Lee Kuan Yew, 1923-2015

The creator of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, respected as one of Asia’s foremost statesmen abroad and feared as a ruthless authoritarian at home, died today at 91 of complications from pneumonia. He had been on life support for several days.

Becoming Singapore’s first prime minister in 1959 as the British colonials were leaving, he cast a shadow far beyond the tiny island republic that he ran with an iron hand, not just during the three decades he was in office, leaving in 1990, but remaining as a dominant presence in the administrations of Goh Chok Tong, who followed him, and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s present prime minister.

His domestic genius lay in creating a Singapore that was scrupulously free of conventional corruption. That was most notable in the 1986 suicide of Teh Cheang Wan, one of Lee’s closest comrades in the founding of the country, which left a federation with Malaysia in 1965 to stand alone. Teh killed himself after Lee refused to let his friendship get in the way of an investigation into allegations that Teh had accepted bribes.

The drive for honest government has made Singapore one of the few Asian nations in which there is little doubt that government decisions are corruption free, a valuable quality in attracting the foreign direct investment so crucial to the country’s success.

The creation of an independent Singapore was precipitated by what is regarded as Lee’s biggest failure, the expulsion of the city-state from the Federation of Malaysia, established in 1963 to join Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak to Malaya, which had been independent since 1957.

But the continuing antipathy of ethnic Malays to the business-oriented Chinese majority in Singapore doomed the union and thwarted Lee’s ambitions to head the full federation, which without Singapore became known as Malaysia. It soon became clear to Tunku Abdul Rahman, the founding father of the Malaya federation, that Lee’s political ambitions would eventually sideline him. The Tunku ordered Singapore out of the federation, with Lee famously breaking into tears at the decision.

In his image

More than any other Asian leader, Lee created a country in his own likeness, a combination of intelligence wedded to unswerving, humorless and sometimes arrogant determination. The current government, efficient, deadly serious and sensitive to the slightest criticism, reflects that vision. However, despite the propaganda, it was not originally the barren mudflat that Lee said he had inherited. The British had left a tidy colonial outpost with clean water, well-paved streets and an urban core.

Lee was born the eldest son of a well-off Straits Chinese family, known in his youth as Harry Lee, an Anglicism that he later abandoned in his transition to Confucian authoritarianism. He graduated first in colonial Malaya in the Senior Cambridge exams of 1939 and, after the Japanese occupation during World War II, eventually studied at Cambridge in 1949, finishing with a starred first in law. His wife-to-be, Kwa Geok Choo, who died in 2010, also received a first.

He returned to Singapore to forsake a prosperous legal career for politics. He has been widely recognized for first making common cause with the radical left, as a lawyer pleading the cases of unionists, radicals and nationalists, and then thwarting them once he had consolidated power. As a member of the English-educated Chinese elite, Lee had to work all the harder to appeal to Hakka Chinese and Indian union firebrands. He was the driving force behind the creation of the People’s Action Party, which has dominated Singapore since 1953. He included sympathizers with the Communist insurgency then at its height in the Malayan peninsula, only to root them out ruthlessly once he took power.

The PAP swept aside more conservative forces to win the 1959 election by a large margin. Lee became chief minister of a self-governing state within the Commonwealth, promoting social reform but retaining political detention without trial and other draconian laws that he used without any qualms. He solidified his position by using mass detentions under the internal security act, justifying his actions by pointing to the lingering Communist threat and the challenge posed by Indonesia’s founding leader, Sukarno, whose stated ambition was to absorb the federation. That danger collapsed with Sukarno’s ouster in 1967.

With Singapore standing alone, Lee set out to create the state he wanted, a Chinese island in a Malay sea, dominated by a “poisoned shrimp” philosophy – that if either Malaysia or Indonesia were to attempt to swallow it up, the effort would kill them. Singapore, despite its tiny size of only 700 sq. km., can field more combat aircraft than Malaysia or Indonesia combined. Every Singaporean male must serve in the armed forces. Taiwan, Brunei, Thailand and Australia host them on various bits of land.

Strong government, public welfare

The Singapore he built was founded on the dominant role of the state, with the government controlling the engines of production and providing healthcare and public housing for those who needed it. He recognized the need for foreign direct investment to drive the economy, given the lack of domestic capital and sophistication. Singapore’s entrepot role in effect made both Malaysia and Indonesia its hinterland, with its knowledge-based economy far outstripping either of them.

Lee also developed a nationalistic sense of pride, citizenship and patriotic fervor that sometimes swerves into chauvinism. Singaporeans seem overwhelmingly to be aware of their position as a threatened society surrounded by hostile forces. Although the island has grown by as much as 25 percent, thanks to sand from Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia.

