By Phuong Nguyen & Nigel Cory
Lee Kuan Yew was no ordinary man. Dubbed the founding father of Singapore, his passing at the age of 91 is a seminal moment for the city state, which celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence this year. When Lee became prime minister in 1965, Singapore faced an uncertain future. It was his vision, and the tireless work of his colleagues and advisers, that brought Singapore to the position of economic and diplomatic strength that it enjoys today.
The city state’s statistics are testament to its success –gross domestic product per capita in 2013 was $51,000 compared to $381in 1965. Singapore’s experience of going “from third world to first,” to quote Lee, is the greatest legacy that he left behind.
Many world leaders sought his advice, but Lee said in his memoirs that there was simply no book or school of thought on how to build a successful state. After World War II ended, he went to the United Kingdom to study law, and graduated with double first class honors. His experience growing up under the Japanese occupation during World War II was formative to his understanding of power and politics, and led him to believe that Singaporeans needed to be in charge of their destiny.
Lee’s time in the United Kingdom influenced his thinking on social order and economic principles. Singapore’s reputation for adherence to the rule of law and emphasis on meritocracy are reflective of Lee’s deeply held personal beliefs. However, the only -ism that he subscribed to, as Lee often said, was pragmatism.
Lee returned to Singapore in 1949 to work as a lawyer and legal adviser for trade and student unions. He founded Singapore’s now ruling party, the People’s Action Party, in 1954. Lee encountered the turning point of his political career on August 9, 1965, when Singapore was expelled from what was then known as the Federation of Malaysia. Lee, who until that point was convinced that tiny Singapore could not survive on its own, was shattered by the separation. But the event brought out the mettle in him, and Lee set out to prove himself wrong. “I have a few million people’s lives to account for. And Singapore will survive,” Lee said on August 26, 1965.
Lee realized early on that Singapore had few choices but to become a globally connected economy and a distinguished place in a region of developing, newly independent countries. Despite his personal affinity for the United Kingdom, Lee could see that the United States was on the ascendency during the 1950s and 1960s and sought out large U.S. multinational corporations that could help build Singapore’s economy.
He made his first visit to the United States in November 1968 to give a speech to 800 business leaders at the Economic Club of New York and persuade them to come to Singapore. This visit was the first of many by Lee and his ministers to the United States as they worked tirelessly to promote Singapore as an impeccable place to do business. Lee’s charisma and perseverance were a major reason why Texas Instruments decided to set up a semiconductor factory in Singapore, followed soon by many other U.S. companies. Singapore’s position as a crucial hub for businesses from all over the world has been achieved thanks in large part to Lee’s pragmatic vision.
Lee was equally known for his straight-talking and, some would say, ruthlessness in politics, which earned him some criticisms over the course of his career. He believed that in order to build a prosperous and law-abiding multi-racial society, the Singapore government needed to intervene in very personal matters, including where its citizens lived, what languages Singapore children should use, how people should talk, and what they talked about. Without these rules, he believed Singapore would not have become the place it is today.
Lee has often been criticized for his authoritarian tendencies. In 1992, he said that “exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development.”
Born with a keen sense of politics, Lee was nonetheless the ever unusual politician. He utterly dismissed the polling of public opinion, calling it a sign of weakness of the mind and a reflection of a leader’s inability to chart a course. However, Lee made clear that he had not the slightest remorse for what he had done during his more than three decades as prime minister. “Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him, or give it up,” Lee famously said at an election rally in 1980.
Perhaps less known was his devotion to his wife of 60 years, Kwa Geok Choo, whom he described as his “soulmate” and “intellectual equal.” Kwa died in 2010. She was the first Asian woman to graduate with first-class honors in law from Cambridge University. Kwa played an outsized role in Lee’s life. She acted as his intermediary in dealing with the former British governor, wrote the text for the Malaysia-Singapore bilateral water supply contract, and pushed for women’s rights in Singapore. In the early days of their union, her work as a lawyer freed him to focus on his political work.
His passing is a turning point for Singapore. Later in his life, Lee was most concerned that Singapore youth, brought up in comfort, might lack the ruggedness and robust attitude that their fathers and grandfathers had. Those who have watched and studied Singapore from its early days will always remember his deep patriotism and commitment to his country. “Even from my sick bed, even if you’re going to lower me to the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up,” Lee once said.
Ms. Phuong Nguyen is a Research Associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies. Follow her on twitter @PNguyen_DC. Mr. Nigel Cory is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair, and served as an Australian diplomat in Malaysia and the Philippines.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.