Lee Kuan Yew

By: Victoria Yates

Lee Kuan Yew was born in Singapore on the 16th of September 1923, to Lee Chin Koon and Chua Jim Neo. He was the oldest of five children born into the wealthy Chinese family that had moved to Singapore three generations before.

As a child he spoke Malay, Cantonese, and English with most of his education being undertaken in the latter. He studied at the Raffles Institution, the most exclusive school in Singapore, and proved himself to be a top student. He had aimed to go straight to England after graduation to study but the war interrupted his plans and instead he spent time at Raffles College where he was offered a scholarship. It wasn’t an easy time, the Japanese brutality had a lasting impact on Lee’s political views and he was lucky to escape the fate of many other Chinese youths who were rounded up and shot during that time. During the occupation Lee learnt Japanese and took up a job transcribing Allied radio transmissions at the Japanese Propaganda Department.

After World War II, Lee went on to study at the London School of Economics but he lasted only one term and instead arranged to move Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University where he studied law. He managed to secure a place at another college for his fiancée Kwa Geok Choo, a brilliant scholar he met while still at school where she was the only female pupil, and the pair married secretly in December 1947. Both graduated with a First and were admitted to the English bar in 1950 but choose to instead return to Singapore to practice law there. Once in Singapore, they officially married and joined a local practice but before long decided to setup their own firm, Lee & Lee. The couple went on to have three children, one of whom, Lee Hsien Loong, became Prime Minister of Singapore in 2004.

Lee became renowned as a legal adviser to trade and students unions and became a key player in the movement against British rule. In 1954 he was part of a group that formed the People’s Action Party (PAP); their first manifesto called for independence for a unified Malaya and Singapore. They quickly entered an expedient alliance with the pro-communist unions, a move that Lee characterised as a ‘marriage of convenience.’ Their inaugural conference attracted over 1,500 supporters and it was there that Lee became secretary-general - a position he would hold almost without break until 1992.

In the 1955 elections the PAP won three seats, including one for Lee. The years that followed were somewhat disordered, with many communist PAP members being arrested and Lee wresting their influence from them. In the 1959 elections, the PAP took 53 percent of the vote and Lee was chosen as prime minister by the party’s leadership. He took office on the 3rd of June 1959 and Singapore gained independence in all but foreign and military affairs. Lee immediately instituted stricter work rules for ministers and civil servants and launched campaigns to tackle corruption and immorality in government and wider society, including the media.

Seeing the best chance at independence, Lee started to campaign for a merger with Malaya to end colonial rule. He used a referendum in 1962 that showed 70 percent support for the proposal to keep pushing the agenda through, but the study was flawed. All other votes were blank as Lee had not allowed a ‘No’ option to be included.

In September 1963 Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia. but race riots followed the next year with Malay and Chinese attacking and in some instances killing one another. Rioters looted and, unable to calm tensions, the Federation expelled Singapore from Malaysia. Lee tried to create a compromise but to no avail. He signed the separation agreement on August 7th 1965. It was a huge personal and professional blow to Lee.

He recognised that without natural resources or defence capabilities the country was in a weak position, and would need a strong economy to survive independently. He led a drive to make Singapore a leading exporter of finished good and courted foreign investment. Lee moved forward with finding recognition for Singapore’s independence, joining the United Nations in September 1965 and founding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967.

In the 70s and 80s Lee worked to create a unique Singaporean identity that would embrace multiculturalism and give immigrants a dominant culture to assimilate to, creating national cohesion and harmony. The government frequently highlighted the importance of both religious and racial tolerance and used the law to crack down on incitement.

His efforts to gain the interest of large multinationals started to pay off in the 70s with the arrival of such big brands as Hewlett-Packard and General Electric. They helped turn Singapore into a major electrical exporter and workers were frequently retrained to keep up with the working culture and process of these large multinationals. On a governmental scale, several new industries were also birthed during this period including steel mills and companies like Singapore Airlines. Lee honed in on foreign bankers as well, enticing them with their reliable infrastructure and conditions.

Alongside his economic legacy, Lee also pursued clear social policies during his tenure. These including a 1960s population campaign, urging couples to only have two children and to submit themselves to sterilisation after that to prevent more births. Third or fourth children were given a low priority in the education system and their families received fewer rebates. In the 80s, Lee again started a strenuous debate after telling Singaporean men to pick highly educated women as wives – at the time a large number of women graduates were unmarried. A match-making agency was set up to promote this cause. The government also introduced incentives through the Graduate Mothers Scheme to give rebates, and housing/schooling priorities to graduate mothers with three or more children.

After seven PAP election victories, Lee stepped down on November 28th 1990, giving the role of prime minister over to Goh Chok Tong. He was the world’s longest serving prime minister at that time, and it was the first leadership transition since the nation’s independence. Lee remained in the government however, serving as a Senior Minister and advising. His engagement with Singapore’s future course didn’t end, however.  In the 2000s he started a campaign to attract young Singaporeans to learn Mandarin, a skill that was on the decline. He published a book on the subject, describing his own efforts to master the language after losing much of his prior ability through disuse.

After years of health problems, Lee died on the 23rd of March 2015 at the age of 91.

Lee’s influence on the course of Singapore cannot be overstated. Throughout his life he campaigned ardently for policies that would further the nation’s stability and standing as an independent country. Some of this legacy is controversial; his authoritarian approach including crushing dissent and political opposition as well as elitist tendencies towards the ruling classes were equally parts of his term in power. In particular, Lee became known for using the legal process against political challengers, suing opponents or newspapers that aired an unfavourable opinion.

His reach as a statesman has moved beyond the island’s borders with other Asian nations in particular looking to his examples. Notably, Lee’s influence can be seen in China’s leadership who have worked to directly emulate his economic policies and subtle mechanisms of control. To date over 22,000 Chinese officials have visited Singapore to study its systems.

Inarguably, Lee has shaped the country more than any other figure, seeing Singapore through from developing country to one of Asia’s most developed nations in his thirty years as Prime Minister and earning himself the nickname ‘the Father of Singapore.’