19 April 2019
As prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew (right) towered over other members of his cabinet, including Goh Keng Swee (left) and Toh Chin Chye. Photo:
As prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew (right) towered over other members of his cabinet, including Goh Keng Swee (left) and Toh Chin Chye. Photo:

Lee Kuan Yew, Asia’s last post-colonial strongman, dies at 91

Lee Kuan Yew, Asia’s last post-colonial strongman, has died at the age of 91.

The former prime minister of Singapore had been in hospital with severe pneumonia since Feb. 5. 

The government has declared a weeklong period of national mourning, culminating in a state funeral Sunday.

In a brief televised address, his elder son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said Lee “built a nation where there was none” and “pushed us hard to achieve what seemed impossible”.

Tributes flowed in from leaders around the world.

US President Barack Obama called the elder Lee “a true giant of history”.

“[N]o small number of this and past generations of world leaders have sought his advice on governance and development,” said Obama.

“I personally appreciated his wisdom, including our discussions during my trip to Singapore in 2009, which were hugely important in helping me formulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific”.

In similar vein, British Prime Minister David Cameron said “many British prime ministers benefited from his wise advice, including me”.

“That Singapore is today a prosperous, secure and successful country is a monument to his decades of remarkable public service,” Cameron said.

“He was always a friend to Britain, if sometimes a critical one …” he said.

Harry Lee’s friendship with Britain might have been difficult to perceive during the 1950s, when he was one of the leaders of Singapore’s battle against its colonial masters for self-determination.

The trade union lawyer with double first-class honors in law from Cambridge University never conceded an ounce of superiority to the British, whom he lambasted for failing to live up to their political ideals in their treatment of the natives.

As leader of the opposition People’s Action Party, Lee, a brilliant orator, told the Legislative Assembly in April 1955: “But we either believe in democracy or we don’t. If we do, then, we must say categorically, without qualification, that no restraint from any democratic processes, other than by the ordinary law of the land, should be allowed …

“If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally. If you believe that men should be free, then they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication. Then, no law should permit those democratic processes to be set at nought.”

Five months later, he told the legislators: “If it is not totalitarian to arrest a man and detain him, when you cannot charge him with any offence against any written law – if that is not what we have always cried out against in Fascist states – then what is it? …

“If we are to survive as a free democracy, then we must be prepared, in principle, to concede to our enemies – even those who do not subscribe to our views – as much constitutional rights as you concede yourself.”

When the British eventually granted Singapore self-government in 1959, Lee was elected the city state’s first prime minister. 

Whether his earlier fiery rhetoric came from the heart or was merely an exercise in political polemics, once Lee came to power, he found it expedient to restrict the rights he had so eloquently espoused. 

The Singapore with which his name became synonymous gave no quarter to the ruling PAP’s political adversaries.

Lee made extensive use of the Internal Security Act he inherited from the British to imprison dissidents without trial. 

Many of his critics were hauled to court by his lawyers, Lee and Lee, of whom his wife Kwa Geok Choo, a brilliant Cambridge-educated lawyer in her own right, was a senior partner. All were given punitive fines for defamation, and some were bankrupted in the process.

Foreign media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Bloomberg News and the International Herald Tribune felt the sting of Lee’s libel lawsuits and were assessed hefty fines by Singapore courts.

Ho Kwon Ping, Singapore correspondent for the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review, was imprisoned in solitary confinement for two months in 1977 under the Internal Security Act for a series of critical articles.

Then, in 2008, a Singapore court ruled that the Review had defamed Lee and his son in an article in 2006 that questioned the lack of transparency in the government’s operations. The magazine was banned.

Lee’s thin-skinnedness, amounting in his critics’ eyes to paranoia, stemmed from his anticommunist faction’s bitter battle for survival against the procommunists in the ruling party in the early 1960s. 

The English-speaking Lee, who came from a Hakka Baba family, was twice an outsider: the Hakkas (literally “the guest people”) are a small minority among Singapore’s Chinese majority; and most Babas — also known as Peranakan, Chinese who intermarried with Malaysian Malays over the centuries — speak Malay and English rather than Chinese.

Lee learned to speak Hokkien, the majority dialect of Singapore’s Chinese, and Mandarin as a budding politician.

