Lee Kuan Yew
by Sutherland, Duncan
Lee Kuan Yew (b. 16 September 1923, Singapore–d. 23 March 2015, Singapore) was the first prime minister of Singapore and held this post from 1959 to 1990. He oversaw its transformation from a developing ex-colony into one of Asia’s most stable and prosperous countries and was an influential figure domestically and abroad. Although widely known as Lee Kuan Yew, he was addressed by his English name Harry among family members and some close friends.
Lee attended Raffles Institution, then studied at Raffles College on scholarship until the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945). After the war, he enrolled at the London School of Economics in 1946 before transferring to Fitzwilliam Hall at Cambridge University in early 1947.
His political awareness grew through his involvement with the British Labour Party and participation in London’s Malayan Forum (a Malayan students’ discussion group), and he turned strongly against colonial rule. He received a first-class law degree in 1949 and was called to the bar at London’s Middle Temple in 1950.
Returning to Singapore, he joined law firm Laycock and Ong and remained politically engaged as John Laycock’s election agent in the 1951 Legislative Council campaign. Colonial politics was detached from most people’s lives, but after Lee became an advocate in 1951 his work introduced him to radicals and student leaders. He won public attention as a legal adviser to trade unions and clan associations, through various high-profile cases and his successful fight for locally engaged civil servants to receive the same benefits as their European colleagues. In 1955 he co-founded the firm of Lee & Lee with his wife and brother and practised until 1959.
Ascent to premiership
Lee’s legal work raised his standing with the Chinese-educated masses whose support was necessary for political success. In 1954, a series of political meetings at his house led to the founding of the People’s Action Party (PAP). This socialist democratic, anti-colonial party united middle-class Anglophone professionals under Lee, with more radical Chinese-speaking trade unionists under Lim Chin Siong. As secretary-general, Lee had to monitor carefully the latter faction, which included pro-communists.
He was elected to the new Legislative Assembly in 1955, representing Tanjong Pagar, and excelled in debates as de facto opposition leader. In 1959, the PAP captured 43 of the assembly’s 51 seats, and Lee became prime minister of the self-governing state of Singapore aged just 35.
Merger with Malaya then independence
As Singapore lacked natural resources and was economically largely dependent on Malaya, few believed full independence was viable. Lee thus made it a priority to achieve merger with Malaya, which he also felt would keep the radical leftists from attaining power. At the same time, Malaya’s fears of acquiring a communist neighbour outweighed its concerns about absorbing a largely Chinese state. Yet the PAP’s own far left opposed merger, and in 1961 they formed the breakaway Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front). Left with a diminished but more united party, Lee eroded the pro-communists’ support through a series of forceful multilingual radio addresses advocating merger. He negotiated a favourable deal for Singapore and won a referendum on the terms in 1962.
The new country, Malaysia, was established in September 1963 with the merger of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. This was followed shortly by the PAP’s re-election after what would be their toughest campaign ever. Lee remained as prime minister of Singapore and became a member of the federal parliament. However, there were tensions, sometimes violent, with Malay hardliners and the federal government over various issues, culminating in Malaysia’s expulsion of Singapore in 1965. In his televised announcement, the visibly emotional Lee called it a “moment of anguish”; the separation from Malaysia remains one of his greatest disappointments.
Premiership of the Republic
In Lee’s view, the most important factor in good government was the quality of its leaders. Fortunately for Singapore, Lee faced the new republic’s massive challenges with a highly talented cabinet, some of whom he had known since university, united by struggles already overcome. Lee gave each minister departmental objectives and freedom to attain them. Yet he was determined to see results and unafraid to publicly upbraid ministers or officials whose delivery fell short. He shook things up when he thought it necessary, intervened in cases of particular interest (such as the creation of Singapore Airlines and the development of Singapore Changi Airport), and instilled into civil servants his zeal for accomplishing tasks quickly.
Lee was not ideological and wanted to discover what worked rather than validate preconceived theories. Many policies that his government pioneered and proved successful were later copied by both developing and developed countries. He was also able to anticipate and prepare for future challenges, such as by ensuring the long-term security of Singapore’s water supply from Malaysia.
The PAP won six general elections under Lee in post-independence Singapore, taking all the seats in the first one held in 1968 (which the Barisan Sosialis boycotted) and the subsequent three in 1972, 1976 and 1980. Although he enjoyed debates with well-informed opponents like David Marshall, Lee responded very robustly to criticism that he felt went too far. He took a firm approach to government, believing that Singapore was too small to afford experiments with liberalism and that any mistakes he made would be easier to rectify compared to those that a free-for-all model would entail.
Lee believed his achievements would be worthwhile only if they could survive his departure and, unlike most post-colonial leaders, began early preparations for his replacement. He recruited and groomed new talent from the early 1970s and had largely eased out the old guard by the mid-1980s. To ensure the second generation fully supported his successor, he allowed them to make the selection. During his later years in office, he transferred more decision-making responsibility to Goh Chok Tong, whom they had chosen. When he stepped down a few months after the republic’s 25th National Day celebrations in 1990, Lee was the world’s longest-serving prime minister.
