Lee Kuan Yew
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Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew.jpg
Lee Kuan Yew in 2002
1st Prime Minister of Singapore

5 June 1959[1] - 28 November 1990
PresidentYusof Ishak
Benjamin Sheares
Devan Nair
Wee Kim Wee
GovernorSir William Goode
DeputyToh Chin Chye
Goh Keng Swee
S Rajaratnam
Goh Chok Tong
Ong Teng Cheong
Lim Yew Hock (as Chief Minister)
Goh Chok Tong
Minister Mentor of Singapore

12 August 2004 - 21 May 2011
Lee Hsien Loong
Position established
Position abolished
2nd Senior Minister of Singapore

28 November 1990 - 12 August 2004
Goh Chok Tong
S. Rajaratnam
Goh Chok Tong
1st Secretary-General of the People's Action Party

21 November 1954 - 1 November 1992
Position established
Goh Chok Tong
Member of Parliament
for Tanjong Pagar GRC
Tanjong Pagar SMC (1965-1991)

9 August 1965 - 23 March 2015
Parliament established
Indranee Thurai Rajah
Member of the Legislative Assembly for Tanjong Pagar

2 April 1955 - 9 August 1965
Constituency established
Legislative Assembly renamed to Parliament of Singapore
Member of the Malaysian Parliament for Singapore

2 November 1963[2] - 9 August 1965
1st Leader of the Opposition of Singapore

22 April 1955 - 31 March 1959
Position established
Lim Yew Hock
Personal details
Harry Lee Kuan Yew

(1923-09-16)16 September 1923
Singapore, Straits Settlements
Died23 March 2015(2015-03-23) (aged 91)
Singapore General Hospital, Singapore
Cause of deathPneumonia
Resting placeMandai Crematorium
Political partyPeople's Action Party (1955-2015)
Kwa Geok Choo
(m. 1950; died 2010)
MotherChua Jim Neo (mother)
FatherLee Chin Koon (father)
Alma materRaffles Institution
London School of Economics
Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew (Chinese characters).svg
Lee's name in Chinese characters

Lee Kuan Yew GCMG CH SPMJ (16 September 1923 - 23 March 2015), commonly referred to by his initials LKY and sometimes referred to in his earlier years as Harry Lee, was the first Prime Minister of Singapore, governing for three decades. Lee is recognised as the nation's founding father, with the country described as transitioning from the "third world country to first world country in a single generation" under his leadership.[3][4][5]

After attending the London School of Economics, Lee graduated from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, with double starred-first-class honours in law. He became a barrister of the Middle Temple in 1950, and practised law until 1959. Lee co-founded the People's Action Party (PAP) in 1954 and was its first secretary-general until 1992, leading the party to eight consecutive victories. After Lee chose to step down as Prime Minister in 1990, he served as Senior Minister under his successor Goh Chok Tong until 2004, then as Minister Mentor (an advisory post) until 2011, under his own son Lee Hsien Loong. In total, Lee held successive ministerial positions for 56 years. He continued to serve his Tanjong Pagar constituency for nearly 60 years as a member of parliament until his death in 2015.[6][7] From 1991, he helmed the five-member Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency and remained unopposed for a record five elections.

Lee campaigned for Britain to relinquish its colonial rule, and eventually attained through a national referendum to merge with other former British territories to form Malaysia in 1963. However, racial strife and ideological differences led to its separation to become a sovereign city-state two years later. With overwhelming parliamentary control at every election, Lee oversaw Singapore's transformation from a British crown colony with a natural deep harbour to a developed economy. In the process, he forged a system of meritocratic, highly effective and incorrupt government and civil service. Many of his policies are now taught at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Lee eschewed populist policies in favour of long-term social and economic planning. He championed meritocracy and multiracialism as governing principles, making English the common language to integrate its immigrant society and to facilitate trade with the West, whilst mandating bilingualism in schools to preserve students' mother tongue and ethnic identity.

Lee's rule was criticised for curtailing civil liberties (media control and limits on public protests) and bringing libel suits against political opponents. He argued that such disciplinary measures were necessary for political stability which, together with the rule of law, were essential for economic progress,[8][9] once saying: "Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society".[10] He died of pneumonia on 23 March 2015, aged 91. In a week of national mourning, 1.7 million residents and guests paid tribute to him at his lying-in-state at Parliament House and at community tribute sites around the island.[11]

Family background

Lee was a fourth-generation Singaporean of ethnic Chinese ancestry of mostly Hakka and Peranakan descent.[12] His Hakka great-grandfather, Lee Bok Boon, born in 1846, emigrated from Dabu County, Guangdong, China, to Singapore in 1863.[13] He married a shopkeeper's daughter, Seow Huan Nio, but returned to China in 1882, leaving behind his wife and three children. He died just two years after his return.[14][15] Lee Kuan Yew's grandfather Lee Hoon Leong, was born in Singapore in 1871. He was educated in English at Raffles Institution, and graduated with the top mark among Malay and other Singaporean students in the school. Lee Hoon Leong then worked as a dispenser, an unqualified pharmacist, and later as a purser on a steamship of the Heap Eng Moh Shipping Line, then owned by a Chinese Indonesian businessman, Oei Tiong Ham.[13]

While working as a purser, Lee Hoon Leong, aged 26, married 16-year-old Ko Liem Nio, an Indonesian Peranakan,[16] in Semarang, Java, Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).[14] It was an arranged marriage, as was then the custom. Both families were middle-class, and the bride and groom were both English-educated. Lee Hoon Leong's maternal grandfather owned the Katong market, a few rubber estates and houses at Orchard Road.[15] Lee Hoon Leong eventually became managing director of the Heap Eng Moh Steamship Company Ltd.[13]

Lee Hoon Leong had two wives, which was common at that time, and fathered five daughters and three sons. His son Lee Chin Koon was educated in English too. He married Chua Jim Neo, a Peranakan,[17] who gave birth to Lee Kuan Yew, their first child, in 1923, in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew had three younger brothers: Dennis Lee Kim Yew (1925-2003; lawyer and member of Lee & Lee), Freddy Lee Thiam Yew (1927-2012; former Chairman of stockbroker J Ballas and Company)[18] and Dr Lee Suan Yew (President of Singapore Medical Council); and one younger sister, Monica Lee Kim Mon.[13] Like Lee Kuan Yew, his brother Dennis read law at the University of Cambridge, and they set up a law firm, Lee & Lee. Edmund W. Barker, Lee's close friend, also joined the law firm. Lee and Barker later left the law firm to enter politics. Lee's brother Freddy became a stockbroker; another brother, Suan Yew, read medicine at the University of Cambridge and opened a successful practice.[13]

Lee Kuan Yew's grandfathers' wealth declined considerably during the Great Depression. However, his father had a secure job as a shopkeeper at Shell, where he was eventually promoted to depot manager and provided with a chauffeured car and house.[15][19] His aunt, Lee Choo Neo, was the first female doctor to practice in Singapore.[20] Lee Kuan Yew once described his father as a man who affected his family negatively due to his nasty temper, and Lee learned from a young age to keep his temper in check.[21]

Personal life

Lee's English-educated parents named him 'Kuan Yew', which stands for 'light and brightness', with an alternate meaning 'bringing great glory to one's ancestors'. His paternal grandfather gave him the English name 'Harry'.[22]

Lee and his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, were married on 30 September 1950. Both spoke English as their first language; Lee first started learning Chinese in 1955, aged 32.[23][24] He learned Japanese as an adult, and worked as a Japanese translator during the Japanese occupation of Singapore.[13][25]

Lee and Kwa had two sons and a daughter.[26] Lee's elder son Lee Hsien Loong, a former Brigadier-General, became Prime Minister of Singapore in 2004. Several members of Lee's family hold prominent positions in Singaporean society. His younger son Lee Hsien Yang is likewise a former Brigadier-General, and former President and chief executive officer (CEO) of SingTel. He was the Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS).[27] Lee's daughter, Lee Wei Ling, is the head of the National Neuroscience Institute. Lee Hsien Loong's wife, Ho Ching, is the Executive Director and CEO of Temasek Holdings.[27][28] Kwa Geok Choo died on 2 October 2010.

