As Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew literally brought Singapore from rags to riches. And although many foreigners have made many comments or remarks regarding Lee’s rule, Singaporeans think otherwise. Lee is one of Singapore’s most beloved leaders, and a majority of the Singaporeans would attribute its first world status to Lee.
Lee Kwan Yew’s Early Biography
From his own words, Lee Kuan Yew is a fourth–generation Singaporean. His great–grandfather, Lee Bok Boon emigrated from China to Singapore in 1863. He fell in love with the daughter of a shoe keeper, Seow Huan Nio, who bore him three children. Lee Book Boon eventually left his wife and three children and returned to China in 1882, dying two years later.
Lee’s grandfather, Lee Hoon Leong, studied at Raffles Institution and worked in different fields such as being a dispenser, a pharmacist and a purser. When he was 26 years old, Lee Hoon Leong was married to Ko Liem Nio and another wife, and had five daughters and three sons with both of them.
Lee Hoon Leong eventually became the managing director of the Heap Eng Moh Steamship Company Ltd and gained considerable wealth. However, due to the effects of the Great Depression, Lee Hoon Leong’s wealth declined and left most of his family poor, such as his son Lee Chin Koon, who became a shoe keeper. Lee Chin Koon met and fell in love with Chua Jim Neo, who bore him five children: Dennis Lee, Freddy Lee, Lee Suan Yew, Monica Lee, and Harry Lee Kuan Yew, who was born in 1923.
During his elementary and high school years Lee was always ahead of his class despite giving very little effort in his studies. He first attended college at the Raffles Institution where he excelled and became the top student in Singapore and Malaysia. His education was temporarily halted because of the war, and Lee went on to acquire several jobs such as transcribing allied wire communications for the Japanese, becoming a clerk in Shimoda (a textile company), and eventually started his own company which manufactured stationery glue which he named ‘Stikfas.’
In one of his memoirs, Lee recalls a time during the occupation when he was asked by a Japanese soldier to be part of several Chinese men being brought to the beach. Sensing danger, Lee asked permission to go home, took his clothes, and never returned; he eventually found out that the group of Chinese men was executed. In 1944, Lee met Kwa Geok Choo, who would become Lee’s future wife. They first married in secret in 1947.
After the war, Lee went to England to study; he studied at the University of Cambridge where he graduated with double first class honors, which was rare even for English students. It was in Cambridge University that Lee met future leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, who up to the time she died called Lee Kuan Yew by his English name “Harry,” despite Lee’s decision to omit it after he left the university. While in England, Lee became friends with David Widdicombe, who inspired Lee to decide that Singapore was ready for independence. He then returned to Singapore in 1949 and remarried his beloved Kwa Geok Choo in September 1950.
Showing Qualities of a Political Leader
After working as a lawyer and a legal advisor, Lee co–founded the People’s Action Party in 1954 and became one of Singapore’s most popular political figures. In 1955, Lee won the Tanjong Pagar seat and became the opposition leader that helped establish Singapore’s campaign for independence. Lee’s position in the party came under fire when communist supporters took control of several leadership posts in the P.A.P. With a stroke of fortune, Lim Yew Hock, Singapore’s prime minister at that time, initiated a communist scare and had the communist supporters in the party arrested, giving Lee back the position of Secretary General.
After the mass arrest of the pro–communist groups, Singapore held its national elections and Lee Kuan Yew was elected as the first Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959. During its early years, Lee’s government struggled in keeping Singapore intact; Singapore’s infrastructure was in shambles, and opposition was threatening to collapse the government. Fortunately, a proposed merger with Malaysia helped save Singapore’s falling economy and Lee was able to take control and stabilize the situation in Singapore. In 1965, Malaysia severed its ties with Singapore and the Republic of Singapore, under Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership, was born.
The lack of natural resources and defensive capabilities were the major challenges that Lee’s government encountered during Singapore’s early years. These, among the mountain of problems that Singapore was facing, caused Lee to have sleepless nights and frequent illnesses. Despite this, Lee began to improve Singapore’s relations to the outside world by joining the United Nations (1965), founding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (1967), and making frequent visits to Singapore’s neighbours—Indonesia and Malaysia.
Singapore’s government under Lee focused on three main issues: national security, economy, and social issues. Lee felt that Singapore was very vulnerable in the event of an invasion, and sought help from the United Nations. He also declared a policy of neutrality and non–alignment, and improved Singapore’s military force by requesting assistance from nations such as Israel. Lee also put an emphasis in developing Singapore’s economy, and placed so much importance on this that he implemented policies that would create the “Garden City” image of Singapore.
Another issue that Lee strongly dealt with was the corruption in public service. Lee proposed that the salaries of public servants be near or equal to the salaries of those in the private sector, arguing that such action will encourage skilled people to be in public service. Other policies that Lee enacted were the “Stop at Two” family planning campaign and the encouragement of young graduates to socialize with each other.
Lee has placed great emphasis in developing and improving the economic state of Singapore, which greatly surprised many foreign leaders regarding Singapore’s growth. Lee’s policies for the growth of Singapore’s economy have started many controversies, but have proven very effective.
One of Lee Kuan Yew’s most well–known policies was the implementation of corporal punishment. Caning was used to punish many of the simplest crimes, even in schools that it became infamous for some due to the strict policies set for dealing with law breakers. One famous example that caught the world’s attention was that of Michael Fay, an American who was charged with theft and vandalism.
