily recognised racial consciousness within the umbrella of multiculturalism. Lee and his government stressed the importance of maintaining religious tolerance and racial harmony, and they were ready to use the law to counter any threat that might incite ethnic and religious violence.
  13. In 1967, Lee introduced conscription whereby all able-bodied male Singaporean citizens age 18 must serve for two years as national servicemen.
  14. Lee set up factories and initially focused on the manufacturing industry.
  15. After years of trial and error, Lee and his cabinet decided the best way to boost Singapore’s economy was to attract foreign investments from multinational corporations (MNCs).
  16. By establishing First World infrastructure and standards in Singapore, the new nation could woo American, Japanese and European entrepreneurs and professionals to set up base there. By the 1970s, the arrival of MNCs like Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard and General Electric laid the foundations, turning Singapore into a major electronics exporter the following decade.
  17. Lee’s government also started several new industries, such as steel mills, service industries like Neptune Orient Lines, and the Singapore Airlines.
  18. Lee and his cabinet also worked to establish Singapore as an international financial centre. Foreign bankers were assured of the reliability of Singapore’s social conditions, with top-class infrastructure and skilled professionals, and investors were made to understand that the Singapore government would pursue sound macroeconomic policies, with budget surpluses, leading to a stable valued Singapore dollar.
  19. Lee placed meticulous tending of Singapore’s international image of being a “Garden City”, something that has been sustained to this day.
  20. Singapore had problems with political corruption, so Lee introduced legislation giving the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) greater power to conduct arrests, search, call up witnesses, and investigate bank accounts and income-tax returns of suspected persons and their families.
  21. Lee believed that ministers should be well paid in order to maintain a clean and honest government. In 1994, he proposed to link the salaries of ministers, judges, and top civil servants to the salaries of top professionals in the private sector, arguing that this would help recruit and retain talent to serve in the public sector. This was subsequently implemented – Singaporean politicians earn 80% of the average salaries of top professionals. They are currently the highest paid politicians in the world.
  22. One of Lee’s major beliefs was in the efficacy of corporal punishment in the form of caning. Lee’s government inherited judicial corporal punishment from British rule, but greatly expanded its scope.
  23. Lee improved relationships with Malaysia’s prime minister Mahathir Mohamed.
  24. Lee cultivated close relationships with US presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, as well as former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. 
  25. In 1967, Richard Nixon, who was running for president in 1968, visited Singapore and met with Lee who advised that the United States had much to gain by engaging with China, culminating in Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China.
  26. Lee was very careful to avoid giving any impression of Singapore, which had a three-quarters ethnic Chinese population, being a “Third China” (the first two being Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China).
  27. In November 1978, after China had stabilized following political turmoil in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s death, Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and met Lee. Deng, who was very impressed with Singapore’s economic development, greenery and housing, later sent over 22,000 Chinese to Singapore to learn from their experiences and bring back their knowledge as part of the opening of China beginning in December 1978.
  28. On 3 October 1990, Singapore revised diplomatic relations from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China. Lee’s achievements in Singapore had a profound effect on the leadership in China. China began to emulate Lee’s policies of economic growth, entrepreneurship and subtle suppression of dissent.
  29. After leading the PAP to victory in seven elections, Lee stepped down on 28 November 1990, handing over the prime ministership to Goh Chok Tong. At that point in time he had become the world’s longest-serving prime minister.
  30. On 23 February 2015, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong announced his father Lee Kuan Yew’s death at the age of 91.
  31. As Singapore’s prime minister from 1959 to 1990, with overwhelming parliamentary control at every election, Lee Kuan Yew oversaw Singapore’s transformation from a British colony with a natural deep harbour to a developed country with a high-income economy. In the process, he forged a system of meritocratic, highly effective and non-corrupt government and civil service. He championed meritocracy and multiracialism as governing principles, making English the common language to integrate its immigrant society and to facilitate trade with the West, whilst mandating bilingualism in schools to preserve students’ mother tongue and ethnic identity.
  32. Singapore’s Gross National Product per capita rose from $1,240 in 1959 to $18,437 in 1990. Unemployment rate in Singapore dropped from 13.5% in 1959 to 1.7% in 1990. External trade increased from $7.3 billion in 1959 to $205 billion in 1990. The population of Singapore increased from 1.6 million in 1959 to 3 million in 1990. The number of public flats in Singapore rose from 22,975 in 1959 to 667,575 in 1990. The Singaporean literacy rate increased from 52% in 1957 to 90% in 1990. Visitor arrivals to Singapore rose from 100,000 in 1960 to 5.3 million in 1990.
  33. Lee said that Singapore’s only natural resources are its people and their strong work ethic.
  34. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher praised Lee saying: “he has a way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our time and the way to tackle them”. A later British prime minister, Tony Blair, called Lee “the smartest leader I ever met”.
  35. US President Barack Obama referred Lee as “one of the legendary figures of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is somebody who helped to trigger the Asian economic miracle”. Two generations of American leaders have benefited from his counsel.
  36. On the other hand, many Singaporeans have criticised Lee as authoritarian and as intolerant of dissent, citing his numerous – mostly successful – attempts to sue political opponents and newspapers who express an unfavourable opinion. Lee had argued that such disciplinary measures were necessary for political stability which, together with the rule of law, were essential for economic progress.  
  37. In addition, Lee was accused of promoting a culture of elitism among Singapore’s ruling class. A proponent of nature over nurture he stated that “intelligence is 80% nature and 20% nurture”.
  38. Lee served his Tanjong Pagar constituency for nearly 60 years as a member of parliament until his death in 2015. Lee is recognised as the nation’s founding father, credited with rapidly transitioning the country from a developing third world country into a developed first world country within a single generation.

© Comasters August 2020.

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