His grandson, Lee Hsien Yang's second son, Li Huanwu, is openly gay, having married his partner, Heng Yirui, at a ceremony in South Africa on 24 May 2019 [1].


In 1931, Lee Kuan Yew studied at Telok Kurau English School in Singapore. He described his schoolmates at Telok Kurau as generally poor and not very bright. He then attended Raffles Institution in 1935, where he had difficulties keeping up because he met the top 150 students from all over Singapore. Lee joined the Scouts for three years, played cricket, tennis, and chess, and debated for the school. He obtained several scholarships, and came top in the School Certificate examinations in 1940, gaining the John Anderson scholarship to attend Raffles College (now Raffles Institution Junior College). Lee's future wife, Kwa Geok Choo, was his classmate and the only girl at Raffles Institution at that time. Kwa, who was a brilliant student herself, was the only one to beat his scores in the English and economics subjects.[13] Another classmate at Raffles was Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok.[33]

Lee's university education was delayed by World War II and the Japanese occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945. After the war, Lee went on to study in England. He briefly attended London School of Economics as enrolment at University of Cambridge had already closed. He related that London overwhelmed him and he sought the more pleasant surroundings of Cambridge, where he read law at Fitzwilliam College. A fellow Raffles College student introduced him to the Censor of Fitzwilliam House, W. S. Thatcher, who admitted him for the 1947 Lent term. He matriculated in January 1947.

Lee graduated First Class in both parts of the Tripos with an exceptional Starred-First for Part II Law in 1949; this placed him at the very top of his cohort, and he was awarded the Fitzwilliam's Whitlock Prize. The college said he was placed above two contemporaries who later became Professors of Law in Cambridge. Lee was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1950. In 1969, he was elected an honorary fellow of Fitzwilliam College and was the most senior of the College's Honorary Fellows for many years. In 1971, Lee gave the Foundation Lecture - "East and West: the twain have met".[15]

Early life

Lee experienced hardship during the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945. During the war, Lee learnt Japanese and first worked as a SAS (Singapore Administration Service) officer in Sentosa islands where he listened to Allied radio stations and wrote down what they were reporting in the Hodobu office ( - a Japanese propaganda department).[34] Towards the end of the war, by listening to Allied radio stations, he realised the Japanese were losing the war, and fearing that a brutal war would break out in Singapore as the Japanese made their last stand, he made plans to purchase and move to a farm on the Cameron Highlands with his family. However, a liftboy in his office told him his file had been taken out by the security department, and he realised he was being followed by Japanese security personnel (which continued for three months), so he abandoned those plans as he knew if he went ahead, he would be in trouble. Lee set up private small enterprises during the war to survive; among which was one that manufactured stationery glue, branded as "Stikfas".[15][35][36]

Lee had a near-miss with a Japanese Occupation atrocity. The Japanese army was rounding up Chinese men for questioning and Lee was told to fall in and join the segregated Chinese men. Sensing that something was amiss, he asked for permission to return home to collect his clothes first, and the Japanese guard agreed. It turned out that those who were segregated were taken to the beach to be shot as part of the Sook Ching massacre.[13][37] The Japanese occupation had a profound impact on the young Lee, who recalled being slapped and forced to kneel for failing to bow to a Japanese soldier. He and other young Singaporeans "emerged determined that no one--neither Japanese nor British--had the right to push and kick us around ... (and) that we could govern ourselves." The occupation also drove home lessons about raw power and the effectiveness of harsh punishment in deterring crime.[38]

After the war, whilst studying in England, Lee campaigned for a friend named David Widdicombe, who was in the Labour Party. He drove Widdicombe around in a lorry and delivered several speeches on his behalf. Widdicombe lost the election in 1950, but went on to become a member of the Inner Temple with Lee.[39] After seeing how the British had failed to defend Singapore from the Japanese, and after his stay in England, Lee decided that Singapore had to govern itself. He returned to Singapore in 1949.[13][15] He also decided to omit his English name, Harry, and simply be known as Lee Kuan Yew,[40] although until the end of his life, old comrades and English friends would still refer to him as Harry Lee.

Early political career (1951-1959)

In his memoirs, Lee recounted that he had intended to return to Singapore to work as a lawyer. Upon his return, Lee worked in John Laycock's law firm for $500 per month (equivalent to about $2500 in 2017). He also worked as a legal advisor to the trade and students' unions.[13] His first experience with politics in Singapore was his role as election agent for Laycock under the banner of the pro-British Progressive Party in the 1951 legislative council elections.[13]

Fajar trial

Lee was the junior counsel for the Fajar trial in May 1954 when members of the University Socialist Club were arrested for publishing an article considered seditious in the club's magazine The Fajar. One story is that it was Lee who invited the lead counsel D. N. Pritt to defend the students, although this was denied by Club members. Lee gained a widespread reputation through the victory of the trial, the first sedition trial in Colonial post-war Malaya. The Straits Times on 26 August 1954 proclaimed this a "tremendous victory for freedom of speech". At the same time, Lee was accepted by most Singaporeans as the "hero of high". Furthermore, the co-operation between Lee and the Club members strengthened their relationship which was significant for Lee's future political career and the founding of the PAP.[41][42][43]

Formation of the People's Action Party

Lee Kuan Yew's opportunity to formally enter politics came when members of the Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Union launched anti-colonial, non-violent protests against the enactment of the national service ordinance law on 13 May 1954.[44][45][46] Forty-six[47] to sixty[48] students were arrested after an initial use of violence by members of the police riot squad. The student arrests gave rise to Lee's reputation as a "left-wing lawyer"[49] which provided a path for Lee into Singaporean politics through the Communist Party of Malaya.[50]

Coincidentally, the People's Action Party (PAP) was officially inaugurated on 12 November 1954.[51] Together with a group of fellow English-educated middle-class men whom he described as "beer-swilling bourgeois", Lee formed the socialist PAP in an expedient alliance with the pro-communist trade unionists. This alliance was described by Lee as a marriage of convenience since his English-speaking group needed the Chinese-speaking majority's mass support base.[14] Their common aim was to struggle for self-government and put an end to British colonial rule.

