On March 23rd 2015 modern Singapore lost its founding father. The week that followed saw an out pouring of grief, respect and stories of how Lee Kuan Yew had personally helped build the nation. Within hours newspapers were printed in dedication to him, exhibitions and memorials sprung up and social media was buzzing with the hashtag rememberingleekuanyew. Almost 450,000 people paid their respects whilst his body was lying in state at Parliament House, many queuing for 8-9 hours to do so. This prompt, organised and respectful response was perhaps testament to the modern Singapore that Lee had helped build, a nation that is always prepared.
Lee was born in Singapore on September 16th 1923. The eldest of five Lee was a top student from his early days, topping his class at the Raffles Institution. This was the top school in the country and he went on not only top his class but also all the students in Singapore and Malaya. He had hoped to go to London to study law but when the war started in Europe in 1939 he was forced to postpone this dream. Instead he took a place at Raffles College where he studied English, Mathematics and economics. This is where he met Kwa Geok Choo, also a top student at Raffles College. Although three years his senior she was an academic rival to Lee as they both contended for the Queen’s scholarship for further studies in Britain. Their rivalry was interrupted when Japan invaded and occupied Singapore in 1942. During this time Lee narrowly escaped being killed when the Japanese carried out sook ching (purge by cleansing) which took the lives of many Chinese. In later years Lee described how he had never planned to get into politics. The Japanese occupation brought politics to him, it made him realise that Singaporeans needed to take their fate into their own hands.
After World War II Lee followed through with his dream and moved to Britain instead of returning to Raffles College. Studying Law at the University of Cambridge he graduated with a Double First and received the only star for distinction in his year. During this time his former rival and now girlfriend, Kwa Geok Choo, won the Queen’s scholarship and she also graduated with a First in Law from Girton College in Cambridge. The couple later married and raised three children together.
In 1950 Lee was called to the Bar and he returned to Singapore to work as a Lawyer. His legal work resulted in him gaining respect from the Chinese-educated and in 1954 he helped found the People’s Action Party (PAP). Their aim was to fight for independence. In a new Legislative Assembly in 1955 Lee was elected to represent Tanjong Pagar. Excelling in debates he emerged as a natural leader of the anti-colonial movement. Finally in 1959, at the age of 35, Lee became the first Prime Minister of a self-governing Singapore. This, in many respects, was just the beginning.
There was widespread fear that an independent Singapore could not survive, with its small land mass and no natural resources. For this reason Lee and the PAP fought hard for a merger with Malaya. This came to fruition in 1963 when Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak merged into a new country known as Malaysia. Sadly, or perhaps fortuitously, this merger did not last and Malaysia ejected Singapore in 1965. This was devastating for Lee and he famously shed a tear as he addressed the nation on television.
Faced with a new independent country Lee and he cabinet set about transforming Singapore from a developing country into one of Asia’s most prosperous. They identified five key areas for development: Stability, education, attracting investment, improving living standards and ensuring safety. They setup the Housing Development Board, demolished slums, and created the opportunity for Singaporeans to own their own home. The belief was that for Singaporeans to be dedicated and committed to their own country they needed to have real investment in it. The PAP ensured British military support could remain until they established defences in the form of national service. English was adopted as the country’s working language, setting the stage for international business. Lee showed his stubborn side on many occasions such as in the case of Changi airport. Despite many independent surveys recommending the expansion of the Paya Lebar Airport, Lee was determined to go against the plan. He refused to saddle modern Singapore with a lifetime of aircraft noise and instead pushed forward with the huge task of developing Changi airport. An airport that has gone on to win an accolade of awards of the years, including worlds best airport 2015. Lee was always forward thinking and in 1987 he spoke about the desire to build a city water reservoir across the mouth of the marina channel. In October 2008, 21 years after Lee first voiced the idea, the Marina Reservoir officially opened. The low level dam has the ability to collect water across a 10,000 hectare catchment,which along with 14 other reservoirs, allows Singapore to hold an independent water supply.
Lee made early preparations for his replacement and when he stepped down 1990 he was the world’s longest serving prime minister. Goh Chok Tong took over and Lee remained on the cabinet as senior minister. When his son Lee Hsien Loong took over as prime minister in 2004 he moved position again to minister mentor. It was only in 2011, at the age of 87, that Lee stepped down from the cabinet altogether, although he continued to serve as a member of parliament for Tanjong Pagar.
Lee Kuan Yew must have been incredibly proud of Singapore reaching the grand old age of 50 and it seems fitting that I end this article not with my words, but instead with his.
“In the end, my greatest satisfaction in life comes from the fact that I have spent years gathering support, mustering the will to make the place meritocratic, corruption-free and equal for all races – and that it will endure beyond me, as it has.”