Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore he built

Maria A. Ressa

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Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore he built


He boiled his nation’s success down to a few simple ideas: a respect for elders and the law, hard work, and the recognition that the needs of society must transcend the individual’s

Editor’s note: The death of Lee Kuan Yew on March 23 marks the end of an era for Singapore. The excerpt below from Maria Ressa’s book, SEEDS OF TERROR, outlines Lee’s vision and accomplishments for Singapore.

Singapore had no homeless; in fact, nearly 90% of its 3 million people lived in government-subsidized housing.  

Until recently, everyone who wanted to work had a job. There were more jobs than applications, and migrant workers from neighboring countries had been imported to fill the gaps.  

All its citizens are given a stake of the nation through a Central Provident Fund set up by the government – a compulsory savings scheme which gives Singapore the highest savings rate in the world. Add to that government-subsidized health and education systems which are the best in the region.

Corruption has been virtually stamped out of the government bureaucracy: foreign expatriates and diplomats actually rate corruption in Singapore to be lower than in their own Western countries.[i]

The crime rate is so low that when a friend of mine dropped his wallet on the street, a Singaporean picked it up and returned it to him within a day.

Even Lee Kuan Yew, the longtime leader who served as first Prime Minister from Singapore’s independence from Malayia in 1965 until stepping down in 1990, has a hard time believing his success.

“In 1965, we were a fairly dilapidated town, not quite recovered from the ravages of war but just beginning to rebuild. At that time, our main preoccupation was how to make a living because the entreport trade which had survived and given us a living for 100-plus years was going to be replaced by all our neighbors’ trading direct. So I had no great visions of transformation. First job was to get investments, get jobs, and we had to get the manufacturing sector started because we needed jobs, and manufacturing created jobs,” he says.[ii]

“After a while, we stumbled on something which was much more effective. I spent two months of the October term – November, December in Harvard in 1968. I was taking a sabbatical and our EDB, our Economic Development Board, had already been established there in New York, so they got me to meet businessmen. I also spoke to the Economic Club of New York and so on. Then I met them and talked to them. Then I discovered that they were looking for a safe place where they could manufacture their electronics and then bring them back to America. At that time, there was a Cultural Revolution in China. Hong Kong was in turmoil so we became a desirable location, and because the first few succeeded so well – within months, they were up and running and exporting – so we got more and more investments. By 1973, five years from 1968, we had solved our unemployment problem.” 

I first met Lee Kuan Yew in the late 1980’s during one of his trips to the Philippines. Singapore’s success had turned Lee into the spokesman for Asian values, which set off a global debate that pitted western values focused on individual human rights against “the Asian way” – the good of the collective whole. He had boiled his nation’s success down to a few simple ideas: a respect for elders and the law, hard work, and the recognition that the needs of society must transcend the individual’s. “A Confucianist view of order between subject and ruler – this helps in the rapid transformation of society … in other words, you fit yourself into society – the exact opposite of the American rights of the individual,” said Lee.

My crew and I left ourselves plenty of time to set up; I had been warned he was a perfectionist. Yet we waited for nearly two hours as an aide came in periodically to inspect our setup . Each time he asked us to turn on the TV lights and checked the thermostat in the room. Finally, after the fourth or fifth time, I asked him if there was anything wrong. He told me, “No, nothing. Don’t worry. It should hit 18 degrees soon.” Then it dawned on me: Lee Kuan Yew was so meticulous, he did not want to do a television interview under hot lights until the air conditioner cooled the room down to his preferred temperature: 18 degrees Celsius (65 degrees Fahrenheit). You could look at this as the absurd height of a controlling personality, or see it as a man who knows exactly what he wants and aims to get it. 

That is the kind of attention to detail which created Singapore, and it’s apparent when you land at the airport. Singapore’s Changi Airport has been voted the most efficient and best-liked airport in the world because it offers just about anything you could desire: shops, massage, live entertainment, internet access. Going from your plane, through your gate, and through Customs normally takes less than 10 minutes. By the time you get to baggage claim, your bags are waiting. Even on a busy day, you will spend no more than 5 minutes waiting before an attendant opens a taxi door for you. 

Office workers walking above the Raffles Place MRT train station in the central business district of Singapore, 14 July 2014. Photo by Wallace Woon/EPA

The drive from the airport is an easy ride: traffic is closely regulated. The trees, plants and flowers may catch your attention; Singapore has more than 3,000 species of palms. Nicknamed the Garden City, Singapore is a carefully planned and landscaped garden. The Ministry of Environment imports about 80% of its trees and shrubs. The plants in the center of the highway from the airport are potted. In the early years, fearing an invasion from former civil-war opponent Malaysia, the government had wanted to be able to remove these plants in order to turn the highway into a huge airplane runway to evacuate its citizens. 

Singapore is serious about taking care of its people, and that leaves it wide open to criticism – the same way the nerd in high school is the butt of jokes because he works so hard. There’s the overused joke about ‘the fine city’ – because of all the penalties against spitting, jaywalking, littering. There is even a fine against chewing gum, which at one point was declared illegal because authorities discovered the subways were slowing down thanks to gum stuck between the doors. That kind of academic attention to detail and the study of human behavior is the foundation of much of its laws and policies. 

