Lee, Kuan Yew
1923 - ?
First Prime Minister of Singaporeby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Described as one of Asia’s Heroes by Time Magazine and regarded as the architect of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, better known as the first prime minister of Singapore, led Singapore to independence from British rule. Almost single-handedly, he transformed the city-state from a colonial outpost into a high-tech powerhouse, the world’s busiest port, and one of the world’s most financially and economically vibrant country. In 1960, Singapore was described as a cesspool of squalor and degradation; in 1965, it ranked economically with Chile, Argentina, and Mexico; and it had a GDP per capita of a few hundred dollars. Thanks to Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s GDP per capita exploded to $49,700 in 2007, higher than her former colonial master, Britain, whose GDP per capita was $35,100. This little city-state also has no foreign debt. All this happened within one generation.
A fourth-generation Chinese Singaporean, Lee Kuan Yew was born on September 16, 1923 to a wealthy family who provided him and his siblings with an English education. His education was interrupted during the Japanese occupation. During that time, he started learning Chinese and Japanese. After the war, Singapore reverted again to British rule. Lee then proceeded to further his education in the London School of Economics and then Cambridge University where he was awarded first-class honors degrees in law. There he met his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, a lawyer. They returned to Singapore in 1950.
Explaining his desire for politics, he commented that he “did not enter politics. The Japanese brought politics to me. The Japanese occupying forces were blind and brutal and made me, and a whole generation like me, in Singapore and Malaysia, work for freedom – freedom from servitude and foreign domination.” Lee reiterated, “three and a half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life. They gave me vivid insights into the behavior of human beings and human societies, their motives, and their impulses.” He noticed “a whole social system crumble suddenly before an occupying army that was absolutely merciless. They [the Japanese] were hated by almost everyone but everyone knew their power to do harm and so everyone adjusted.” Lee also learned fast that the fear of punishment could deter crime.
In 1954, his political party, PAP, People’s Action Party, was founded. In 1959, running as anti-colonialist and anticommunist, Lee and the PAP won 43 out of 51 seats and gained 53.4% of the votes. Singapore had attained self-government from British rule. On June 3, 1959, at age 35, Lee became the first Prime Minister of Singapore. During his administration, Singapore became part of the Federation of Malaysia in September 1963, which included Sarawak and Sabah; but Singapore was later expelled from the Federation after racially prompted riots and violence created frictions between Malaysia and Singapore. Separated from Malaysia, Singapore became independent on August 9, 1965. Since his election as Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959, Lee Kuan Yew has been re-elected over and over again. In 1990, he stepped down from the prime ministerial position to become the city-state’s Senior Minister. Now, at 85, holding the title of Minister Mentor of Singapore, MM Lee, still a sought-after and influential voice in Asia, continues to give advice to the new generation of young Singapore leaders of which his son, Lee Hsien Loong, is currently the third Prime Minister in Singapore.
Often described as a “soft” authoritarian regime, the Singapore government, with Lee Kuan Yew at its helm, banned many western publications that Lee deemed undesirable to the country. Lee once remarked that if he found any obstacle that obstructed his policy or goal, he would not hesitate to run a bulldozer to clear the way. Lee won many libel suits against his critics and opponents. Often criticized for his repressive policies, Lee encouraged foreign investments, ran campaigns to assist in correct public behavior for its citizens, banned chewing gums, implemented severe drug laws, and discouraged political dissent.
Lee’s governance of the little state embodies an approach that he terms “Asian values.” By that, he refers to the “Confucian values” where one acts responsibly and respects family, authority, and order, and putting one’s country before self. A strong critic of unregulated democracy, particularly in the area of freedom of speech, Lee believes that “freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy”; and “the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society.”
On his religious views, Lee sees himself as one who does not score very high on religious values. However, he believes that a person “who has deep faith in God has an enormous strength facing crisis, an advantage in life.” When asked by Time magazine what he thought of President Bush’s religious values, Lee Kuan Yew commented on how he once had an argument with a European leader who expounded that “the Europeans did not like Bush’s telephone line to God”; his reply to the European leader was “when you are fighting a fanatic on the other side who believes he represents God, it does help to give you a serenity and tranquility of mind to believe you also have God on your side. Look at the President when he announced that he had ordered an attack on Baghdad, I never saw a man more composed – he spoke briefly into the microphone and walked away straight-back, not a doubt in his mind. I thought to myself, that’s not a bad commander.”
His view on the Middle East: “This battle is going to be won and lost in the Middle East. The problem in Iraq is very grave. If the jihadists win there, I’m in trouble here. [Their attitude will be]: We’ve beaten the Russians in Afghanistan; we’ve beaten the Americans and the coalition in Iraq. There’s nothing we cannot do. We can fix Southeast Asia too. There will be such a surge of confidence for all jihadists. The US must be seen – if not to have prevailed or to have created a democratic Iraq – to at least to have denied the jihadists a victory. Because otherwise, the consequences for America and for the world are horrendous.”
Richard Nixon’s flattering remark about the patriarch of Singapore that “had Lee lived in another time and another place, he might have attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone” sums up the political success of this statesman.
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Lee, Kuan Yew. Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. New York: Prentice Hall, 1998.
Lee Kuan Yew Reflects," Time, December 5, 2005
Milne, R. S., and Diane K. Mauzy. The Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1990.