An inaugural conference was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall, attended by over 1,500 supporters and trade unionists. Lee became secretary-general, a post he held until 1992, save for a brief period in 1957.[14]

In opposition

Lee Kuan Yew won the Tanjong Pagar seat in the 1955 elections. He became the opposition leader against David Saul Marshall's Labour Front-led coalition government. He was also one of PAP's representatives to the two constitutional discussions held in London over the future status of Singapore, the first led by Marshall and the second by Lim Yew Hock, Marshall's hardline successor. It was during this period that Lee had to contend with rivals from both within and outside the PAP.[14]

Lee's position in the PAP was seriously under threat in 1957 when pro-communists took over the leadership posts, following a party conference which the party's left wing had stacked with fake members.[52] Fortunately for Lee and the party's moderate faction, Lim Yew Hock ordered a mass arrest of the pro-communists and Lee was reinstated as secretary-general. After the communist "scare", Lee subsequently received a new, stronger mandate from his Tanjong Pagar constituents in a by-election in 1957.[53]

Prime Minister, pre-independence (1959-1965)

Self-government administration (1959-1963)

In the national elections held on 30 May 1959, the PAP won 43 of the 51 seats in the legislative assembly. Singapore gained self-government with autonomy in all state matters except defence and foreign affairs, and Lee became the first Prime Minister of Singapore on 5 June 1959, taking over from Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock.[54]

PAP split of 1961

In 1961, former PAP minister and Mayor of Singapore after PAP's victory in the 1957 Singapore City Council election, Ong Eng Guan resigned his parliamentary seat of Hong Lim, filing the famous "16 resolutions" in the legislative assembly against the government and challenged the PAP to defeat him there after his sacking from the cabinet. He had been expelled by the party after making open disputes with his Cabinet colleagues, including over the abolishment of the City Council when he was the last Mayor. Two other PAP members had followed him to join his faction and resigned from the party but did not resign their seats with Ong. Ong stood as an independent and he won the Hong Lim by-election defeating PAP candidate Jek Yeun Thong, which proved a blow to the PAP for the leaders had campaigned non-stop for Jek but Ong was too popular in the Chinese community and so Jek lost the elections.

Later that year another by-election was held after the death of the incumbent PAP member Baharuddin Mohammed Ariff in the constituency of Anson on 15 July 1961 which saw the political return of former Labour Front chief minister David Marshall, now Workers' Party (WP) leader.

Two days after the Anson result, Lee assumed full responsibility for the two election setbacks and resigned as prime minister to PAP chairman Toh Chin Chye, only for Toh to reject it.

On 21 July 1961, Lee then moved a motion of confidence in his own government five days after the Anson by election. The motion was agreed to with 27 "Ayes", 8 "Noes" and 16 abstentions. The members who voted "No" included David Marshall and members of the Singapore People's Alliance. 13 allegedly pro-communist PAP members and 3 members of Ong Eng Guan's UPP abstained.

Lee's view was that the PAP members who did not vote for his motion would be expelled for breaking ranks and pulling support away to Communist opponents and he did so, sacking the 13 abstainees and reducing his assembly majority to 1. Together with six prominent left-leaning leaders from trade unions, the breakaway members established a new party, the Barisan Sosialis. 35 of 51 branches of the PAP and 19 of 23 branch secretaries defected to Barisan.

Merger with Malaysia (1963-1965)

Lee Kuan Yew declaring the forming of the Federation of Malaysia on 16 September 1963 in Singapore

Lead up to merger

Independence of Singapore from Britain through merger with the Federation of Malaya had been the PAP's platform since its founding in 1954. Merger was supported both by the non-communists and the communists in the PAP. So when the PAP won a strong mandate in the 1959 General Election, it pursued merger vigorously.

After Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman proposed the formation of a federation which would include Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak in 1961, Lee began to campaign for a merger to end British colonial rule. The communists made a startling about-turn and were determined to derail merger, even though they had all along insisted that Malaya and Singapore were one entity. Chin Peng, leader of the Malayan Communist Party made it clear that the it wished to sabotage merger or delay its implementation at that stage.

Lee explained in a series of radio broadcasts in 1961 that the communists and Barisan Sosialis opposed merger because they wanted to establish control over Singapore so they could subsequently subvert and take over Malaya. The radio talks won over public opinion in favour of merger on the terms proposed by Lee's government. Lee would use the results of a referendum held on 1 September 1962, in which 70% of the votes were cast in support of his merger proposal, to demonstrate that the people supported his plan; most of the other votes were blank, as Lee had not allowed a "No" option.[55]

From merger to separation

On 16 September 1963, Singapore became part of the new Federation of Malaysia. However, the union was short-lived. The Malaysian central government, ruled by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), became worried by the inclusion of Singapore's Chinese majority and the political challenge of the PAP in Malaysia.

The 1964 race riots in Singapore followed, such as that on 21 July 1964 near Kallang Gasworks in which 23 people were killed and hundreds injured as Chinese and Malays attacked each other. It is still disputed how the riots started, and theories include a bottle being thrown into a Muslim rally by a Chinese, while others have argued that it was started by a Malay. More riots broke out in September 1964, as rioters looted cars and shops, forcing both Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee to make public appearances to calm the situation.

Unable to resolve the crisis, Tunku Abdul Rahman decided to expel Singapore from Malaysia, choosing to "sever all ties with a State Government that showed no measure of loyalty to its Central Government". Lee refused and tried to work out a compromise, but without success. He was later convinced by Goh Keng Swee that the secession was inevitable.[56] Lee signed a separation agreement on 7 August 1965, which discussed Singapore's post-separation relations with Malaysia in order to continue co-operation in areas such as trade and mutual defence.

The failure of the merger was a blow to Lee, who believed that it was crucial for Singapore's survival. In a televised press conference that day, he fought back tears[57] and briefly stopped to regain his composure as he formally announced the separation and the full independence of Singapore to an anxious population:

[E]very time we look back on this moment when we signed this agreement which severed Singapore from Malaysia, it will be a moment of anguish. For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life. [...] [Y]ou see, the whole of my adult life [...] I have believed in Malaysian merger and the unity of these two territories. You know, it's a people connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship.[58]

On that same day on 9 August 1965, just as the press conference ended, the Malaysian parliament passed the required resolution that would sever Singapore's ties to Malaysia as a state and the Republic of Singapore was created.

Singapore's lack of natural resources, a water supply that was derived primarily from Malaysia and a very limited defensive capability were the major challenges which Lee and the nascent Singaporean government faced.[59]

Prime Minister, post-independence (1965-1990)

Lee Kuan Yew and Frank Kitts, Mayor of Wellington City in 1965

Despite the momentous event, Lee did not call for the parliament to convene to reconcile issues that Singapore would face immediately as a new nation. Without giving further instructions on who should act in his absence, he went into isolation for six weeks, unreachable by phone, on a Singapore island. According to Dr. Toh Chin Chye, the parliament hung in suspended animation until the sitting in December that year.[60][60]

Lee Kuan Yew and his wife Kwa Geok Choo with United States President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Reagan on 8 October 1985

In his memoirs, Lee said that he was unable to sleep. Upon learning of Lee's condition from the British High Commissioner to Singapore, John Robb, the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, expressed concern, in response to which Lee replied:

Do not worry about Singapore. My colleagues and I are sane, rational people even in our moments of anguish. We will weigh all possible consequences before we make any move on the political chessboard.[61]

Lee began to seek international recognition of Singapore's independence. Singapore joined the United Nations on 21 September 1965, and founded the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 8 August 1967 with four other South-East Asian countries. Lee made his first official visit to Indonesia on 25 May 1973, just a few years after the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation under Sukarno's regime. Relations between Singapore and Indonesia substantially improved as subsequent visits were made between the two countries.

