Apart from raising living standards and well-being of citizens, he is remembered for his far-sighted greening projects including making Singapore a garden city
By Ivan Lim
In September, Singapore marked the 100th anniversary of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew (born 16 September 1923) in full-throated praise for an iron-willed Prime Minister who turned a frightful misfortune into a dazzling success story of nation-building.
A British colony given self-government in 1959, Singapore was expelled from the federation of Malaysia in 1965 after a turbulent two-year merger marked by bitter recriminations over political and economic issues, and cut adrift from a hinterland -–and a prospective common market — leaving the polyglot of Chinese, India, Malay and Eurasian citizens of a now-independent state of two million to fend for themselves in a geo-politically divided fast-changing South-east Asia.
A key player in the political drama, the British-educated lawyer-turned politician had fought a fierce battle against his left-wing Chinese-educated home-grown opponents to bring the city-state into Malaysia to secure its future in a larger entity but found himself back to square one.
After a historic teary scene during a press conference on the political separation on Aug 9 1965, expressing his frustration at the disappointing turn of events, the Fabian socialist (one who advocates reformist and gradual transition instead of revolution to attain democratic-socialist goals) turned grief into strength by rallying the people with the mantra ‘the world does not owe you a living’ to build a new nation.
Within a span of 40 years, Mr. Lee and his lieutenants, like economist Dr. Goh Keng Swee, turned the Republic from a third into a first-world nation. The republic’s GDP rose from US$400 in 1959 to US$12,200 in 1990 and US$22,000 in 1999. In 2022, the figure was US$67,359.
The city-state’s economic take-off was powered by the open-door economic development strategy. At the same time, overall success was underpinned by a strong, stable and clean government as well as recourse to social engineering policies.
At independence in 1965 with a 14 per cent unemployment rate, compounded by the trade and job loss from Indonesian ‘konfrontasi’ against the Malaysia project.
As de-colonized nations shunned Western investors in favor of economic policies centered on import-substitution, maverick Singapore opened up to multi-national corporations. Attracted by low labor wages in the 1960s and 1970s, foreign investors set up manufacturing plants in Jurong industrial estate based on the United Nations economic adviser Albert Winsemius’s blueprint for industrialization.
The plan included upgrading labor skills and wage progression plus tripartite government- labor-management relations that underpinned Singapore’s steady move up the growth ladder.
At the end of 1971, the fledgling nation had to tackle challenges arising from the withdrawal of British military forces that not only led to job retrenchments but also raise security concerns. It took deft handling by the young Lee government to turn a crisis into opportunity by a program of conversion of the military airports and naval bases for civilian commercial uses.
Seeing that graft in public life is the bane of broken-back societies, Mr. Lee assiduously sought to run a clean and effective government. The anti-graft agency (Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau) under the Prime Ministers’ office helped to weed out wrong-doings in high places. Zero tolerance towards graft coupled with high salaries for ministers and civil servants helped the city-state achieve good governance, giving it a reputation of staying incorruptible.
LKY ruled unchallenged from 1959 to 1990 during which as secretary-general he led the ruling PAP to win the electoral mandate to govern.
Acknowledged by even staunch critics as a far-sighted leader, Mr. Lee reckoned that citizens must be given a stake in the success and prosperity of the country. The result: the majority of Singaporeans today have assets in the form of government-built apartments purchased under a home-ownership scheme. This gives them a sense of belonging and a commitment to the nation.
Few might imagine Mr. Lee as a ‘greenie’. Yet he certainly wore the badge of an environmentalist for his long-term vision of a clean, tidy and green city-state.
Not wanting to see the rise of an urban jungle as industrialization accompanied by road and building construction gathered pace in the 60 and 70s, Mr. Lee set out to soften its edges with arrays of greenery. On June 16 1963, he kick-started a greening campaign that led to the nation-wide annual Tree Planting Day on November 7. Another of his signature project was the Singapore River clean-up -– a decade-long effort that turned a once-murky water-way into a pristine stream enlivened with fish life and tourists on boat rides. Tree-lined roads from Changi Airport welcome visitors to what has become known as the Garden City.
Just as in rhapsody or melody, the distinguished 30-decade-longlong political career of the man better known by his initials LKY had its highs and lows.
In his zeal to shape Singapore in his elitist ideals, he had injected the eugenics element into his population policy. He was said to be fixated on the idea that intelligence is inherited. Thus he pursued selective breeding by encouraging marriages between graduates. This was followed by offering better educated women tax breaks and their children priority in school admissions designed to egg them to have more babies.
At the same time, less educated women were offered incentives to keep to the official Stop-At- Two policy or go for sterilization. These discriminating measures proved to be unpopular with women and were subsequently scrapped.
For a politician attuned to the Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, Mr. Lee controversially turned on its head the time-honored Fourth Estate role of the Press by harnessing it to serve his nation-building goals. Contending that unlike politicians, journalists were not elected by the people, his press policy consigned reporters and editors to play second fiddle to the elected government of the day.
He enacted far-reaching changes that ended privately-owned newspapers where editors and journalists acted as opinion-makers. Through specific provisions on share-ownership of publicly-owned media corporations he was able call the shots in editorial appointments and policies. The apparently pro-Establishment Press began getting a low global rating for independent professional journalism.
LKY ruled unchallenged from 1959 to 1990 during which as secretary-general he led the ruling PAP to win the electoral mandate to govern. However, critics who dubbed him an authoritarian, some say “benevolent dictator” attributed his success to his control of the media and use of libel suits to protect his reputation against charges of corruption by opposition candidates during elections.
