Modern Singapore’s founding forefather
91-year-old Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had passed away peacefully at 3.18am this morning at Singapore General Hospital. If not for Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore would not have achieved what she has today. It is regrettable that he was not able to see the fruit of his labour in her full glory as the country basks in celebration over Singapore’s Golden Jubilee. Nonetheless, we’re sure he has fought till the very end, and we hope he can rest in peace. Here are 10 things to look back on in Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s life, which helped transform Singapore into the metropolis she is today.
Singapore’s first Prime Minister
In May 1959, People’s Action Party (PAP) won 43 out of 51 seats in the national elections. Mr. Lee became Singapore’s first Prime Minister in June 1959, succeeding Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock. Before assuming his position as Prime Minister, Mr. Lee ordered and procured Lim Chin Siong and Devan Nair’s release, who were both arrested by Lim Yew Hock’s government.
In 1961, Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman proposed a federation formation including Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore. Mr. Lee was in favour of this and started to campaign for the merger, putting an end to 144-year British colonial rule. The results of a referendum held in 1962 reflected 70% of the votes supporting his proposal.
Singapore and Malaysia became one on 16 September 1963. This union, however, was short-lived as the Malaysian Federal Government ruled by United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) saw PAP as a threat to the largely Malay-based political system. In 1964, racial riots between the Malays and Chinese broke out, which eventually led to Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia. Mr. Lee was dealt a heavy blow and tried to work out a consensus to no avail. He believed the merger played a pivotal part in Singapore’s survival. On 9 August 1965, Singapore gained her independence.
Improving international relations
In September 1965, Singapore joined the United Nations. Two years later, Singapore founded the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), together with four other Southeast Asian countries. In a bid to improve Singapore’s relations with other countries and attain international recognition, Mr. Lee officially visited Indonesia was in 1973 for the first time, a few years after Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia under Sukarno’s reign. Ties between Singapore and Indonesia changed for the better, with subsequent visits arranged between both countries.
Implementing National Service (NS)
Singapore, with her limited defence capability, was vulnerable to threats. Mr. Lee requested for Goh Keng Swee, Singapore’s then-Defence Minister, to establish the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Military advice was sought from other countries, especially Israel, about facilities and training. Mr. Lee introduced compulsory conscription which required all male able-bodied Singaporean citizens aged 18 and above to register for National Service (NS). NS was believed to be the best solution to build up Singapore’s defence forces without putting a heavy burden on Singapore’s manpower and financial resources.
With Singapore having immigrants from all walks of life, she did not have a unique culture for immigrants to identify with, although Malay was the main language spoken back then. Recognising this void, Mr. Lee tried to forge a unique Singaporean culture together with the government and PAP in the 1970s and 1980s. As such, Singapore’s multiculturalism was heavily shed light on as Mr. Lee and the government emphasised the importance of maintaining racial and religious harmony, with laws set in place to be reinforced should there be any threats to Singapore’s multicultural society.
Since her independence, Singapore has been reliant on Malaysia for water supply. Malaysia has been exploiting this weakness by threatening to stop Singapore’s water supply whenever tension between both countries arise. Mr. Lee knew the dire consequences this could result in and started experimenting on water recycling in 1974. In 1975, the water treatment plant was deemed too expensive and had reliability issues, resulting in its closure. In 1998, a Singapore Water Reclamation Study (NEWater Study) was proposed, to determine if Singapore could depend on NEWater as a raw water source. Singapore’s first reclaimed water plant was commissioned in 2002, ensuring her water self-sufficiency. Additionally, the introduction of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize gave recognition to outstanding contributions made towards solving global water crisis.
Stepping down as Prime Minister
Mr. Lee announced in 1984 that he would retire as Prime Minister in four year’s time when he turns 65, but held on till 1990. Mr. Lee became the world’s longest-serving prime minister (1959 – 1990). However, he remained in the cabinet with the position of Senior Minister (1990 – 2004) in an advisory role. Minister Goh Chok Tong, Singapore’s second prime minister, succeeded Mr. Lee. In November 1992, Mr. Lee stepped down as PAP’s Secretary-General and handed his position over to Goh Chok Tong. Under Mr. Lee’s leadership, PAP’s elections from 1968 – 1980 saw them winning every single seat.
As Minister Mentor
In a bid to entice the younger Singaporeans to learn and speak Mandarin, a year-long campaign titled Huayu Cool! was launched in December 2004. Mr. Lee had been concerned about the younger generations’ declining Mandarin proficiency since the 2000s, emphasising in parliament that “Singaporeans must learn to juggle English and Mandarin”. The subsequent year, he even published a book, Keeping My Mandarin Alive: Lee Kuan Yew Language Learning Experience, about his journey in relearning Mandarin, his mother tongue he had to re-master due to disuse.
In 2011, PAP’s major opposition party, the Workers’ Party, made an unprecedented Group Representation Constituency (GRC) win in the general elections. Mr. Lee then handed over the Cabinet to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
In 1999, Mr. Lee published a two-part memoir – the first being The Singapore Story about his account of Singapore’s history until 1965 when Singapore separated from Malaysia; the second being From Third World to First: The Singapore Story about Singapore’s evolution into a developed country.
Even after leaving office as Prime Minister, Mr. Lee went on to pen his personal opinions of international political and economic landscape as well as his journey before and after assuming the role of Prime Minister. In 2005, he published Keeping My Mandarin Alive.
In 2011, Mr. Lee published My Lifelong Challenge Singapore’s Bilingual Journey which describes his struggles in adopting bilingualism in a multiracial Singapore. The same year, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going was also published – it was a questions-and-answers book based on 16 interviews with Mr. Lee in 2008 – 2009.
More recently, The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew and One Man’s View of The World were released in 2013. The first contained almost 600 quotes, summarizing Mr. Lee’s opinions regarding a range of topics on Singapore and the world and the other about his experience and insight to offer opinions on today’s world and the world 20 years later.
A frail-looking Mr. Lee turned up at Singapore’s 49th National Day Parade.
In 2008, 84-year-old Mr. Lee was successfully treated for atrial flutter at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and even addressed a philanthropy forum from the hospital through a video link. In 2010, Mr. Lee was hospitalized because of a chest infection, resulting in cancellation of his plans to attend Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Balaji Sadasivan’s wake. In 2011, Mr. Lee’s daughter, Lee Wei Ling, a neurologist, divulged that he was suffering from peripheral neuropathy, in which “the nerves to his legs were not working as they should”. In 2013, after suffering a prolonged cardiac dysrhythmia, blood briefly stopped flowing to Mr. Lee’s brain and he had to be hospitalized. This resulted in his absence in the Tanjong Pagar Constituency’s annual Chinese New Year dinner – a first in his political career. The next year, a bodily bacterial invasion caused him to miss the dinner again.
The man who built Singapore
In a 1988 National Day rally, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew once said, “Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.”. His love for the nation he had built is evident – he never once missed the annual Chinese New Year dinner at his GRC until he got too sick; last year, he appeared at the National Day Parade despite his deteriorating health. Since Singapore gained her independence, Mr. Lee has been working relentlessly to take Singapore to greater heights. Under his governance, we now have a safe, clean and green Singapore we call home.