Singapore has never had a dominant culture to which immigrants could assimilate even though Malay was the dominant language at that time.[62] Together with efforts from the government and ruling party, Lee tried to create a unique Singaporean identity in the 1970s and 1980s--one which heavily recognised racial consciousness within the umbrella of multiculturalism.

Lee and his government stressed the importance of maintaining religious tolerance and racial harmony, and they were ready to use the law to counter any threat that might incite ethnic and religious violence. For example, Lee warned against "insensitive evangelisation", by which he referred to instances of Christian proselytising directed at Malays. In 1974 the government advised the Bible Society of Singapore to stop publishing religious material in Malay.[63]

Decisions and policies

National security

The vulnerability of Singapore was deeply felt, with threats from multiple sources including the communists and Indonesia with its confrontational stance. As Singapore gained admission to the United Nations, Lee quickly sought international recognition of Singapore's independence. He appointed Goh Keng Swee as Minister for the Interior and Defence to build up the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and requested help from other countries, particularly Israel and Taiwan (ROC), for advice, training and facilities.[64] In 1967, Lee introduced conscription whereby all able-bodied male Singaporean citizens age 18 and above are required to serve National Service (NS) either in the Singapore Armed Forces, Singapore Police Force or the Singapore Civil Defence Force. By 1971, Singapore had 17 national service battalions (16,000 men) with 14 battalions (11,000 men) in the reserves.[65] In 1975, Lee managed to convince then-Premier Chiang Ching-kuo of Taiwan (ROC) to permit Singaporean troops to train in Taiwan, under the codename "Exercise Starlight".[66]


One of Lee's most urgent tasks upon Singapore's independence was to address high unemployment. Tourism helped but did not completely resolve the unemployment problem. Together with his economic aide, Economic Development Board chairman Hon Sui Sen, and in consultation with Dutch economist Albert Winsemius, Lee set up factories and initially focused on the manufacturing industry. Before the British completely withdrew from Singapore in 1971, Lee also persuaded the British not to destroy their dock and had the British naval dockyard later converted for civilian use.

After years of trial and error, Lee and his cabinet decided the best way to boost Singapore's economy was to attract foreign investments from multinational corporations (MNCs). By establishing First World infrastructure and standards in Singapore, the new nation could woo American, Japanese and European entrepreneurs and professionals to set up base there. By the 1970s, the arrival of MNCs like Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard and General Electric laid the foundations, turning Singapore into a major electronics exporter the following decade.[67] Workers were frequently retrained to familiarise themselves with the work systems and cultures of foreign MNCs. The government also started several new industries, such as steel mills under 'National Iron and Steel Mills', service industries like Neptune Orient Lines, and the Singapore Airlines.[68]

Lee and his cabinet also worked to establish Singapore as an international financial centre. Foreign bankers were assured of the reliability of Singapore's social conditions, with top-class infrastructure and skilled professionals, and investors were made to understand that the Singapore government would pursue sound macroeconomic policies, with budget surpluses, leading to a stable valued Singapore dollar.[69]

Throughout the tenure of his office, Lee always placed great importance on developing the economy, and his attention to detail on this aspect went even to the extent of connecting it with other facets of Singapore, including the country's extensive and meticulous tending of its international image of being a "Garden City",[70] something that has been sustained to this day.

Anti-corruption measures

Singapore had problems with political corruption. Lee introduced legislation giving the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) greater power to conduct arrests, search, call up witnesses, and investigate bank accounts and income-tax returns of suspected persons and their families.[71] Lee believed that ministers should be well paid in order to maintain a clean and honest government. On 21 November 1986, Lee received a complaint of corruption against then Minister for National Development Teh Cheang Wan.[72] Lee was against corruption and he authorised the CPIB to carry out investigations on Teh but Teh committed suicide before any charges could be pressed against him.[73] In 1994, he proposed to link the salaries of ministers, judges, and top civil servants to the salaries of top professionals in the private sector, arguing that this would help recruit and retain talent to serve in the public sector.[74]

Population policies

In the late 1960s, fearing that Singapore's growing population might overburden the developing economy, Lee started a "Stop at Two" family planning campaign. Couples were urged to undergo sterilisation after their second child. Third or fourth children were given lower priorities in education and such families received fewer economic rebates.[74]

In 1983, Lee sparked the "Great Marriage Debate" when he encouraged Singapore men to choose highly educated women as wives.[75] He was concerned that a large number of graduate women were unmarried.[76] Some sections of the population, including graduate women, were upset by his views.[76] Nevertheless, a match-making agency, the Social Development Unit (SDU),[77] was set up to promote socialising among men and women graduates.[74] In the Graduate Mothers Scheme, Lee also introduced incentives such as tax rebates, schooling, and housing priorities for graduate mothers who had three or four children, in a reversal of the over-successful "Stop at Two" family planning campaign in the 1960s and 1970s.

Some sections of the population, including graduate women, were upset by the views of Lee, who had questioned that perhaps the campaign for women's rights had been too successful:

Equal employment opportunities, yes, but we shouldn't get our women into jobs where they cannot, at the same time, be mothers...our most valuable asset is in the ability of our people, yet we are frittering away this asset through the unintended consequences of changes in our education policy and equal career opportunities for women. This has affected their traditional role ... as mothers, the creators and protectors of the next generation.

-- Lee Kuan Yew, "Talent for the future", 14 August 1983[78]

The uproar over the proposal led to a swing of 12.9 percent against the PAP government in the 1984 general election. In 1985, especially controversial portions of the policy that gave education and housing priorities to educated women were eventually abandoned or modified.[79][74]

By the late 1990s, the birth rate had fallen so low that Lee's successor Goh Chok Tong extended these incentives to all married women, and gave even more incentives, such as the "baby bonus" scheme.[74]

Corporal punishment

One of Lee's abiding beliefs was in the efficacy of corporal punishment in the form of caning.[80] In his autobiography The Singapore Story, Lee described his time at Raffles Institution in the 1930s, mentioning that he was caned there for chronic lateness by the then headmaster, D. W. McLeod. He wrote: "I bent over a chair and was given three of the best with my trousers on. I did not think he lightened his strokes. I have never understood why Western educationists are so much against corporal punishment. It did my fellow students and me no harm".[81]

Lee's government inherited judicial corporal punishment from British rule, but greatly expanded its scope. Under the British, it had been used as a penalty for offences involving personal violence, amounting to a handful of caning sentences per year. The PAP government under Lee extended its use to an ever-expanding range of crimes.[82] By 1993, it was mandatory for 42 offences and optional for a further 42.[83] Those routinely ordered by the courts to be caned now include drug addicts and illegal immigrants. From 602 canings in 1987, the figure rose to 3,244 in 1993[84] and to 6,404 in 2007.[85]

In 1994, judicial caning was intensely publicised in the rest of the world when an American teenager, Michael P. Fay, was caned under the vandalism legislation.[80]

School corporal punishment (for male students only) was likewise inherited from the British, and this is in widespread use to discipline disobedient schoolboys, still under legislation from 1957.[86] Lee also introduced caning in the Singapore Armed Forces, and Singapore is one of the few countries in the world where corporal punishment is an official penalty in military discipline.[87]

Water resources in Singapore

Singapore has traditionally relied on water from Malaysia. However, this reliance has made Singapore subject to the possibility of price increases and allowed Malaysian officials to use the water reliance as a political leverage by threatening to cut off supply. To reduce this problem, Lee decided to experiment with water recycling in 1974.[88] However, the water treatment plant was closed in 1975 due to cost and reliability issues. In 1998, the Public Utilities Board (PUB) and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) initiated the Singapore Water Reclamation Study (NEWater Study). The aim was to determine if NEWater was a viable source of raw water for Singapore's needs. In 2001, PUB initiated efforts to increase water supplies for non-potable use. Using NEWater for these would help reduce the demand on the reservoirs for potable water.