While he apparently regarded notions of liberal democracy as out of line with his vision, Lee also recognized that Singapore needed the trappings of democracy to make itself acceptable to the West. Accordingly, the country ostensibly runs along Westminster parliamentary lines – unless the threat to the PAP becomes palpable. He used a a long series of tactics including gerrymandering and combined constituencies to thwart opponents such as Joshua B. Jayaretnam and the Worker Party from encroaching on PAP dominance.

He could be pitiless against his enemies, bankrupting them through the courts and driving some of them, such as lawyers Tan Wah Piow and Frances Seow and his former friend and president of the republic, Devan Nair, out of the country. A political rival, Chia Thye Poh, was held for 23 years without charge or trial, then another nine years under house arrest. At one point Chia was considered to be the world's longest-serving political prisoner.

The country’s Central Provident Fund, which at its peak demanded a contribution level of 40 percent of worker salaries, generated savings that gave the government far more funds than necessary to spend on investment, housing and consumer goods.

Educational excellence, creative deficit

The government’s emphasis on education helped Singapore become an investment center for multinationals, although its concurrent drive to snuff out any opposition voices resulted in an inability to foster creativity or an entrepreneurial spirit. Nonetheless, the government was instrumental in identifying and nurturing nascent industries, which included oil services, electronics, finance and most recently biotech. When the Plaza Accord of 1986 drove down the value of the US dollar against the yen, making Japanese domestic production enormously expensive, Singapore benefited enormously from the transfer of Japan’s electronics manufacture overseas.

At the same time, while Singapore was conventionally incorruptible, its banks became a safe haven for funds flowing from corrupt nearby countries, particularly Indonesia, China and Myanmar, whose generals made regular trips to Singaporean banks. Through its defense industries, Singapore also became one of the world’s biggest arms suppliers, acting behind the scenes to provide end-user certificates to countries not on approved lists.

Lee’s hand shaped society to an extraordinary extent, particularly through an intensive family planning campaigns and attempts to influence marriage choices between societal elites, believing erroneously in genetic superiority as a way to build society. He was seen as an advocate of so-called Asian values and he was not shy about touting the presumed superiority of the Singaporean model over Western forms of government. “The expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society,” he told Foreign Affairs magazine in a 1994 interview. “In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms.”

Battling the press

He also hated the free press, not just domestically but internationally, taking an extraordinary interest, and not necessarily a beneficial one, in journalism. At one point, enraged by a Business Times story on a rug dealer, he angrily denounced rug sales as an investment sham and demanded that the editor be replaced.

He brought the courts to heel, once replacing a judge who had the temerity to rule against the government in a case involving JB Jayaretnam. He or his family filed numerous lawsuits against the international press, winning them all in the domestic courts. His tilt against the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review and its editor Derek Davies was legend. He once stopped delivery of the magazine but had local printers print it without the advertising, stealing the magazine’s journalism while denying it advertising revenue.

At one point, a newly-installed correspondent with what was then the Asian Wall Street Journal, met Lee at a diplomatic reception and introduced himself, only to have Lee stare at him, impassive, then spit out the words “I am sure you will have an interesting time.” The correspondent lasted one year before he was forced to leave the country.

Unlike many other Southeast Asian leaders who thwarted the growth of new leadership, one of Lee’s signal accomplishments was to step down from power in 1990, guiding his successors from behind the scenes and attempting to foster a cadre system within the PAP to lead the republic after he was gone. To thwart bribery, he engineered the highest government salaries in the world, with the prime minister being paid more than the US president.

Unfortunately the development of the cadre system also resulted in a tight-knit elite that gradually began to lose ties to the voters. In the general election of 2011, the PAP only won a shade over 60 percent of the popular vote despite taking 80 of the 87 electoral seats in parliament due to gerrymandering.

Critics also described Lee’s rapid promotion of his children and the rise of Ho Ching, the wife of Lee Hsien Loong, who headed the Temasek sovereign wealth fund, as nepotism, a charge that has been unanimously met with defamation suits when raised in the press.


Lee leaves behind an economy whose per capita GDP is the highest in the region and among the highest in the world. Modern, clean and shimmery, Singapore has little taste for innovation but it remains by far among the brightest spots in Asia, prickly and serious-minded. Other Asians flock there for shopping or work and revel in the cleanliness and order. Western expatriates consistently rate Singapore as the best place to live in the region. In the final analysis, had the Federation survived, Lee could have ended up the mayor of what amounted to a relatively small city of 5.5 million. Instead he was handed a nation, and his ambition and intelligence put him on the international stage, for better or worse.

It has been said that Lee Kwan Yew was his own creation, making a lifelong shift from post-colonial Chinese grandee to Confucian disciplinarian who long ago lost any sense of humor at being called Harry Lee. There appears little chance of a Lee dynasty. His prime minister son, Lee Hsien Loong, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in February and the PAP cadres – or a possible rising opposition figure – will likely take over. Their task will be to maintain the Singapore built by Lee Kuan Yew as the center of trade and finance for Southeast Asia, with a possibly more liberal democratic face.