The Man Who Topped Cambridge

Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong once muttered to himself throughout his three-hour Cambridge exam as he answered the questions. The noise put other students off and in the next exam, a young Lee was told to sit in a separate room on his own, recalls his university tutor in an interview with local papers.

In 1971, Lee studied mathematics in Cambridge University’s Trinity College. Two years later, he graduated top of his class, becoming the first senior wrangler ever from Singapore. A senior wrangler is the top mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge and is one of the greatest intellectual achievements attainable in Britain.


That’s not all; Lee scored a comfortable first. He earned 31 alpha questions—which are questions where distinctions are given for the best answers—and the student who came in second scored a distant 19.

Senior wranglers like PM Lee have gone on to play leading figures in the world of mathematics, physics and other fields. So it came as a surprise—to his tutor especially—that Lee turned down a career as an elite academic to focus on military and politics.

Choosing His Country Over Academic Fame

Young Lee explained in a letter to his tutor that he “will never be a mathematician.”

“A mathematician really has little say in what goes on in the world around him, in the way things are going on in the country. This does not matter at all in a large developed country like Britain, but in Singapore, it would matter very much to me.

“It does not mean I have to go into politics, but an important member of the civil service or the armed forces is in a position to do a great deal of good or harm. I would prefer to be doing things and perhaps be cursed by other people than have to curse at someone else and not be able to do any more.”

Facing Public Scrutiny

His desire to be involved in the country’s affairs has since put the prime minister in the forefront of Singapore politics. Years later, PM Lee, who wrote about wanting to do things even at the expense of being cursed by other people, bears the brunt of criticism for PAP’s disconnectedness with its people.

Does High Intelligence Equate To Good Governance?

During the Singapore 2006 National Day Rally, Pm Lee Hsien Loong made a “Mee Siam mai hum (no cockles in my Mee Siam please) ” remark, which became the talking point of the town.

The local dish, served in most heartland eateries, contains no cockles at all, which led some citizens to ask if the PM ever had the dish or how different was his life from the average Singaporean. Mr Brown then famously mixed PM Lee’s “Mee Siam Mai Hum” with Black Eye’s Pees “My Hump” in a podcast.

Mr Lee chose a life in the public eye and for that he was aware that he himself would be the subject of public scrutiny.

The 2011 general election was PAP’s worst ever performance since independence and it revealed the unhealthy on-ground sentiment. The humiliating defeat at the Punggol East by-election afterwards in 2013 showed that the PAP did not understand its people.

The contentious slew of issues since then, from mass demonstrations against the government White Paper to the tug-of-war in repealing 377A to the ever-present foreign “talent” reveals the government’s uneasy relationship with its people. All the skepticism is openly aired on social media only worsens the situation.

As for the man who chose Singapore over Britain, he has the tantamount task of convincing Singaporeans who increasingly see themselves disconnected to PAP.

With reference to Reddit, blurty, The mrbrown Show
Images via Lee Hsien Loong
Featured image via Wikimedia