The Singapore International Water Week was started in 2008; it focused on sustainable water solutions for cities. The Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize was introduced in recognition given to outstanding contributions towards solving global water crisis. The prize has become an international award given out to individuals and groups worldwide.

Relations with Malaysia

Mahathir Mohamad

Lee looked forward to improving relationships with Mahathir Mohamad upon the latter's promotion to Deputy Prime Minister. Knowing that Mahathir was in line to become the next Prime Minister of Malaysia, Lee invited Mahathir (through Singapore President Devan Nair) to visit Singapore in 1978. The first and subsequent visits improved both personal and diplomatic relationships between them. Then UMNO's Secretary-General Mahathir asked Lee to cut off all links with Democratic Action Party; in exchange, Mahathir undertook not to interfere in the affairs of Malay Singaporeans.[]

In June 1988, Lee and Mahathir reached an agreement in Kuala Lumpur to build the Linggui dam on the Johor River.[89]

Following Lee's death, Mahathir posted a blog post that suggested his respect for Lee despite their differences, stating that while "I am afraid on most other issues we could not agree [...] [h]is passage marks the end of the period when those who fought for independence lead their countries and knew the value of independence. Asean lost a strong leadership after President Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew".[90]

Senior Minister (1990-2004)

Lee Kuan Yew (middle) meets with United States Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Singapore's Ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee in 2000

After leading the PAP to victory in seven elections, Lee stepped down on 28 November 1990, handing over the prime ministership to Goh Chok Tong.[91] At that point in time he had become the world's longest-serving prime minister.[92] This was the first leadership transition since independence. Goh was elected as the new Prime Minister by the younger ministers then in office.[93]

When Goh Chok Tong became head of government, Lee remained in the cabinet with a non-executive position of Senior Minister and played a role he described as advisory. In public, Lee would refer to Goh as "my Prime Minister", in deference to Goh's authority.

Lee subsequently stepped down as Secretary-General of the PAP and was succeeded by Goh Chok Tong in November 1992.

Minister Mentor (2004-2011)

From the decade of the 2000s, Lee expressed concern about the declining proficiency of Mandarin among younger Chinese Singaporeans. In one of his parliamentary speeches, he said: "Singaporeans must learn to juggle English and Mandarin". Subsequently, in December 2004, Lee stepped down to another level, becoming a minister mentor and a year-long campaign called Cool! (Huayu Cool!) was launched, in an attempt to attract young viewers to learn and speak Mandarin.[94]

In June 2005, Lee published a book, Keeping My Mandarin Alive, documenting his decades of effort to master Mandarin, a language that he said he had to re-learn due to disuse:

[B]ecause I don't use it so much, therefore it gets disused and there's language loss. Then I have to revive it. It's a terrible problem because learning it in adult life, it hasn't got the same roots in your memory.

In an interview with China Central Television (CCTV) on 12 June 2005, Lee stressed the need to have a continuous renewal of talent in the country's leadership, saying:

In a different world we need to find a niche for ourselves, little corners where in spite of our small size we can perform a role which will be useful to the world. To do that, you will need people at the top, decision-makers who have got foresight, good minds, who are open to ideas, who can seize opportunities like we did. [...] My job really was to find my successors. I found them, they are there; their job is to find their successors. So there must be this continuous renewal of talented, dedicated, honest, able people who will do things not for themselves but for their people and for their country. If they can do that, they will carry on for another one generation and so it goes on. The moment that breaks, it's gone.

On 13 September 2008, Lee underwent successful treatment for abnormal heart rhythm (atrial flutter) at Singapore General Hospital, but he was still able to address a philanthropy forum via video link from hospital.[95] On 28 September 2010, he was hospitalised for a chest infection, cancelling plans to attend the wake of the Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Balaji Sadasivan.[96]

In November 2010, Lee's private conversations with James Steinberg, US Deputy Secretary of State, on 30 May 2009 were among the US Embassy cables leaked by WikiLeaks. In a US Embassy report classified as "Secret", Lee gave his assessment of a number of Asian leaders and views on political developments in North Asia, including implications for nuclear proliferation.[97] Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed deep concern about the leaks, especially when read out of context, and the need to protect confidentiality of diplomatic correspondence.[98]

In January 2011, the Straits Times Press published the book Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going.[99] Targeted at younger Singaporeans, it was based on 16 interviews with Lee by seven local journalists in 2008-2009. The first print run of 45,000 copies sold out in less than a month after it was launched in January 2011. Another batch of 55,000 copies was made available shortly after.[100]

After the 2011 general elections in which the Workers' Party, a major opposition political party in Singapore, made unprecedented gains by winning a Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Lee announced that he decided to leave the Cabinet for the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and his team to have a clean slate.[101]


In a column in the Sunday Times on 6 November 2011, Lee's daughter Lee Wei Ling revealed that her father suffered from peripheral neuropathy.[102] In the column, she recounted how she first noticed her father's ailments when she accompanied him to meet the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Connecticut in October 2009. Wei Ling, a neurologist, "did a few simple neurological tests and decided the nerves to his legs were not working as they should". A day later, when interviewed at a constituency tree-planting event, Lee stated "I have no doubt at all that this has not affected my mind, my will nor my resolve" and that "people in wheel chairs can make a contribution. I've still got two legs, I will make a contribution".[103]

Illness and death

On 15 February 2013, Lee was admitted to Singapore General Hospital after suffering a prolonged cardiac dysrhythmia which was followed by a brief stoppage of blood flow to the brain.[104][105][106][107] For the first time in his career as a politician, Lee missed the annual Chinese New Year dinner at his Tanjong Pagar Constituency, where he was supposed to be the guest-of-honour.[108][109] He was subsequently discharged, but continued to receive anti-coagulant therapy.[110][111][112]

National Flag at half-mast at Nanyang Technological University following the death of Lee Kuan Yew
Flags at half-staff at Singapore Management University following the death of Lee Kuan Yew

The following year, Lee missed his constituency's Chinese New Year dinner for the second consecutive time owing to bodily bacterial invasion.[113] In April 2014, a photo depicting a cadaverous Lee was released online, drawing strong reactions from netizens.[114]

On 5 February 2015, Lee was hospitalised and was put on a ventilator at the intensive care unit of Singapore General Hospital, although his condition was reported initially as "stable".[115][116] A 26 February update stated that he was again being given antibiotics, while being sedated and still under mechanical ventilation.[117][118] From 17 to 22 March, Lee continued weakening as he suffered an infection while on life support, and he was described as "critically ill".[119][120][121]

On 18 March 2015, a death hoax website reported false news of Lee's death. The suspect is an unidentified minor who created a false webpage that resembled the PMO official website.[122] Several international news organisations reported on Lee's death based on this and later retracted their statements.[123][124]

On 23 March 2015, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced his father's death at the age of 91.[125] Lee had died at 03:18 Singapore Standard Time (UTC+08:00).[7][125] After a declared period of public mourning,[126] a state funeral for Lee was held on 29 March and attended by world leaders.[127] Later that day, Lee was cremated in a private ceremony at the Mandai Crematorium.[128]

International organisations

Lee was a member of the Fondation Chirac's honour committee,[129] from the time that the foundation was launched in 2008 by the former French President Jacques Chirac to promote world peace.

