lee kuan yew singapore

Written by Eman Anjum 2:00 pm Articles, International Relations, Published Content

The Unbelievable Journey of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew

Having been the leading person to have fought for his country’s independence from the British colonial rule, it is no surprise that Lee Kuan Yew is known to be Singapore’s founding father. The author, Eman Anjum, briefly explores his life before and while he was in office.
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Eman Anjum is a student of international relations at National Defence University. Currently, she's in the second semester of her bachelor's degree. She aspires to write in the academic field. Her areas of interest are international relations, Pakistan affairs, and current affairs.

Singapore’s Founding Father

In the words of Carlyle, the history of the world is but the biography of great men. It has always been some fearless individuals whose precarious decisions and bold steps have made history and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore was one of those phenomenal human beings. He is one of the longest-serving prime ministers and remained in office for 31 years (1959-1990).

Even after that, he continued to be the most influential personality in Singaporean political affairs and served as a senior member of his successor’s cabinet till 2011. It was during the reign of Lee Kuan Yew that Singapore gained independence from the colonial masters, became the first country in the world that got expelled from the federation against their will, and perhaps against all odds, turned to be one of the world’s most prosperous countries.

In September 1923, Lee was born into a Chinese family who migrated to Singapore back in the 19th century. He was admitted to Telok Kurau English School in 1930, where he completed his early education. He then attended the London School of Economics and Political Science for a year, after which he completed his law degree at Fitzwilliam House, Cambridge.

With English as his first language and the medium of instruction, he faced problems with his home country’s languages when he entered into politics. He learned Malay and Chinese for the sake of his political survival. During World War II, Singapore was attacked by Japanese forces. It influenced Lee’s character, alongside other young and enthusiastic Singaporeans, who emerged determined that no one – neither the Japanese nor the British – had the right to push and kick Singapore around.

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Back at that time, Singapore was a British colony known to be Britain’s principal naval base in Southeast Asia. The system of government was not significantly different from other crown colonies. A governor ruled it with the assistance of a legislative council. In Singapore, this council was dominated by wealthy Chinese businessmen. Most of them were appointed rather than elected.

Founding the PAP

Lee Kuan Yew started his professional career in Singapore after returning from England as a legal advisor to the postal union. When the constitutional reforms were initiated in Singapore in the 1950s, Lee and other political settlers started their formal political journey. However, this alliance consisting of David Saul Marshall (a former lawyer) and Lim Yew Hock (a trade unionist) proved to be a short one, and due to several reasons, they broke apart.

In many ways, this development proved beneficial for Lee, and after this, he resumed his responsibilities as secretary-general of the People’s Action Party (PAP). The party included some communists, Lee having accepted communist support for some years. In 1955, a new constitutional era was started, and elections were conducted. The Labour Front, founded by Lee’s former colleagues, won 13 seats, while the PAP won 3 — Lee having won one seat – in a district inhabited by many of the poorest Chinese people in Singapore.

In the years to come, Singapore went into a state of unrest, leading to PAP leaders’ imprisonment. In parallel to this, negotiations were in process in London to obtain self-rule for the colony, and Lee was a part of that delegation. After an agreement was reached, PAP won with an exceptional majority in the elections. Inside the party, the power struggle led to the removal of Lee from his position as secretary-general. However, he regained his post soon afterwards.

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Gaining Public Favor

Every person goes through a particular pullback before gearing up for his monumental journey. The same happened with Lee, as in 1959, under the new constitution, elections were held, and he gained a tremendous victory – winning 43 out of 51 seats. His election campaign was rooted in an anti-colonialist and anti-communist narrative, and he pledged social reforms.

Lee refused to form a government till his party’s imprisoned left-wing members were let go. His conditions were met, and Lee became the Prime Minister on June 5th, 1959. Soon afterwards, in 1961, the PAP was modified (with the removal of leftists from the party) and Lee, along with the moderates in his party, began to completely dominate Singaporean politics.

Lee’s government immediately began working on a few key areas: slum clearance within 5 years, the building of new public housing, the emancipation of women, the expansion and improvement of educational services, and the development of industries. In 1963, a referendum was held in which the independence from British patronage was decided, and Singapore decided to join the new federation of Malaysia.

The following year, the PAP, dominated by the Chinese, participated in elections resulting in tensions and communal rioting between the Chinese and Malays. The year 1965 can be labeled as a defining moment in Singaporean history as they were told to leave the new federation of Malaysia against their wishes. Despite this setback, Singapore remained firm on its path of prosperity under the leadership of Lee.

Proposing Reforms

One of the foremost challenges faced by Lee was to ensure survival and preserve the lost national identity. Massive reforms were needed to rebuild Singapore. This task was taken by Lee who introduced solid policies and created a distinct Singapore model. Industrialization began, with a focus on increasing exports. Singapore was also transformed to provide a conducive environment for foreign investment.

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Reforms took place in the health and social welfare sector. The government demanded discipline, cooperation, and austerity from the average Singaporeans. By closely analyzing Lee’s policies, it can be concluded that he was not an idealist. Machiavelli inspired him, and for his country’s interest, he never hesitated to adopt the authoritarian style to rule.

He never showed tolerance for dissent. Lee introduced strict gun control and drug laws. He was a strong proponent of corporal punishment. In his opinion, Singapore has always been a tight ship. He also actively used the “internal security act,” a law predating independence that allows for arrest and detention.

An Authoritarian

Despite his authoritarian style of governance, the efficient administration led Singapore to become a prosperous country with its per capita income 2nd in East Asia during the 1980s. The boycott of opposition from parliament in 1966 removed the last obstacle. He continued to dominate the country’s political system with consecutive victories for PAP in the coming elections.

After a successful succession of power in 1990, he resigned. He remained an honorary member of the cabinet until 2011, after which he finally stepped down and kept his seat in the parliament till his death in 2015. The political conduct of Lee Kuan Yew is best summarized in his 1997 biography, in which it is noted that “between being love and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me; I am meaningless”.

The consistent efforts of Lee have transformed Singapore, and today it is the freest economy in the 2022 index – 1st among 39 countries in Asia-Pacific. Whenever the history of great nations is written, Lee will undoubtedly be remembered as the architect of Singapore.

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