Retirement and death
After handing over the premiership, Lee remained in Goh’s cabinet as senior minister, then as minister mentor when Lee Hsien Loong took over as prime minister in 2004.
However, on 14 May 2011, in a move that surprised many, Lee, together with Goh (then senior minister), announced their decision to leave the cabinet to make way for younger ministers. The new cabinet without Lee was sworn in a week later, marking the beginning of a new political era.
With his retirement from the cabinet, Lee stepped down as chairman of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), which he had chaired since 1981, and was appointed as senior advisor to the GIC board. He continued to serve as the member of parliament for Tanjong Pagar. He was also the patron of Business China, a non-profit organisation launched in 2007 with the aim of enhancing bilateral interactions.
His legacy has been commemorated by various tributes, most notably the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which opened in 2004. Much sought after for his views, Lee continued to travel widely and speak out on Singapore and world affairs after retiring from the cabinet.
Lee passed away at 3.18 am on 23 March 2015 at the age of 91.
16 Sep 1923: Born in Singapore.
1928–1929: Attends Choon Guan Chinese School.
1930–1934: Attends Telok Kurau English School.
1936–1939: Attends Raffles Institution.
1940–1942: Attends Raffles College; studies are disrupted by Japanese invasion in 1942.
16 Sep 1946: Leaves Singapore to study at London School of Economics.
Jan 1947: Admitted to Fitzwilliam Hall, University of Cambridge.
Dec 1947: Secretly marries Kwa Geok Choo in Stratford, England.
1949: Receives double first in law, and star for distinction in final examinations.
Jun 1950: Called to the English bar at Middle Temple, London.
30 Sep 1950: Holds second wedding ceremony after returning to Singapore.
7 Aug 1951: Called to the bar of Singapore along with his wife.
21 Nov 1954: Co-founds the PAP; elected secretary-general.
2 Apr 1955: Elected to the Legislative Assembly for Tanjong Pagar; becomes de facto opposition leader.
1 Sep 1955: Co-founds Lee & Lee with his wife and brother; remains as senior partner until 1959.
May 1956: Attends constitutional conference on self-government in London (and later conferences in March 1957 and May 1958).
May 1957: Resigns from assembly seat and wins subsequent by-election over issue of new constitution, reaffirming his authority within the PAP.
30 May 1959: Leads party to overall victory in the Legislative Assembly election.
5 Jun 1959: Becomes prime minister of the state of Singapore.
Jul 1961: PAP declines his offer to resign after by-election losses at Hong Lim and Anson.
16 Sep 1963: Singapore becomes part of Malaysia; Lee represents Singapore in the Malaysian parliament.
9 Aug 1965: Becomes prime minister of the Republic of Singapore.
13 Apr 1968: Leads party to re-election in parliamentary polls, and again in 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988.
Oct 1983: Briefly serves as finance minister after Hon Sui Sen’s death.
28 Nov 1990: Retires as Prime Minister but remains in the cabinet as Senior Minister.
Nov 1992: Steps down as secretary-general of the PAP but remains in the central executive committee.
12 Aug 2004: Becomes minister mentor in the cabinet of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
20 May 2011: Retires from the cabinet.
Oct 2011: Resigns from the PAP central executive committee.
Selected awards and honours
Orders and medals
1962: Order of the Nile, Grand Cordon, United Arab Republic.
1963: Honorary citizen of New Orleans.
1966: Grand Cross of the Royal Order, Cambodia.
1970: Order of the Companions of Honour (honorary), United Kingdom.
1973: Order of the Rising Sun, First Class, Japan.
1973: Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, United Kingdom.
1973: Bintang Republik Indonesia Adi Pradana, Indonesia.
1974: Order of Sikatuna, Philippines.
1979: Grand Gwanghwa Order, Republic of Korea.
1982: Freedom of the City of London.
1984: Most Honorable Order of the Crown of Johore, First Class.
1988: Order of the Great Leader, Pakistan.
1990: Most Esteemed Family Order, Brunei.
1990: Distinguished Comrade of Labour Award, National Trades Union Congress, Singapore.
2009: Order of Friendship, Russia.
2010: Honorary Citizen of Barcelona.
2014: Order of Honour, Russia.
Honorary doctor of laws degrees
1967: Royal University, Cambodia.
1970: University of Hong Kong.
1971: University of Liverpool.
1971: University of Sheffield.
1977: University of Massachusetts.
1982: New York University.
1985: Milwaukee School of Engineering.
1987: University of Melbourne.
2000: Chinese University of Hong Kong.
2003: Waseda University.
2007: Australian National University.
2013: National University of Singapore.