Detractors also decried his use of detention laws to nip in the bud any threats to undermine the political system he has put in place. He cited this Chinese saying “To wring the neck of a chicken (in order) to scare the monkeys” to underline his pre-emptive strikes.
The 1987 the controversial Operation Spectrum security sweep attracted international and domestic concern and criticism. Mounted by the Internal Security Department two years before LKY passed the baton to the PAP’s second-generation leadership, 22 social activists, including lawyers, church lay-workers and playwrights were detained without trial and charged with acting in a Marxist conspiracy to undermine the existing social and political system.
And in a harking back to the colonial era, they were alleged to be resorting to “Communist united front tactics’’ in a move to set up a Marxist state.
The specially designed souvenir coin features Mr. Lee’s profile, the Marina Barrage signifying his vision of resilience in water resources
They had all denied the charges of involvement in a Marxist plot to subvert the state. But to this day the PAP government has stood by its case. (The detainees were eventually released.)
As a politician, LKY once declared he would rather be feared than loved ala Nicolo Machiaville, the Renaissance Italian political theorist. In his famous treatise, The Prince, Machiaville, prescribed guidelines for rulers to stay in power without the constraint of moral scruples.
Said a political observer. That is because he subscribed to the Legalism of Han Fei-zi (Tang Dynasty philosopher) which advocates unswerving rule of law to regulate people’s behavior.
The elder statesman has his admirers as well as detractors. Those who see him as a father figure shed tears and felt a sense of loss at his passing on 23 March 2015
As a sign of Mr. Lee’s popularity, more than three million Singaporeans have applied to buy a LKY 100 commemorative $10 coin. Four million pieces of the gold-plated nickel coins have been minted by the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
The specially designed souvenir coin features Mr. Lee’s profile, the Marina Barrage signifying his vision of resilience in water resources; as well as the skyline of Raffles Place financial district and the historic Fullerton building) and the National Gallery (once the Supreme Court and City Hall). The coin’s reverse side shows the state coat of arms. The rest of the coins will be offered for sale to the public, including non-Singaporeans on Dec 4.
Most of those who have applied for the LKY 100 coins as keepsakes are said to be of the older generation who had gone through the thick and thin of the post-Malaysia nation-building days with Mr. Lee. His commitment to Singapore was underscored by his determination to serve the nation till his last days. Even after stepping down as Prime Minister in 1990, he stayed on in the Cabinet as Senior Minister and as Member of Parliament of Tanjong Pagar, the ward from which he was elected in 1955. To be sure, this show of admiration by Singaporeans, young and old, does not amount to an emerging cult of personality.
As a politician, LKY once declared he would rather be feared (respected) than loved ala Nicolo Machiavelli, the Renaissance (15th-16th century) Italian political theorist. In his famous treatise, The Prince, Machiavelli, prescribed guidelines for rulers to stay in power without the constraint of moral scruples.
Interestingly, both his admirers and detractors agreed that the elder statesman had been ‘’harsh” in demolishing his political opponents.
A common view is that LKY could have been more “forgiving instead of vindictive, given his good standing with Singaporeans and no smears against his character would stand up to scrutiny. But he said: Without a clear record, it would have been an unnecessary hazard. Because I did this (sued for defamation) and also gave the damages awarded to deserving charities, I kept my standing with our people.” (Memoirs of LKY -From Third World To First)
Overall, most Singaporeans would credit LKY as a leader who had done more good than bad.
This was consistent with the Legalism of Han Fei-zi (Tang Dynasty philosopher) who advocated unswerving rule of law to regulate people’s behavior, according to a commentator who witnessed the LKY’s stewardship of the nation from Malaysia to independence.
Overall, most Singaporeans would credit LKY as a leader who had done more good than bad.
(Background: A returned scholar from the United Kingdom, Mr. Lee had joined the home-grown anti-colonial struggle spearheaded by Chinese-educated trade unionist Lim Chin Siong. Initially tapped as legal adviser to the unions, he soon expanded his power base by co-founding the People’s Action Party (PAP) with Mr. Lim. It was to be a short-lived partnership.
The duo fell out over differences in terms for merger in a federation of Malaysia comprising Singapore, Malaya, Sarawak, Sabah (formerly North Borneo) and Brunei. Mr. Lim and his left-leaning socialist team formed Barisan Sosialis to vie with Mr. Lee and his democrat socialist group.
Things came to a head on Dec 8, 1962 when rebels led by Mr. A.M Azahari organised an armed revolt against Brunei joining the Federation. The open support by the BS for the rebellion and Mr. Lim’s alleged secret meeting with Mr. Azahari fanned fears of violence by communists in Singapore. On Feb 2, 1963, a security sweep code-named Operation Cold Store was mounted by the British, Singapore and Malaysian authorities that netted 100 left-wing activists, including Mr. Lim.
The man, who Mr. Lee introduced to Singapore’s first Chief Minister David Marshall as the future Prime Minister of Singapore, languished in prison from 1963 to 1969. A year later, he renounced politics and went into political exile in UK.
Mr. Lim died of a heart attack in 1996 at the age of 63 in Singapore after his return with his family from UK in 1979.)
Mr. Ivan Lim is a senior journalist of Singapore. He is the former President of South Korea-based Asia Journalists Association AJA.