The old man: the political genius who made Singapore

A hundred years on from his birth, Lee Kuan Yew’s city-state is more prosperous and stable than ever.

Lee Kuan Yew takes breakfast on a state visit to London, 1968.
Lee Kuan Yew takes breakfast on a state visit to London, 1968. Credit: Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Every time a plane lands, there’s money for Singapore…’ Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of Singapore might  be crisply enshrined in that image of jet-fuelled wealth. The glitter of modernity and gold define the values of the ‘little red dot’ – as many Singaporeans call their island nation with a kind of defiant self-pity. Lee’s remark can seem even more prophetic when you discover he made it in 1964 and was referring to the island’s old airport at Paya Labar, not that sprawling bastion of mobile consumption, Changi International. ‘An airport with a small nation attached’ is the jibe of international travellers who transit through Changi en route to Bali or Sydney and stop over to shop in the Orchard Road, sample the cocktails at the Raffles Hotel, make jokes about chewing gum and take a dip in the vertiginous infinity pool on the roof of Marina Bay Sands.

However stubbornly the city state turns its glittering and glassy face to the future, Singapore is drawn back ceaselessly into the past. I don’t just mean the enclaves of beautiful ‘black and whites’, the colonial bungalows of long-dead colonial administrators or the gawdy rows of ‘shop houses’ in Chinatown. Archaeologists have unearthed the relics of a ‘medieval Singapore’ probably known as Temasek, a port settlement whose rulers built a wooden palace on brick foundations and planted fruit trees on the summit of Fort Canning Park – an oasis of lush green among the skyscrapers of downtown.

When I last visited Singapore, the park – once known as the Forbidden Hill – was the site of a spectacular bicentennial exhibition which asserted in hi-tech dioramas ‘700 years’ of Singapore history. Not far away, the statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles still stood on Boat Quay where he had landed in 1819 to seize Singapore for the East India Company: he had to share his river side eminence with newly cast statues of Asian notables, ‘the first Singaporeans’.

By the time the Centennial was celebrated, Lee Kuan Yew had ‘passed’, as Asians prefer to call the end of life. And he may not have been much interested in medieval ‘Temasek’ and those broken relics unearthed in Fort Canning Park. Lee’s Singapore threw off the shackles of the past – colonial and medieval – to reinvent itself for a post-colonial epoch. And yet it was thanks to him that Raffles was never removed from Boat Quay. The East India man was much too useful a founder figure for Lee and his ministers as they navigated the choppy waters of independence after 1963. The Raffles statue stands right next to the Singapore River which must have tempted a few Singaporeans – but he has never suffered the fate of Edward Colston.

Both left and right get Lee and the Singapore he ruled wrong. To be sure, the wealth of Singapore and many Singaporeans is the gift of free trade, low taxes and a business-friendly legislative ecology. But Lee was always fiercely hostile to the British Empire and despised the racial arrogance that was swept away by the Japanese armies in 1942.

Lee was born a hundred years ago into an English-speaking Chinese family. The Lees were comfortable but not rich. Yet like all subjects of empire, the young Harry Lee, his English name, was an outsider. His great grandfather had emigrated to Singapore from southern China and his mother was of Chinese Hakka and Peranakan descent. At home, Lee and his siblings spoke English, Cantonese and Malay: he didn’t learn Mandarin properly until his political career took off in the 1950s. Harry Lee was precociously bright. At Raffles College, he came top in mathematics and hoped to further his education at a prestigious British university. Then on 8 December 1941 Japanese armies rampaged through British Malaya and in a matter of weeks stood poised to assault Britain’s ‘impregnable fortress’ of Singapore. As British troops fled across the Causeway that links Malaya with Singapore, students at Raffles College heard a tremendous explosion. The British had, to little effect, set off mines to block the Japanese advance. Lee explained to a fellow student: ‘That is the end of the British Empire.’ By then, many thousands of European civilians had abandoned Singapore with little thought of who they left behind. On 15 February, the British garrison surrendered. The fragility of imperial rule had been cruelly exposed.

