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Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: A Passing of an Era for Singapore

March 25, 2015

By Peggy Kek

Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, has died at the age of 91.

He was born Harry Lee Kuan Yew on Sept. 16, 1923, in Singapore. When he left England after graduating with a law degree from Cambridge University, he also left his English name behind.

Lee Kuan Yew with former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Photo/Flickr user Downing Street http://bit.ly/1GnGkvD

Lee Kuan Yew with former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Photo/Flickr user Downing Street http://bit.ly/1GnGkvD

In 1954, Lee formed the People’s Action Party (PAP). In 1959, at the age of 35, he won the national elections of Singapore, then still part of the British Empire, and became prime minister for the first time. After a brief merger with Malaysia, in 1965 the Republic of Singapore was born. Lee was PM until 1990 when he voluntarily stepped down, at age 67, to make way for a younger man.

It is a cliché, but it has to be said: the passing of Lee Kuan Yew is the passing of an era for Singapore and Singaporeans. A Singapore without LKY will take some adjusting to.

Older citizens will probably remember him with more affection and gratitude. Younger Singaporeans may attend the academic institutions and win scholarships that bear his name, but they will likely feel no particular affection or disdain, but rather, a vague admiration for the legendary leader who, they have been told, was the architect of modern Singapore.

“I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind,” he once said. Perhaps he will be best remembered through his own words.

In 1980 he said, “Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him.” For him, it was in August 1965, when he suddenly fathered a reluctant new nation, that the iron was forged – from the fire in his belly to make Singapore succeed.

From that “moment of anguish,” he would “spend the rest of my life getting Singapore, not just to work, but to prosper and flourish.” Over the years, he would use that same steel to fight all forms of obstacles and undesirable dogma, prejudices, and even personal habits.

He would go on to confront and battle challenges that included corruption, unemployment, poverty, communism, political opposition, smoking and at the end, his own deteriorating health.

His self-belief and devotion to the Singapore cause was intense and absolute: “This is your life and mine. I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this (country), and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.”

He will be remembered for his ferocious fight against corruption. He believed vehemently, “The moment key leaders are less than incorruptible, less than stern in demanding high standards, from that moment, the structure of administrative integrity will weaken, and eventually crumble. Singapore can survive only if ministers and senior officers are incorruptible and efficient.”

He will be remembered for standing up for meritocracy. A key reason for Singapore’s separation in 1965 was Lee’s belief in multiracial meritocracy. He was utterly convinced that, “If you want Singapore to succeed…you must have a system that enables the best man and the most suitable to go into the job that needs them…”

Every time a Singaporean takes a ride in a bus along a tree-lined avenue, plays with her children in a park near their flat, or enjoys a picnic in Botanic Gardens, she might just think of Lee. He launched Tree Planting Day and “set out to transform Singapore into a tropical garden city.” He was completely certain that, “Greening raised the morale of people and gave them pride in their surroundings.”

Lee’s beliefs and ideas went on to mold not just the development of a small new country with no natural resources to speak of, but also, some would argue, the personal lives of its citizens. Under his leadership, his government implemented policies and ran campaigns to compel and urge Singaporeans to save water, to keep Singapore clean, to have two children, and later, to have three if they could afford it, and to speak Mandarin, among many other exhortations.

In response to critics who accused his government of interfering in the private lives and personal behaviors of the city-state’s inhabitants, he had this to say: “It has made Singapore a more pleasant place to live in. If this is a ‘nanny state,’ I am proud to have fostered one.”

He will be remembered for the power of his convictions. “I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader.” No one could accuse Lee Kuan Yew of being a weak leader.

Of his own accord, he relinquished the position of prime minister in 1990, but stayed on in government as senior minister and then minister mentor in the governments of both his successors, Goh Chok Tong and his own son, Lee Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister. He retired from the cabinet in 2011, but remained a member of Parliament.

For those who remember Lee Kuan Yew in his prime, no matter to which side of the political divide they belong, they will recall a perspicacious politician whose intellect found admirers far beyond the little red dot, a powerful orator whose words conquered crowds and carried generations of Singaporeans with him, and perhaps most of all, a pragmatic visionary who, against all odds, made the improbable nation a reality.

Lee was known for his admiration, gratitude, and devotion to his wife, the late Kwa Geok Choo. He is survived by his two sons, one daughter, and seven grandchildren.

This article was originally published by The Star Online on March 24.

Peggy Kek is the former country director for The Asia Foundation in Singapore, and former director with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Singapore, Washington DC
Related programs: Regional and International Relations

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