Lee was also a member of David Rockefeller's "International Council", along with Henry Kissinger, Riley P. Bechtel, George Shultz and others. Additionally he was one of the "Forbes' Brain Trust", along with Paul Johnson and Ernesto Zedillo.

Personal views

LGBT rights

The first time Lee was asked a question publicly about LGBT rights in Singapore was during a CNN interview in 1998. The question was posed by an unnamed homosexual man in Singapore who asked about the future of LGBT people there. Lee replied that it was not for the government to decide whether or not homosexuality was acceptable; it was for the Singaporean society to decide. He also said he did not think an "aggressive gay rights movement" would change people's minds on the issue. He added that the government would not interfere or harass anybody, whether heterosexual or otherwise.[130]

Lee next answered a question about homosexuality at a Young PAP meeting in 2007. The questioner was Loretta Chen, an openly lesbian young PAP member and a bilingual theatre director in Singapore. She asked if the current censorship rules in Singapore were too equivocal and where censorship was headed in the next two decades. Chen referred to a controversial play about Singaporean porn actress Annabel Chong which explored pornography and alternative sexuality. Lee was then asked if he believed homosexuality was a product of nature or nurture. He replied that he had asked doctors about homosexuality and had been told that it was caused by a genetic random transmission of genes.[131][132]

In Lee's book Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, he was asked about homosexuality again. The questions touched on his personal views of LGBT, LGBT people adopting children and hurdles for LGBT Singaporeans. He was asked how he would react if one of his grandchildren turned out to be homosexual. He replied that he would accept his grandchild because homosexuality is a genetic code.[133] One of the questions asked was if LGBT couples could adopt children. He did not think LGBT people were suited to bringing up a child as they have no maternal instinct aroused by the process of pregnancy.[134]

Religious views

Lee identified himself as a "nominal Buddhist" on several occasions, most recently in 2013. During an event at NUS in 1990, Lee told the audience that he accepted beads from a Buddhist because he is a nominal Buddhist.[135] In 2009, Lee Kuan Yew identified himself as a member of the Buddhist/Taoist community.[136][137] In 2013, in a biography "One Man's View of the World", when asked if he still considers himself a "nominal Buddhist", Lee replied:

Yes, I would. I go through the motions and the rituals. I am not a Christian. I am not a Taoist. I do not belong to any special sect.[138]

When asked to describe the rituals, Lee explained:

On set days you've got to give offerings to your ancestors--food and so on. All that is laid out by the servants. But it will go off after my generation. It is like clearing the graves during Qing Ming. With each passing generation, fewer people go. It is a ritual.

Lee was sometimes identified by others as an agnostic,[139] notably during an interview with Goh Keng Swee in 1983 when the latter identified S. Rajaratnam and Lee as agnostics.[140] Lee personally stated his agnosticism during an interview with The New York Times in 2010, but elaborated that he had practised Chinese folk religion while growing up.[141] Lee ceased religious practices of Chinese folk religious customs following the death of his father in 1997.[142] He reinforced his religious views in his autobiography, stating: "I wouldn't call myself an atheist. I neither deny nor accept that there is a God".[143] Two of his younger brothers, Freddy Lee[144] and Lee Suan Yew, have been active members of the Anglican and Methodist churches respectively.[142]


Political legacy

I'm not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.

Lee in 2010, reflecting on his legacy[145]

As Singapore's Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, Lee presided over many of Singapore's advancements. Singapore's Gross National Product per capita rose from $1,240 in 1959 to $18,437 in 1990. The unemployment rate in Singapore dropped from 13.5% in 1959 to 1.7% in 1990. External trade increased from $7.3 billion in 1959 to $205 billion in 1990. In other areas, the life expectancy at birth for Singaporeans rose from 65 years at 1960 to 74 years in 1990. The population of Singapore increased from 1.6 million in 1959 to 3 million in 1990. The number of public flats in Singapore rose from 22,975 in 1959 (then under the Singapore Improvement Trust) to 667,575 in 1990. The Singaporean literacy rate increased from 52% in 1957 to 90% in 1990. Telephone lines per 100 Singaporeans increased from 3 in 1960 to 38 in 1990. Visitor arrivals to Singapore rose from 100,000 in 1960 to 5.3 million in 1990.[146]

During the three decades in which Lee held office, Singapore grew from a developing country to one of the most developed nations in Asia.[] Lee said that Singapore's only natural resources are its people and their strong work ethic.[147]

Lee's achievements in Singapore had a profound effect on the Communist leadership in China, who made a major effort, especially under Deng Xiaoping, to emulate his policies of economic growth, entrepreneurship and subtle suppression of dissent. Over 22,000 Chinese officials were sent to Singapore to study its methods.[6] He has also had a major influence on thinking in Russia in recent years.[148]

Other world leaders also praised Lee. Henry Kissinger once said that Lee was "One of the asymmetries of history". Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher praised "his way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our time and the way to tackle them". A later British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, called Lee "the smartest leader I ever met".[149]

On the other hand, many Singaporeans have criticised Lee as authoritarian and as intolerant of dissent, citing his numerous--mostly successful--attempts to sue political opponents and newspapers who express an unfavourable opinion. Reporters Without Borders, an international media pressure group, requested Lee and other senior Singaporean officials to stop taking libel suits against journalists.[150]

In addition, Lee was accused of promoting a culture of elitism among Singapore's ruling class. Michael Barr in his book The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Influence and Power claims that the system of meritocracy in Singapore is not quite how the government presents it; rather, it is a system of nepotism and collusion run by Lee's family and their crony friends and allies. Barr claims further that although the government presents the city-state as multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan, all the networks are dominated by ethnic Chinese, leaving the minority Malay and Indian ethnic groups powerless. According to Barr, the entire process of selecting and grooming of future political and economic talent is monopolised in the hands of the ruling People's Action Party, which Lee himself founded with a handful of other British-educated ethnic Chinese that he met in his days at Cambridge.[151]


Devan Nair

In 1999, the former Singaporean President Devan Nair, who was living in Canada, remarked in an interview with the Toronto The Globe and Mail that Lee's technique of suing his opponents into bankruptcy or oblivion was an abrogation of political rights. He also remarked that Lee is "an increasingly self-righteous know-all", surrounded by "department store dummies". In response to these remarks, Lee sued Nair in a Canadian court and Nair countersued. Lee then brought a motion to have Nair's counterclaim thrown out of court. Lee argued that Nair's counterclaim disclosed no reasonable cause of action and constituted an inflammatory attack on the integrity of the Singapore government. However, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice refused to throw out Nair's counterclaim, holding that Lee had abused the litigating process and therefore Nair had a reasonable cause of action.[152]

