There are societies which have been dominated by a single man in the way that Harry Lee Kuan Yew has dominated Singapore. Singapore was reshaped not according to the collective aspirations of Singaporean society, but according to his will. Under him the swamps of Jurong were paved over; the kampongs were replaced with towering blocks of flats; huge swathes of land were reclaimed from the sea; and the ancient habits of three civilizations were replaced with a synthetic ideology.

Lee is the patriot of no fatherland so much as his own will. He has long been a formidable speaker and debater in English, of world class among politicians on a stage where English has only recently become the first language. He has mastered from scratch the other tongue needed for communication with his people. He is the patron of Singapore politics: spotting, hiring and firing top talent; commanding the apparatus of power and various alternative sources of information; able to choose freely when to let well enough alone or when to intervene... His star and that of the island republic have merged almost beyond distinction. 1

Born in Singapore on September 16th 1923 to a prosperous Hakka family, the Hakka being Han Chinese who migrated to Fujian some 800 years ago, he enrolled in the elite Raffles Institute in 1936. At Raffles Institute, a school run by English teachers along the English public school system, he graduated first in Singapore and Malaya in the Senior Cambridge exams in 1939. He postponed his plans to further his studies in Europe due to the war, and studied English, mathematics and economics at Raffles College.

When the war reached Singapore in December 1941, he voluntarily enrolled in the Medical Auxiliary Services for a short while until it was disbanded after the British were defeated by the Japanese invaders. During the occupation, he served as a stenographer and translator for Domei, a Japanese news agency until the Japanese surrendered in September 1945.

In 70 days of surprises, upsets and stupidities, British colonial society was shattered, and with it all the assumptions of the Englishman's superiority. The Asiatics were supposed to panic when the firing started, yet they were the stoical ones who took the casualties and died without hysteria. It was the white civilian bosses who ducked under tables when the bombs and shells fell. It was the white civilians and government officers in Penang who, on 16 December 1941, in the quiet of the night, fled the island for the "safety" of Singapore, abandoning the Asiatics to their fate. . . . The whites had proved as frightened and at a loss as to what to do as the Asiatics, if not more so. The Asiatics had looked to them for leadership, and they had failed them. 2

In late 1946, he left Singapore to study law at Cambridge where he graduated with a rare double First Class Honors and a star for special Distinction in 1949. He returned to Singapore in 1950, and was offered a pupillage at a well-known local firm Laycock and Ong. Here he soon built up a reputation as being a ferocious advocate, clashing with the government in 1952 in his defense of the Singapore Union of Postal and Telecommunications Workers.

His political career began in 1954 when a group of British-educated middle-class Chinese led by Lee formed the People's Action Party, or PAP. They sought to attract a following among the poor and non-English-speaking masses. In 1955 he was elected to the legislature, and in 1959 he became Singapore's first Prime Minister – a post that he would hold for the next 31 years.

In 1963 he ushered Singapore into the newly formed Malaysia, where it remained for only two years before he ushered it back out again in 1965. Separation was something that he regarded as a disaster - occurring due to disagreements stemming from his belief that Malaysia should be a country for Malaysians not Malays.

Some countries are born independent. Some achieve independence. Singapore had independence thrust upon it ... For Singapore, 9 August 1965 was no ceremonial occasion. We had never sought independence. In a referendum less than three years ago, we had persuaded 70 per cent of the electorate to vote in favour of merger with Malaya. Since then, Singapore's need to be part and parcel of the Federation in one political, economic, and social polity had not changed. Nothing had changed -- except that we were out. We had said that an independent Singapore was simply not viable ... How were we to create a nation out of a polyglot collection of migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other parts of Asia? 2

Scarred by the turbulent struggle for independence, there were severe repercussions for those who dared cross him – rare indeed were the politicians, businessmen or journalists who dared criticize him. Commercial bodies appreciated his vigorous economic policy, trade unionism was tamed through far-reaching labor laws and religious organizations were told to stick to charity and stay out of politics. The press was particularly subdued, often journalists telephoned official contacts before writing their stories and the Straits Times read more like government propaganda than a newspaper.

Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac ... Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.1

The effect of restrictions placed on opposition were most evident in the 1968 general elections – for 58 parliamentary seats the weak opposition parties fielded only seven candidates, all of whom lost. The PAP's overall vote was 84 per cent.

In 1990, Lee Kuan Yew voluntarily stepped down as Prime Minister of Singapore, allowing the second generation of leaders to take over the running of the government with Goh Chok Tong as Prime Minister. He remained in Cabinet as Senior Minister, and still exerts tremendous influence to this day. Goh Chok Tong has recently named Lee Kuan Yew's son Lee Hsien Loong, who was Deputy Prime Minister, the next Prime Minister of Singapore. It cannot be denied that the incredible growth of Singapore from an entrepot collection of immigrants to a manufacturing hub and finally to a regional base for multi-national corporations, is directly attributable to his actions.

The city-state of Singapore represents an unprecedented feat of physical, social, and political engineering, orchestrated over five decades by Lee Kuan Yew and the ruling People's Action Party. But Singapore's prosperity has been purchased at a steep price: the erosion of human rights, the rise of the 'nanny state,' and the creation of a political system in which individual freedoms are subordinated to the greater good – as defined by the government. 1

Bibliography and Sources.

  • Chris Lydgate. 'Lee's Law.' Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2003 (1)
  • Lee Kuan Yew. 'The Singapore Story.' Singapore: Times, 1998. (2)
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