An obituary for Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, 1923 -2015.
Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, died this early this Monday morning 23rd March 2015 in Singapore General Hospital, aged 91. It is difficult to think of another man who spent more of his life building a country.
Mr Lee became Prime Minister in 1959, when Singapore was a colonial outpost of the British Empire, suffered high levels of unemployment, racial tensions and dominated by larger hostile neighbors. By the time he resigned, over half a century later from his position of Minister Mentor in 2011, Singapore had become one of the wealthiest and most successful nations in the world.
Mr Lee was born in 1923 in Singapore and named Harry Lee Kuan Yew. His English name was chosen by his grandfather who was a successful businessman – although the family’s wealth declined during the Great Depression. Mr Lee had a humble childhood yet was able to gain a first rate education through a series of scholarships – first at Raffles Institution and then Raffles College, earning a distinction of being the top student in Singapore and Malaysia. He later graduated from Cambridge with a rare Double First Honours. Only in the subject of Economics was Mr Lee second best to a student named Kwa Geok Choo. Mr Lee decided the only available course of action was to marry her.
During WWII Mr Lee was forced into what he described as an education in the real world. He learned Japanese in just a few months and worked as a translator. He narrowly escaped death when he missed attendance for a roll call for what would be later known as the Sook Ching Massacre. Mr Lee disliked Japanese rule but was impressed with the effect of harsh discipline had on law and order – Singapore is now known as a country that is virtually free of crime and corruption.
After returning from Cambridge, Mr Lee practiced law and started upon his political career. He co-founded the People’s Action Party in 1954 and a law firm named Lee and Lee in 1955. The PAP was an unlikely alliance between British educated middle class liberals and Chinese Communists. Mr Lee was able to establish a middle ground as well as a progressive yet pragmatic vision for Singapore – one that was inclusive and provided opportunity for all to build their own futures. Mr Lee had to learn Mandarin and Malay and was able to inspire talented and loyal individuals and in 1959 the PAP won the national election with Mr Lee as Prime Minister.
In 1963 Singapore gained independence from the British Empire as part of Malaysia. Mr Lee’s prospects of success were poor. The Malaysian ‘Tunku’ (leader) demanded extra contributions from Singapore whilst at the same time wanted fewer rights for the Chinese. Race riots erupted in Singapore, Sukarno’s vastly more powerful Indonesia threatened to invade and the economy continued to decline. In 1965 the Tunku expelled Singapore and Mr Lee broke down on camera as he made the announcement to a stunned nation.
Mr Lee set about building a Singapore that would provide opportunity for all but made it clear from the outset that there would be ‘no free lunch.’ The Housing Development Board made it possible for Singaporeans to buy their own home. Heavy emphasis was placed upon education and Singapore would become a ‘knowledge economy.’ The corruption and crime that plagues much of the region making it unsafe for investment was cleaned out of Singapore – even if it required the use of caning. Mr Lee demanded that the country was to be literally clean as well as green – millions of trees were planted and Singapore became known as the ‘Garden City.’ All along, Mr Lee had his detractors, but as he explained time and again he ‘wanted to be correct, not politically correct.’
Mr Lee also proved himself to be a master strategist on the world stage. He immediately understood the existential threat from larger aggressive neighbours. He kept the statue of Raffles as a symbol of friendship with the UK. He hired out Israeli defense experts to help build the armed forces and introduced National Service. He kept neutrality whilst at the same time making international business trips to encourage investment in a low-tax high-quality Singapore. He was the first to realize in the early 1980’s that China had turned capitalist and made sure to keep a special relationship with the future giant. His advice was sought from Deng Xiaoping, to Thatcher to Obama. All along, his central focus was the success of Singapore.
His son Lee Hsien Loong, now Prime Minister, made the announcement that he was ‘grieved beyond words’ at the loss of his father. The feeling is shared by the rest of the Singaporean nation. We must give thanks for a remarkable man who built this city state through brains and will power. We shall not see the likes of him again.
“I have spent my life, building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.” – LKY.