This is a place where politicians don’t like to be called politicians because of the stigma of self-interest and demagoguery; here, politicians actually try to focus on public service – they’re kept honest in part by an intricate web of social and political links, but also because Lee Kuan Yew has ever been watching. 

This clockwork island of towering skyscrapers has one of the highest population densities in the world, with over 4,200 people per sq. km in the mid-90’s. Without careful planning, people and buildings might have turned the city into a concrete jungle. As it is, about 61% of the population live on just 17% of the land area. A land reclamation program that helps maintain an ecological balance.  Singapore is one of only two cities[iii] in the world to have genuine tropical rainforest about 45 minutes drive from the city center. Its parks have ecotourism preserves which contain more plant species than the whole of North America. 

The man whose vision powered this island state knew when to work hard – and unlike other strongman rulers of Asia like the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos or Indonesia’s Suharto – he knew when to step down. In 1990, while Singapore’s economy was booming, Lee turned power over to Singapore’s new Prime Minister, businessman Goh Chok Tong. A new post was created for Lee: Senior Minister. 

“I was in charge of a very young country. I had been in power since its independence, and the risk of succession going wrong and bringing the country down was very real. So I made a cautious choice to preserve what we had achieved: to step down whilst I was still active and can do something to help the new prime minister switch seats with me and gradually take control of a machine that was very tailored to my requirements. So he gradually changed and tailored it to make it less personalized to me, and I think it’s not been a bad move. This way was better,” Lee told me.[iv] He was understated in his reasons, but avoiding the corruption of power is a key accomplishment – Lee has a sterling reputation as an incorruptible visionary.

Born September 16, 1923, Lee Kuan Yew is uncompromising in his goals. Although his ancestors were Hakka Chinese, his parents were Straits-born Peranakans, which comes from the Bahasa word anak, or offspring and means ‘born here.’ Peranakans were thought to combine the best of Chinese and Malay cultures. At home, Lee grew up speaking English, Malay and Cantonese. Later, he would teach himself Japanese, Mandarin and Hokkien. His fluency with languages often gave him added credibility when trying to convince political constituents of potentially unpopular views and policies. Never afraid to buck conventional wisdom, he wanted “to be correct, not politically correct.”[v]

Lee is a product of his nation’s colonial past and its history, and his personal experiences shaped the Singapore he created. His education was primarily English: first at Singapore’s Raffles College, where he studied English with mathematics and economics. Despite his outstanding academic credentials and awards, he was subject to discipline like everyone else. When he was late for school, he was caned – hit on the buttocks with a rattan stick. 

He has since written, “I have never understood why Western educationists are so much against corporal punishment. It did my fellow students and me no harm.” During World War II, under the brutal Japanese occupation, he worked for a Japanese government propaganda department. In his memoirs, he marveled at the low crime rate despite the fact that everyone was always hungry. The Japanese were so brutal and the punishments so harsh that people refrained from committing any crime – even at the worst of times. “As a result, I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime.” 

The penal system of Singapore assigns the death penalty for the possession and sale of drugs. On board the plane before you land, the attendant draws your attention to the fact that Singapore has harsh penalties for drugs; just to make sure visitors know, it’s written in red on the immigration arrival card. 

After the war, Lee went on to Cambridge in England, where he earned a double first in law. It was a time to watch, learn and assess. “I saw the British govern themselves, and I knew that they had a very sophisticated system, very tolerant society, but their interests were Britain and how the colonies could help Britain be better off. So during those critical years, we met amongst ourselves, Singapore and Malaysian students studying there and decided that we should really come back, form a group, grow into a party and struggle and fight for power,” said Lee.[vi] 

While in school from 1946 till 1950, he used the Anglicized name, Harry Lee, which he dropped when he returned to Singapore. He married the only person he knew who did better than him academically, Kwa Geok Choo, who also received first class honours in Cambridge, and set up a law partnership with her.  He soon became involved in local politics and resigned as a partner in the firm when he became Prime Minister in 1959. 

A shrewd political operator, Lee Kuan Yew became known for his traits of honesty, efficiency, firmness, and intolerance.  Singapore’s government became so entwined with Lee’s personality that opposition to him was often portrayed as being against the good of the Singaporean collective whole. 

In 1973, Lee articulated a vision for himself and for what would soon be his nation of over-achievers: “The greatest satisfaction in life comes from achievement. To achieve is to be happy. Singaporeans must be imbued with this spirit. We must never get into the vicious cycle of expecting more and more for less and less … Solid satisfaction grows out of achievement … It generates inner or spiritual strength, a strength which grows out of an inner discipline.”[vii] 

[i] Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, adapted from the Economist, 1995. With 0 as the rating for no corruption at all, most western nations were given a rating of 2 for corruption, Singapore was rated 1.

[ii] Interview with CNN, February 9, 2002. 

[iii] The other city that still has primary rainforest is Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

[iv] Author interview, July 23, 1999.

[v] Lee, op.cit., p.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Lee Kuan Yew speech, 1973.

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Maria Ressa


Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than 37 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia, From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism, and How to Stand up to a Dictator.