Spanning half a century, his political career was characterised by steely resolve and an unwavering vision.
This same refusal to veer off course won him his fair share of critics, yet three years after his death Lee’s legacy continues to reverberate well beyond the tiny island nation.
Lee’s childhood hinted little at his future as a firebrand politician. Born in 1923 to a wealthy Chinese family, Lee was christened ‘Harry’ and raised among the privileged classes of colonial Singapore.
He was an 18-year-old student when World War II hit and upended his world. The surrender of the British and a brutal three-year Japanese invasion would be what he would later refer to as the biggest political education of his life.
“I saw the meaning of power and how power and politics and government went together,” Lee was quoted saying in his biography Lee Kuan Yew: The man and his ideas.
“I also understood how people trapped in a power situation responded because they had to live. One day the British were there, immovable, complete masters; next day, the Japanese.”
After the war ended, Lee travelled to the UK to study law at the University of Cambridge. He returned home in 1950 with a resolve to put an end to British rule in Singapore.
“I saw no reason why they should be governing me; they’re not superior.” – Lee Kuan Yew
“I saw no reason why they should be governing me; they’re not superior,” he said of his time as a student in the UK. It was then that he started going by his Chinese name ‘Kuan Yew’.
Lee was working as a lawyer when talk of independence and reform began sweeping across Singapore.
In 1954, he co-founded the People’s Action Party (PAP), spending subsequent years travelling back and forth to London to help negotiate Singapore’s new constitution as a self-governing state.
In 1959, Singapore’s first-ever national elections were held. Campaigning on an anti-colonialist, anti-Communist platform, Lee promised to dramatically reform Singapore and re-establish its identity as an Asian state.
The PAP swept to victory, and in June that year Lee was sworn in as the country’s first prime minister.
Faced with leading a defenceless fledgling nation with few natural resources, Lee was adamant that the key to Singapore’s survival lay in federation with neighbouring Malaya.
The territories merged to create Malaysia in 1963, but the alliance was short-lived. Violent race riots over Malaysia’s prioritisation of Muslim Malays would see relations between the two states deteriorate, resulting in Malaysia voting to expel Singapore from the federation in 1965.
During a press conference following the split, Lee appeared heartbroken, referring to the federation’s failure as a “moment of anguish”.
The blow would teach him the importance of a unified society.
Quickly composing himself and displaying the trademark stoic, get-on-with-it attitude, which would define his leadership, he continued by saying: “Be firm, be calm… Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion.”
“Be firm, be calm… Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion.” – Lee Kuan Yew
Lee quickly set about building up Singapore, capitalising on its primary strengths; its position as a trading post and its people.
Attracting foreign investment and creating jobs were at the top of his agenda.
His cabinet wooed multinational companies by developing First World infrastructure, cracking down on corruption and working to establish Singapore as a global financial hub.
“At a time when a lot of countries were flirting with more nationalistic policies, he was very clear about an export-led industrial model of growth for Singapore,” writer and researcher Sudhir Vadaketh tells The CEO Magazine.
“He kept Singapore very open to foreign ideas, foreign capital and foreign companies, while at the same time maintaining strong connections across Asia.”
Lee’s government also started several new industries, most famously the state’s official carrier Singapore Airlines.
“Lee was not a free market ideologue but he understood the political preconditions for market development,” says Garry Rodan, director of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University.
“Here the capacities of the state loomed large, including the efficiency and integrity of the bureaucracy in dealings with business.”
While focused on Singapore’s economic development, Lee never forgot the lesson learned from the split with Malaysia.
Singapore was a complex, multiracial nation, and the price of discord was one his government could not afford to pay.
He introduced the controversial CMIO model (Chinese–Malay–Indian–Others), which emphasised ethnic identity and allotted racial quotas when it came to housing, schools and workplaces.
Lee’s goal was to force integration and counter communalism. Former Singaporean parliamentarian Calvin Cheng says the policy was one of Lee’s greatest achievements.
“He built a country where various races and religions could live together in peace and harmony,” Cheng tells The CEO Magazine.
“He built a country where various races and religions could live together in peace and harmony.” – Calvin Cheng
Establishing English as the lingua franca and introducing mandatory military service also supported national cohesion.
To date, all able-bodied males are conscripted for two years of military service when they turn 18.
“It’s become a rite of passage for Singaporean men, very character-building,” says tech entrepreneur Leslie Lim.
As the young co-founder of micro-loans start-up Cicil, he says his generation is reaping the benefits of the decisions Lee made those decades ago.
“I respect him a lot. He pushed for Singapore to become a meritocratic society where the results speak for themselves.”
“He made a lot of tough decisions and as a result people have tended to label him a dictator, but he simply chose to be pragmatic,” says Lim.
“We decide what is right”
Not everyone would agree. During his three-decade tenure as prime minister, Lee presided over one of the most impressive economic and social transformations of any developing country – by the time he stepped down in 1990, Singapore was no longer a neglected colonial outpost, but a prosperous ‘Asian tiger’.
But for many, the price of progress was civil repression.Rodan describes Lee’s leadership as intolerant and elitist.
“His predisposition towards tight political and ideological control has not just contained civil society. It has also produced a sameness about the world views of contemporary leaders,” says Rodan.
Vadaketh agrees, saying Lee’s paternalistic approach lingers on in Singaporean politics.
“We’re not allowing our political leadership to benefit from a diversity of thought and debate,” he tells The CEO Magazine.
However, during his time in office, Lee had no qualms about his strongman style.
In a 1986 speech he said: “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens.”
“Yes… had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today.”
“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes… had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today.” – Lee Kuan Yew
“And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here… if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right.”
Giant of history
Regardless of where one stands on Lee Kuan Yew’s methods, his legacy is undeniable.
He dedicated his life to his country, imbuing the Singaporean people with the same sense of discipline and hard work with which he governed.
Lee insisted no monuments be built in his honour after his death, but in many ways the bustling twenty-first century metropolis of Singapore is itself a testament to his leadership.
Lee died from pneumonia on 23 March 2015.
On the day of his funeral almost two million people (nearly half the population) came out to pay their respects to Singapore’s founding father – the man described by former US President Barack Obama as a “giant of history”, and by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “lion among leaders”.