According to Lee's memoirs, Nair was forced to resign as President due to his alleged alcoholism, a charge which Nair denied.[]


In 1984, the Graduate Mothers' Scheme was launched. It gave priority for public services to mothers with higher-educational qualification, prompting allegations of eugenics.[153] In his speeches preceding the scheme, he had urged highly-educated women to have more children, claiming that "social delinquents" would dominate unless their fertility rate increased. A proponent of nature over nurture he stated that "intelligence is 80 percent nature and 20 percent nurture" and attributed the successes of his children to genetics.[154]

FEER defamation case

On 24 September 2008 the High Court of Singapore, in a summary judgment by Justice Woo Bih Li, ruled that the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) magazine (Hugo Restall, editor), defamed Lee and his son, the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. The court found the 2006 article "Singapore's 'Martyr': Chee Soon Juan" suggested that Lee had been running and continues to run Singapore in the same corrupt manner as T.T. Durai operated the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) and he has been using libel actions to suppress those who would question him to avoid exposure of his corruption."[155] The court sentenced FEER, owned by Dow Jones & Company (in turn owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp), to pay damages to the complainants. FEER appealed[155] but lost the case when the Court of Appeal ruled in October 2009 upheld the previous judgement.[156]

International Herald Tribune defamation case

In 2010 Lee, together with his son Lee Hsien Loong, and Goh Chok Tong, threatened legal action against The New York Times Company, which owns the International Herald Tribune, regarding an Op-Ed piece titled "All in the Family" of 15 February 2010 by Philip Bowring, a freelance columnist and former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. The International Herald Tribune apologised in March that readers of the article may "infer that the younger Lee did not achieve his position through merit". The New York Times Company and Bowring also agreed to pay S$60,000 to Lee Hsien Loong, S$50,000 to Lee and S$50,000 to Goh (totalling about US$114,000 at the time), in addition to legal costs. The case stemmed from a 1994 settlement between the three Singaporean leaders and the paper about an article, also by Bowring, that referred to "dynastic politics" in East Asian countries, including Singapore. In that settlement, Bowring agreed not to say or imply that the younger Lee had attained his position through nepotism by his father Lee Kuan Yew. In response, media-rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders wrote an open letter to urge Lee and other top officials of the Singapore government to stop taking "libel actions" against journalists.[157][158][159]


In 1999, in a discussion forum, Lee Kuan Yew was asked whether the emotional bonds of various ethnic groups in Singapore could be a hurdle to nation building, Lee replied: "Yes, I think so, over a long period of time, and selectively. We must not make an error. If, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who's very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine-gun unit, that's a very tricky business. We've got to know his background. I'm saying these things because they are real, and if I don't think that, and I think even if today the Prime Minister doesn't think carefully about this, we could have a tragedy. So, these are problems which, as poly students, you're colour-blind to, but when you face life in reality, it's a different proposition".[160]

In 2011, WikiLeaks published diplomatic cables attributing controversial comments on Islam to Lee. WikiLeaks quoted Lee as having described Islam as a "venomous religion". Lee called the remarks "false" and looked up to MFA's filenote of meeting and found no record of the claim, stating: "I did talk about extremist terrorists like the Jemaah Islamiyah group, and the jihadist preachers who brainwashed them. They are implacable in wanting to put down all who do not agree with them. So their Islam is a perverted version, which the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Singapore do not subscribe to". He added that "Singapore Muslim leaders were rational and that the ultimate solution to extremist terrorism was to give moderate Muslims the courage to stand up and speak out against radicals who hijacked Islam to recruit volunteers for their violent ends".[161][162]

During Lee's 2011 book release Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. In the book, Lee stated that Singaporean Muslims faced difficulties in integrating because of their religion, and urged them to "be less strict on Islamic observances". His remarks drew firestorm from Malay/Muslim leaders and MPs in Singapore, prompting a strong reaction from his son Lee Hsien Loong, who's the current Prime Minister at that time as saying "My views on Muslims' integration in Singapore differed from the Minister Mentor's. Muslims are a valued and respected community, who have done a good deal to strengthen our harmony and social cohesion." Lee Kuan Yew then told the media "I made this one comment on the Muslims integrating with other communities probably two or three years ago. Ministers and MPs, both Malay and non-Malay, have since told me that Singapore Malays have indeed made special efforts to integrate with the other communities, especially since 9/11, and that my call is out of date." Subsequently, he adds "I stand corrected. I hope that this trend will continue in the future."[163][164]

Population planning

It is said that Lee's policy in the 1960s and 1970s (stop at two) worked too well and the birth rate declined at a rapid rate and resulted in an ageing population.[165]

Cultural depictions

In 1979, oil painter Chua Mia Tee depicted Lee's return from London after the Merdeka Talks.[166]

In 1991, Chua depicted Lee against a backdrop of Singapore's transformation. The specially commissioned oil painting was presented to Lee himself.[167]

In 1992, artist Lai Kui Fang presented historical oil paintings of Lee's 1959 swearing-in ceremony as prime minister, which are part of the National Museum of Singapore's collection.[168]

In 2000, Lawrence Koh illustrated a best-selling book about Lee's childhood years, Growing Up with Lee Kuan Yew. The book was updated and republished in 2014.[169]

In 2006, artist-writer Jason Wee presented Self-Portrait (No More Tears Mr. Lee), a portrait of Lee made from 8,000 plastic shampoo bottle caps placed on an angled pedestal. The title references Johnson & Johnson's baby shampoo and the iconic 1965 moment when Lee cried on TV while announcing Singapore's separation from Malaysia.[170] Wee won a $5,000 Singapore Art Exhibition cash prize for being the voters' choice.[171]

In 2008, artist Ben Puah unveiled Hero, a solo exhibition of Lee portraits at Forth Gallery.[172]

In 2009, artist Richard Lim Han presented Singapore Guidance Angel, a solo exhibition of Lee portraits at Forth Gallery.[173] In the same year, comics artist and painter Sonny Liew depicted Lee as part of the series Eric Khoo is a Hotel Magnate at Mulan Gallery and freelance designer, Christopher "Treewizard" Pereira, began making caricature figurines of Lee which range from 12 cm to 30 cm.[174][175]

In 2010, Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery asked 19 local artists to imagine a future without Lee. The resulting exhibition, Beyond LKY, included artist Jimmy Ong's triptych of Lee as a father figure looming over a tiny kneeling figure with the words, "Papa can you hear me", scrawled across the watercolours; an installation of a broken piano with a tape recorder playing a crackling version of Singapore's National Anthem by multi-disciplinary artist Zai Kuning; white ceramic chains hanging on a wall by ceramic artist Jason Lim; and an installation of hammers smashed together by artist Tang Da Wu.[176][177]

In the same year, Objectifs Gallery curated MM I Love You, a group exhibition featuring the works of Jason Wee, Ho Tzu Nyen, Amanda Heng, Tan Pin Pin and Bryan Van Der Beek. The exhibition's title references Lee's former position as Minister Mentor and also the idea of "modern mythology".[178] Artist Ong Hui Har's Harry exhibition at The Arts House featured pop art paintings of Lee in his youth.[179]