The PAP’s procommunists, who played a key part in the violent anticolonial campaign against the British, had a more natural affinity with the Chinese majority in Singapore.

In a key tussle for party leadership, Lee captured the same number of votes as his procommunist opponent. The casting vote fell to PAP chairman Dr. Toh Chin Chye, Lee’s loyal lieutenant, and the rest is history.

The procommunists broke away to form the opposition Barisan Sosialis. 

In 1963, key members of the Barisan were arrested under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, together with newspaper editors, trade unionists and university students. 

Then after Singapore was ejected in 1965 from its short-lived merger with Malaysia, forcing it to find its own way as an independent city state — a plight that brought Lee to tears on national television — the Barisan mounted its final offensive.

Nine opposition MPs boycotted Parliament and declared that they would mount an extraparliamentary campaign consisting of “street demonstrations, protest meetings, strikes”.

Using the Internal Security Act, Lee arrested 23 Barisan leaders, including Chia Thye Poh, who was detained for organizing a street procession of 30 supporters. Chia was imprisoned for 23 years without being charged and then placed on house arrest for nine years.

Having put paid to the opposition, Lee and his cabinet could turn their attention single-mindedly to turning Singapore, which the British had built into one of the world’s busiest ports, into a nation. 

While ministers and civil servants quaked in the shadow of Lee, a forceful and charismatic leader, many of the initiatives that cemented the foundations of Singapore’s success came from the brilliant economist Dr. Goh Keng Swee, who gained first-class honours and a doctorate in economics from the London School of Economics. 

Goh set up the Economic Development Board to attract investment by foreign multinational corporations in Singapore.

He built Jurong Industrial Estate on a swamp in the western part of the island. “Goh’s folly” became the hub of Singapore’s manufacturing industry.

To balance industry with leisure and culture, Goh set up the Jurong Bird Park, the Singapore Zoo and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

But Lee was unquestionably the captain of Team Singapore.

He stood out from the Asian strongmen who were his contemporaries — the likes of Kim Il-sung in North Korea, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and Sukarno in Indonesia — by keeping his ruthlessness within the limits of the law and by running a government that was known as much for its cleanliness as its efficiency.

Having seen the damage that corruption had done to numerous Asian countries, Lee cracked down hard on it. One of his ministers took his own life rather than face punishment for accepting bribes.

Any suggestions of nepotism as members of Lee’s family rose to high positions in government or bodies closely linked to it were summarily quashed by the courts.

But Lee’s authoritarianism, which Singaporeans in the early days of the Republic saw as an aspect of a Confucian paternalism, began to take on an element of arbitrariness and appear grounded less in national exigency than personal whim.

He mounted an operation in 1987 under the Internal Security Act in which 22 “Marxist conspirators” were arrested. They were mostly Catholic voluntary workers and social workers, with a sprinkling of theater people and overseas-educated professionals.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, now deputy prime minister, later said that “although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.”

Lee himself told Catholic church leaders in a secret meeting that he regarded those arrested as “do-gooders, who wanted to help the poor and dispossessed”.

Nonetheless, the detainees said they were subjected to harsh treatment, in some cases amounting to torture. They have renounced their forced confessions, some televised, as being made under duress. 

At least one highly regarded cabinet minister, S. Dhanabalan, left the government because he was uncomfortable with the way the PAP had handled the affair.

Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990, handing over the reins to Goh Chok Tong, who in turn quit in favor of Lee Hsien Loong in 2004.

Both the elder Lee and Goh remained in the cabinet as senior ministers, and in Lee’s case subsequently “minister mentor”, until 2011, after the PAP had its poorest showing in a general election since independence, with the opposition winning six seats in Parliament.

Singapore, now one of the world’s richest countries despite its size and lack of natural resources — apart from its deep-water harbor and location in booming Southeast Asia — is indubitably the legacy of Lee and his fellow founding fathers in the PAP.

In his mellower later days, Lee admitted: I did some sharp and hard things to get things right. Maybe some people disapproved of it. Too harsh, but a lot was at stake and I wanted the place to succeed, that’s all. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore.”

A worthy legacy of which he was entitled to be proud. 

And on balance, one with which Singaporeans, too, will be satisfied.

– Contact us at [email protected]


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