It would be impossible to underestimate the impact of this abject surrender and humiliation of an arrogant foreign power on the people of Singapore – and on young Lee Kuan Yew. He wrote later that ‘British colonial society was shattered’ and the assumption of ‘the Englishman’s superiority’ irrevocably broken. No one, he concluded, had any right to ‘kick us around’. At the beginning of the occupation of Singapore, the Japanese slaughtered unknown thousands of Chinese, but the Lees survived. In 1945, the Japanese surrendered and the British returned in triumph to Malaya. For many in Singapore who had endured the occupation, the noisy pomp of a victorious return was undeserved; the chaos that engulfed Singapore after the war was, Lee had no doubt ‘an education in unfairness and absurdity’. Lee could, at last, resume his education and headed for shabby, bankrupted Britain to read law at Cambridge University. Both he and his future wife, Kwa Geok Choo, were stellar students. But they could not forget the ignominious abandonment of Singapore nor overlook the ingrained racial prejudices they met in London and Cambridge. What did impress Lee was Clement Attlee’s Labour government, which had ousted Winston Churchill’s Conservatives in 1945, and its radical programme of social reform. In Cambridge, he campaigned to elect his friend and fellow law student David Widdicombe as a Labour MP and, in London, joined the Malayan Forum to debate the future of Malaya. When Lee was in Cambridge, the Malayan Communist Party had launched a violent insurgency against British rule provoking the declaration of the ‘Emergency’. This ‘war without a name’ would dominate South-east Asian politics for more than a decade. In 1950, Lee made a speech declaring that that ‘British imperialism will end. At the moment it is clear that the only party organised to force the British to leave, and to run the country, is the Communist Party’.

Make no mistake, Lee Kuan Yew was never a conservative. He was a man of the left who, when he returned to Singapore to practice as a barrister, took on the cases of students and unionists who had provoked the ire of the British. Some of the cases Lee fought with eloquent fervour became high-profile courtroom battles and made him famous: his political career was launched from the bench. They also brought him into contact with some of the leading leftist students in the anticolonial movement and at the end of 1954 Lee and his group formed the People’s Action Party (PAP).

In the next decade, Lee proved himself to be a ruthless and manipulative politician. First he overcame his main rival in the struggle for independence, David Marshall, and then he took on the leftists who had backed the PAP and sustained his career. Although the sun was beginning to set on the British Empire he despised, Lee realised that the colonial government would never relinquish power to any party or party leader who gave off the odour of communism. After all, British soldiers had been waging a brutal war on communist insurgents in the jungles of Malaya since 1948. As Harold Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ whistled through the corridors of fading imperial power in London, and successive prime ministers and foreign secretaries recognised that they could no longer afford to maintain British imperial bases ‘east of Suez’, Lee and the other moderate PAP leaders (known as the ‘men in white’ for their incorruptibility) took steps to clean up and rinse their political credentials. Malaya had become independent in 1957 under the conservative and fiercely anticommunist Tunku Adbul Rahman. Fearing that restless Singapore might become the Cuba of South-east Asia, the Tunku agreed to accept Singapore as part of a federated Malaysia. For his part, Lee realised that a merger was an unmissable chance to cut loose from Britain and campaigned fervently to persuade Singaporeans to accept the deal. The PAP thus led Singapore to independence as part of Malaysia in 1963.

The merge came at a cost. Lee turned decisively on the leftist wing of the PAP, locking up scores of former allies. ‘Operation Coldstore’ may have been bloodless but it was without any doubt a ruthless purging of the political roots of the PAP. But Lee and the PAP soon found itself confronting a different foe. Ethnic conflict was a poisonous inheritance of colonial ‘divide and rule government’ but it cast a long shadow across the new nation. The Tunku had won independence with a guarantee of Malay rights and a denial of equality to people of Chinese and Indian heritage. Lee had always opposed communal politics and proclaimed a new ‘Malayan’ identity, which would overcome such divisions. The ‘little red dot’ would become an island laboratory where the ‘men in white’ would forge a ‘New Singaporean’ freed from ethnic identity. Lee loudly denounced communalism in eloquent Malay, which infuriated the Tunku. When race riots exploded in Singapore, the marriage was on the rocks. Secretly, Lee began negotiations for separation and in 1965 Singapore went its own way. Famously, Lee wept on national television when he announced news that Singapore was no longer part of Malaysia but, as he recalled in ‘The Singapore Story’, ‘the merchants in Singapore’s Chinatown were jubilant’. Separation set off a tremendous burst of activity in Asian stock markets. Investors, it seemed, had decided that separation was good for business.