Grandparents: Lee Hoon Leong and Ko Liem Nio (paternal); Chua Kim Teng and Neo Ah Soon (maternal).
Parents: Lee Chin Koon and Chua Jim Neo. His family were Hakka.
Siblings: Younger brothers Dennis Kim Yew, Freddy Thian Yew and Suan Yew; younger sister Monica Kim Mon.
Wife: Kwa Geok Choo (b. 1921–d. 2010), whom he married in 1947.
Children: Sons Hsien Loong (b. 1952–) and Hsien Yang (b. 1957–); daughter Wei Ling (b. 1955–).
A smooth changeover. (1990, November). Petir, 3. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
Chan, R. (2014, January 7). Former PM Lee Kuan Yew given Russia's Order of Honour. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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Chua, M. H. (2010). Pioneers once more: The Singapore Public Service, 1959–2009. Singapore: Straits Times Press; Public Service Division, pp. 74–75. (Call no.: RSING 351.5957 CHU)
Fernandez, W. (2015, March 23). Singapore's founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew dies aged 91 at 3.18am on Monday. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
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Goh, S. N. (2007, November 20). China committed to open-door policy: Wen. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Han, F. K., Fernandez, W., & Tan, S. (1997). Lee Kuan Yew: The man and his ideas. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings; Times Editions, pp. 15, 89, 94, 108, 212. (Call no.: RSING 959.57092 HAN-[HIS])
Henson, B., & George, C. (1990, November 27). Between close friends. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Lee, E. (2008). Singapore: The unexpected nation. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 182. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
Lee, K. Y. (1990, November). Choosing a successful successor. Petir, 8. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
Lee, K. Y. (1998). The Singapore story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions; Singapore Press Holdings, pp. 26–27, 29, 35, 115, 394–398, 664–666. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
Lee, K. Y. (2000). From third world to first: The Singapore story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions; Singapore Press Holdings, pp. 96–97, 242–243. (Call no.: RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HI ])
Lee, K. Y. (2006). In T. Koh, et al. (Eds.), Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, pp. 295–296. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
Lee & Lee. (n.d.) History of Lee & Lee. Retrieved from Lee & Lee website: https://www.leenlee.com.sg/our-people/the-firm/
Li, X. Y. (2011, May 22). No longer politics as usual. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Li, X. Y., & Chang, R. (2011, October 6). Mr Lee quits PAP’s exec committee. The Straits Times, p.1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Lianhe Zaobao (1994). Lee Kuan Yew: A pictorial biography. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings; Federal Publications, pp. 306, 310. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 LEE-[HIS])
Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2006). Who’s who in Singapore 2006. Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, pp. 258, 263–264.(Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
MM Lee conferred Honorary Citizen of Barcelona award. (2010, September 3). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
National Archives of Singapore (1990). Speech by Prime Minister Mr. Lee Kuan Yew at the opening of the Academy of Law on Friday, 31 August 1990. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline
Neubronner, E. (2013, June 5). Mr Lee Kuan Yew receives NUS honorary doctor of laws degree. Today, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Prime Minister’s Office. (2011, May 14). Joint statement by SM Goh Chok Tong and MM Lee Kuan Yew [Press release]. Retrieved from PMO website: https://www.pmo.gov.sg/newsroom/joint-statement-sm-goh-chok-tong-and-mm-lee-kuan-yew
Russia, Singapore move towards closer ties with new governmental body. (2009, November 16). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
Singapore: The first ten years of independence, 1965 to 1975. (2007). Singapore: National Library Board; National Archives of Singapore, pp. 237–238. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 SIN-[HIS])
Tan, S. S. (2007). Goh Keng Swee: A portrait. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, pp. 67, 69–71. (Call no.: RSING 959.5704092 TAN-[HIS])
Turnbull, C. M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819–2005. Singapore: NUS Press, pp. 250–251, 266, 273, 278, 282, 302, 304, 308, 321, 335–336. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
Yap, S., Lim, R., & Leong, W. K. (2009). Men in white: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, pp. 202, 422, 450. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 YAP)
Zakir Hussain. (2011, May 19). PM accepts MM, SM’s offer to step down. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Han, F. K., et al. (2011). Lee Kuan Yew: Hard truths to keep Singapore going. Singapore: Straits Times Press. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 LEE-[HIS])
Lee Kuan Yew [CD-ROM]. (1995). Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings. (Call no.: RAV 959.570099 LEE)
Plate, T. (2010). Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew: Citizen Singapore: How to build a nation. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705092 PLA-[HIS])
Rodringuez, S. J. (Ed.) (2003). Lee Kuan Yew in his own words, book 1, 1959 to 1970. Singapore: SJ & Gavin International. (Call no.: RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS])
Success stories: Lee Kuan Yew [Video recording]. (2002). Hong Kong: Radio Television Hong Kong. (Call no.: RSING 959.57050924 SUC-[HIS])
The information in this article is valid as at 23 March 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.