Authoritarian figure who moulded Singapore’s success

Lee Kwan Yew: September 16th, 1923 - March 23rd, 2015

Born a British subject in a malarial tropical backwater in 1923, Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, who has died aged 91, created one of the world's most successul economies by pushing the idea of the state and Confucian values of filial respect to the fore.

Lee became Singapore’s first prime minister in 1959 and ruled for more than three decades until 1990, during which period he was a nation-builder and a visionary who balanced his dream with cunning and pragmatism. He was loved by his people, whether of Chinese, Malay and Indian ethnicity, and for the most part they accepted his paternalistic approach as a way of ensuring a successful, multiracial Singapore.

Unlike his contemporaries, such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines or Suharto in Indonesia, Lee never ruled by tyranny, although in the 1960s he jailed political opponents to ensure election victories. His authoritarian approach also means that the wealthy independent Singapore he leaves behind is known for its chewing gum ban and for caning a teenage American hooligan."Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle dusters," he once famously said.

After the Japanese occupation of Singapore in 1942, the man then known as Harry Lee learned Japanese and worked for their news agency, Domei, before finding ways to collaborate with the British as the conflict came to a close. From then on, he said, neither the British nor the Japanese would be allowed to kick Singapore around again.


After the war he flew to Britain to study, graduating with a first in law at Cambridge in 1949 before returning to his tropical home fired up with anti-colonial ideas. He set up his People’s Action Party a few years later. Marriage He married his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, in 1950, although they had reportedly wed in secret in London in 1947, and he had two sons, the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and Lee Hsien Yang, and a daughter, Lee Wei Ling.

Lee shed tears on national television when Singapore was expelled from a union with Malaysia in 1965, but the expulsion seems to have inspired him. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was around €475 then, and people lived in slums with 14 per cent of the population unemployed. Half of the population was illiterate and the enclave had no natural resources.

Now Singapore has 5.47 million people, with the fastest-growing number of billionaires in the world, and its GDP is only slightly smaller than Malaysia’s even though its neighbour is 478 times bigger.

Over the years, and in many books, including autobiographies, Lee has been seen as an authoritarian Confucian, a capitalist who admired Chinese communists, the founder of the “Air-conditioned Republic”, the “Switzerland of Asia” or “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”.

Lee was unapologetic about his tough approach.“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think,” he famously wrote.

Lee was a man who regularly used criminal libel to punish dissenting views, whose respect for freedom of the press was minimal and who had no qualms about jailing his opponents. But it can also be said that he united violently opposing views to create the world’s richest nation state.

His pragmatism was legendary. Allowing casinos into his famously puritanical city-state, he cited Switzerland as a model. The move has been a success, but native Singaporeans are discouraged from attending. Eulogy Lee’s son and successor as prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, wrote a eulogy which gives insight into Lee’s early years. “Mr Lee did not set out to be a politician, let alone a statesman, as a boy. In fact, his grandfather wanted him to become an English gentleman! But events left an indelible mark on him. He had been a British subject in colonial Singapore. He had survived hardship, danger and fear in the Japanese Occupation. These life experiences drove him to fight for independence.”

In 1955, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai used a pithy insult to describe Lee, saying he was "a banana – yellow on the outside but white on the inside", but eventually he earned China's respect. Deng Xiaoping hailed him as a mentor, while current president Xi Jinping has called him an "old friend of the Chinese people", and the foreign ministry described him as a "strategist boasting oriental values and international vision". He is survived by his three children.