Lee Kuan Yew, The Lawyer Who Became A Voice For The Vulnerable
Mr Lee Kuan Yew has left a lasting legacy in Singapore in many ways. We remember him for being a fiery orator, a dignified statesman, a fearless leader, a loving husband & father.
But before he became the prolific leader we’re familiar with, his heart always belonged with his people.
His rise to prominence began with his mission to speak out on behalf of the voiceless — as a lawyer who often took on cases pro-bono, or for free.
Mr Lee famously fought for the rights of over 50 workers’ unions – from hawkers, pineapple factory workers to postmen – proving his sincerity and determination to serve his nation.
Prevented a crippling postmen strike
After completing his studies, Mr Lee Kuan Yew kicked off his illustrious 7-year law career by taking on tough – almost impossible – cases.
So dedicated was he, that his eldest son Lee Hsien Loong’s impending birth, didn’t stop him from embarking on this career-defining endeavour.
In Feb 1952, just days before his son was due, Mr Lee represented the Postal & Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union in a historic legal battle against the British colonial government.
As negotiations were going nowhere and the postmen were on the brink of a crippling strike, Mr Lee advised them to remain level-headed while he brokered a proper deal for them.
The wait soon paid off.
Thanks to Mr Lee’s efforts, the postmen were granted better benefits and even walked away with more concessions than they’d expected.
Represented unions & hawkers for free
As hiring a lawyer of Mr Lee’s calibre often involved extremely high legal costs, he chose to take on pro-bono cases against the wishes of his bosses.
Mr Lee represented street hawkers and union workers who often couldn’t afford payment.
As he understood their plight but still hoped to see justice served, Mr Lee generously waived all legal fees. His superiors even had to step in to ask him to stop accepting such cases.
But Mr Lee persisted, wanting to fight for worthy causes on behalf of people in need.
Voice for the vulnerable
Winning the upper hand against the colonial government made Mr Lee a formidable force in the legal circle.
In 1954, he successfully defended 8 University of Malaya students against sedition charges for an article published in “Fajar”, an undergraduate magazine.
This was an interesting stance, as he would later go on to press sedition charges against his adversaries during his political career.
Later that year, Mr Lee also defended a group of Chinese middle-school students who rioted against National Service registration.
Met PAP founders through his legal work
As a prolific lawyer who was chalking up wins under his belt, Mr Lee Kuan Yew soon found himself in the company of like-minded and equally talented compatriots.
Through his work, he got to know key figures like Lim Chin Siong & Fong Swee Suan, with whom he formed the Oxley Road Group.
This close-knit inner circle laid the foundations for what later became the People’s Action Party (PAP).
Unfortunately, Lim Chin Siong & Fong Swee Suan later fell out publicly with Mr Lee when the PAP splintered into 2 factions, and were detained in Operation Cold Store.
A timeless legal legacy
Starting the PAP & becoming Prime Minister in 1959 didn’t stop Mr Lee from seeking justice.
He shaped our budding legal system & ensured law schools were of the best quality to raise Singapore’s status as a global legal hub.
His legacy was cemented in the opening of his very own law firm with his brother, Lee & Lee, which continues serving our people today.
The people’s advocate
Mr Lee’s relentless pursuit of justice for the helpless sealed his reputation as a trusted lawyer & people’s advocate.
Many who lived through pre-independence Singapore would remember him for his unwavering dedication to help the common man.
In his own words,
You are part and parcel of the nation. The trade union movement cannot divorce itself from the struggle of the nation for survival.
Mr Lee’s generosity will never be forgotten, & his timeless crusade for justice will surely inspire generations to come.
Featured image from The Straits Times via Simon Chesterman.
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