The key to Lee’s inheritance and the rise of Singapore under his leadership can be traced back to ‘Operation Coldstore’ and the trauma of separation from Malaysia. ‘Events, dear boy events’, insisted MacMillan to explain the roller coaster of political life – and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, events worked in Lee’s favour. In the bitter aftermath of separation, the PAP forged a new identity for Singapore and its citizens and reaped the mercantile harvest of the Cold War. Singapore pivoted to the new global hegemon which had taken the place of the British Empire and by the end of the 1960s, American military procurements for the war in Vietnam made up fifteen per cent of the entire Singapore economy. Singapore began refining petroleum to feed the American war machine, and Lockheed, the huge American arms corporation, set up shop in Singapore to repair and maintain its huge fleets of aircraft deployed in South-east Asia. By the time the British finally closed its bases in 1971, American investment in Singapore was growing at a spectacular hundred million dollars every year.

In 1965, Lee had taken a sabbatical in Harvard to, he claimed, recover from the trauma of separation – and was impressed by the supercharged US economy and the new thinking of economists such as Milton Friedman. Soon, Lee and his ministers were working hard to demonstrate that Singapore was investor and ‘Friedman friendly’. The PAP passed new laws favourable to international corporate capital and unfriendly to the labour unions that had helped bring Lee to power. Lee’s new guru, Milton Friedman, was horrified when he learnt that the government provided free hospital care in Singapore, so Lee dutifully ended the provision. These measures came with a further package of public order laws, which punished spitting, graffiti and public urination with lashes and prison terms; drug traffickers would be hanged. Lashing and judicial execution were old colonial punishments meted out to recalcitrant subjects of the British Empire. As Lee turned away from Singapore’s old colonial masters, this social trimming and manicuring would ensure that Singapore was an ordered, safe and obedient society open to international business.

In 2013, I accepted a job as an executive producer with Singapore’s national broadcaster, Channel News Asia, to manage a team of Asian documentary producers. Lee Kuan Yew, who had led Singapore from 1959 to 1990 and retired from active politics in 2011, was still alive. His son Hsien Loong was now prime minister and many of my colleagues spoke reverentially of ‘The old man’: any discussions  concerning LKY were required to respect so called ‘OB’ (out of bounds) markers. Our documentary unit made investigative documentaries across Asia outside Singapore so we were not much troubled by fretful government censors. In March 2015 LKY was dying and armies of journalists gathered outside Singapore General Hospital to await the end. For a few days, Singapore was unusually edgy. I heard a young colleague ask ‘What will we do without the Old Man?’ The answer came early on the morning of 23 March. Lee had passed at the age of 91. There was an outpouring of grief, tempered by a handful of rebel bloggers, such as Alex Au: ‘This man has put in certain structures which are certainly illiberal, anti-democratic, and his passing does not mean that they no longer survive…’ Au did not speak for many Singaporeans: half a million of them paid their respects as his body lay in state at Parliament House.

It is tempting, perhaps inevitable to end with ‘Si monumentum requiris circumspice.’ Singapore remains one of the wealthiest and stable societies in Asia. The party Lee helped found with his leftist comrades, the PAP, remains in power and his successors in what is a de facto one party state, have pivoted adroitly between the world’s hegemons, the United States and China. And yet Lee himself resisted, indeed forbade, the kind of personality cult that blights other post-colonial regimes. He insisted that the family home in Oxley Road should be demolished; he has never appeared on any currency. (The Lee family is today bitterly divided over the fate of the family house, which remains intact.) Lee was a very clever, micromanaging authoritarian who regarded the island of Singapore as an experiment in wealth creation – a kind of benevolent Dr Moreau. Political turmoil has frequently engulfed the nation state on the other side of the Causeway, whose former prime minister is serving a prison sentence for spectacular corruption. Lee and the ‘men in white’ took a different direction – and so far the experiment has worked.


Christopher Hale