Lee also sought to improve relations with Malaysia by building friendly relationships with Mahathir bin Mohamad, then–Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. An agreement between the two leaders was formed after Mahathir requested that Lee end his connections with the leaders of the Democratic Action Party. In return, Mahathir promised to not interfere with Malay Singaporean affairs. In 1988 Mahathir and Lee agreed to build the Linggui dam on the Johor River.
Lee Hsien Loong Becomes Prime Minister
In 1990, Lee, after becoming Prime Minister of Singapore for over 30 years, stepped down and handed over the position to Goh Chok Tong, his successor. Lee then took the position of Senior Minister. He held this position for another 14 years, which allowed him to play an advisory role to the Prime Minister. In 2004, after becoming the Minister Mentor of Singapore (his son Lee Hsien Loong winning the prime ministership of Singapore), Lee expressed his concerns on how Singaporeans should learn to juggle English and Mandarin, believing that China’s rise to becoming a world superpower would one day cause Mandarin to become the most widely used language.
Lee’s dedication to Singapore’s development is so much that even after stepping down as Singapore’s Prime Minister and becoming its Senior Minister, he still helped in making Singapore keep up with modern times by providing advice to his successor. In fact, Lee has stated in one of Singapore’s National Day rallies:
"Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up."
In 2007, the conferring of an honorary doctorate in law to Lee from the Australian National University sparked protests within the Australian community due to many of them believing that Lee did not deserve the honorary doctorate.
Getting Sick and Losing His Wife
In September 2008, Lee, despite undergoing medical treatment for abnormal heart rhythm, was still able to participate and give an address to a philanthropy forum via a video link from the hospital. The operation was a success, and after a few weeks of rest Lee was back to business.
In October 2010, Lee’s wife Kwa Geok Choo died in her sleep after battling a long illness. Two years prior to this incident, Kwa suffered two strokes that left her bedridden but still able to understand speech. Kwa bore Lee three children, who all hold important positions in Singapore’s society: Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest, is currently Singapore’s prime minister; Lee Wei Ling, second child and the only daughter, leads the National Neuroscience Institute; and Lee Hsien Yang, the youngest, is currently the chairman of two establishments: Fraser and Neave Ltd and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.
“Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going” Book Gets Sold Out
In 2011, Lee’s book “Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going” was published. Its initial print run of 45,000 copies was immediately sold out that a second batch of 55,000 copies was released afterwards.
Also in 2011, right after the general elections, Lee announced his decision to leave politics to provide a fresh start for his son’s government. Despite many objections regarding his decision to leave, Lee has stated that he would remain active in serving the public the same way he has always done when he was still in the Cabinet.
Lee’s Health Deteriorates Further
In November of that same year, Wei Ling, Lee’s daughter, made a revelation through the Sunday Times column regarding his father’s battle with peripheral neuropathy. In the column, Wei Ling recalled how she first noticed the symptoms during her father’s visit with Henry Kissinger, the United States’ Secretary of State. Being a neurologist, Wei Ling conducted a few tests and discovered that Lee’s leg nerves were not working as they should. However, in spite of this report, Lee never fell into depression. In the interview he gave the following day, he stated:
"I have no doubt at all that this has not affected my mind, my will nor my resolve... People in wheelchairs can make a contribution. I've still got two legs, I make a contribution."
Quotes on Using Mandarin
This year, at age 89, Lee Kuan Yew still involves himself in Singapore’s affairs. One of Lee’s current campaigns is the encouragement of Singaporean students to eagerly learn Mandarin. Lee himself has gone through decades of learning this language due to disuse, English being the primary language of Singapore. In his book “Keeping My Mandarin Alive,” Lee tells:
"…because I don’t use it so much, therefore it gets disused and there’s language loss. Then I have to revive it. It’s a terrible problem because learning it in adult life, it hasn’t got the same roots in your memory."
Lee also actively monitors world events thoroughly and still advises on Singapore’s international relations.
Achievements and Awards
- 1967: Received the Order of the Rising Sun award, Singapore
- 1970: Received the Order of the Companions of Honour award, Singapore
- 1972: Received the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, Singapore
- 1982: Received the Freedom of the City of London award, Singapore
- 1984: Received the Seri Paduka Mahkota Johor, Singapore
- 1988: Received the Order of the Great Leader, Singapore
- 2002: Formally admitted to the Fellowship of Imperial College London for recognizing his promotion of international trade and industry as well as the development of science and engineering study initiatives with the United Kingdom.
- 2006: Presented with the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service
- 2009: Conferred the first Lifetime Achievement award by the U.S.-Asean Business Council, Washington D.C.
- 2009: Received the Order of Friendship award from President Dmitry Medvedev
- 2010: Included in the TIME 100 list of people who most affect the world
- 2011: Received the inaugural Gryphon award from Raffles Institution
- 2011: Received the Lincoln Medal, Washington D.C.
- 2012: Conferred the Kazakhstan Order of Friendship by Ambassador Yerlan Baudarbek-Kozhatayev, Istana
- 1982: Honorary Freeman, London, U.K.
- 2000: Honorary Doctorate, Chinese University of Hong Kong, China
- 2007: Honorary Doctorate in Law, Australian National University, Australia