Away from Singapore, Korean artist Kim Dong Yoo depicted Lee in Lee Kuan Yew & Queen Elizabeth II (2010), an oil-on-canvas portrait of Lee using small images of Queen Elizabeth II's head, a reference to Singapore being a former British colony and current member of the Commonwealth.[180] Chinese artist Ren Zhenyu has also created expressionist portraits of Lee in electric hues such as shocking pink and lime green as part of his Pop and Politics series, while Vietnamese artist Mai Huy Dung crafted a series of oil painting portraits of Lee[181][182] In addition, Bruneian painter Huifong Ng was discovered after painting a portrait of Lee and Ukrainian artist Oleg Lazarenko depicted Lee as part of his painting Lion of Singapore.[183][184] Indian-Swiss novelist Meira Chand's A Different Sky, published by UK's Harvill Secker in 2010, features Lee in his early years as a lawyer and co-founder of the People's Action Party.[185]

In 2011, the iris image of Lee's eye was captured and artistically rendered to resemble a sand art gallery piece. His eye image with his autograph was auctioned off to raise funds for the Singapore Eye Research Institute.[186]

In 2012, urban artist Samantha Lo (SKL0) depicted Lee in her controversial Limpeh series, featuring his image in Shepard Fairey-inspired stickers, mirrors and collages.[187]

In 2013, poet Cyril Wong published The Dictator's Eyebrow, a thinly veiled and surreal collection revolving around a Lee-like figure and his eyebrow's thirst for recognition and power.[188] In the same year, a group of Tamil poets from three countries, including Singapore Literature Prize winner Ramanathan Vairavan, produced Lee Kuan Yew 90, a collection of 90 new poems celebrating Lee's legacy.[189] Artist Sukeshi Sondhi also staged An Icon & A Legend, a solo exhibition at ArtOne21 featuring about 20 pop art style paintings of Lee.[190] Speed painter Brad Blaze was commissioned to craft a portrait of Lee, Trailblazer: Singapore, to raise funds for Reach Community Services Society.[191][192] In August, a bronze bust of Lee, cast by contemporary French artist-sculptor Nacera Kainou, was unveiled at the Singapore University of Technology and Design as an early birthday present to Lee from the Lyon-Singapore Association and the municipality of Lyon.[193]

In February 2014, artist Boo Sze Yang presented The Father at iPreciation Gallery, a solo exhibition featuring eight oil-on-canvas portraits of Lee in unconventional settings, like an embellished throne or a scene that depicts the Last Supper.[176] In regard to his opinion of Lee, Boo was quoted as saying, "I look at him as how I would look at my own father, a powerful and distant figure for whom I have mixed feelings - a lot of gratitude, but also doubt."[194]

In May 2014, illustrator Patrick Yee produced the children's picture book A Boy Named Harry: The Childhood of Lee Kuan Yew, published by Epigram Books. The series was later translated into Mandarin.[195] Yee joined Lawrence Koh of Growing Up with Lee Kuan Yew on a panel named "A Different Side of the Man" at the 2014 Singapore Writers Festival.[196]

In July 2014, it was reported that photographers Samuel He and Sam Chin were on the search for people with the same name as Lee for an upcoming book project. As of March 2016, three people had been found, including Lee Kuang Yeo, a former fish farmer, who shares the same Chinese name as Lee.[197][198]

At the 2014 Singapore Toy, Game and Comic Convention in September, artist Chan Shiuan presented Lee Kuan Yew Cosplay, a series of caricatures of Lee as five fictional characters - from X-Men's Magneto to Star Wars' Yoda.[199] She was later quoted as saying of her popular series, "Mr Lee is an intriguing and well-known local personality, and I thought it could be interesting to do a mash-up with other well-known fictional characters. [...] It was an attempt to do something heartfelt and different with a local flavour".[200]

In October 2014, cartoonist Morgan Chua released LKY: Political Cartoons, an anthology of cartoons about Lee published by Epigram Books, featuring a 1971 Singapore Herald cartoon of Lee on a tank threatening to crush a baby representing press freedoms that reportedly caused the newspaper's shutdown.[201] The Madame Tussauds Singapore museum also unveiled a wax figure of Lee and his late wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo seated and smiling together against a backdrop of red flowers formed in the shape of two hearts. The statues were created based on a photograph that was taken by Madam Kwa's niece, Ms Kwa Kim Li, of the pair on Valentine's Day in 2008 at Sentosa.[202][203] Another wax figure of Lee Kuan Yew is also unveiled in Madame Tussauds Hong Kong. In addition, Cultural Medallion recipient Tan Swie Hian completed a painting of Lee and his late wife titled A Couple. The painting, which took Tan five years to complete, was partially damaged by a fire in 2013. It depicts Lee and Kwa in their youth, is based on a 1946 black-and-white photograph of the couple in Cambridge University, and incorporates in its background Tan's poem in memory of Kwa. A Couple was purchased by art collector Wu Hsioh Kwang.[204]

In November 2014, Math Paper Press published A Luxury We Cannot Afford, a poetry anthology named after Lee's infamous saying: "Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford. [...] What is important for pupils is not literature, but a philosophy of life".[205] The book, edited by Christine Chia and Joshua Ip, features poems by Edwin Thumboo, Robert Yeo, Alfian Sa'at and others about Lee.[206]

In 2015, American painter Lee Waisler unveiled his portrait of Lee. The mixed-media-on-canvas piece was exhibited at Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Singapore's Gillman Barracks.

At Art Stage Singapore 2015, Singapore's Art Plural Gallery presented a solo exhibition by Chinese artist Nan Qi, comprising a selection of intricate ink paintings of politicians, including a series of portraits of Lee.[207] Also in January, at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival organised by The Necessary Stage, artist-writer Jason Wee presented Mambo Night for a King. The online exhibition consisted of performances by Singaporeans doing moves from Mambo Jambo theme nights at Zouk to texts drawn from Lee's book From Third World to First: The Singapore Story.[208]

In February 2015, The Business Times' Helmi Yusof reported on how "In the last few years, artworks featuring Lee Kuan Yew have turned into a flourishing cottage industry".[194] These artworks included artist Jeffrey Koh's seven LKY Pez candy-dispenser sculptures (created with Indonesian artist Budi Nugroho) and paintings of Lee created in the manner of Van Gogh's swirly brushstrokes, and Korean sculptor Park Seung Mo's three-dimensional image of Lee made using stainless steel wires for Ode To Art Gallery.[209] In the same month, illustrator Patrick Yee launched the second title in the first picture book series about Lee, called Harry Grows Up: The Early Years of Lee Kuan Yew at an exhibition at the National Library, Singapore.[210]

In March 2015, Ong Yi Teck created a portrait of Lee by writing Lee's name around 18,000 times over 15 hours. Ong created the A2-sized portrait in tribute to Lee, who was critically ill. The portrait, along with videos detailing the drawing process, went viral on social media. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's wife Ho Ching shared it on Facebook.[211] Days after Lee died, 16-year-old blogger Amos Yee released a video, Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead!, which criticised Lee and compared him to Jesus Christ, insulting both their followers. Yee also posted on his blog a stick-figure cartoon depicting Lee having sex with Margaret Thatcher, a personal and political ally of Lee's.[212] For his actions, Yee was respectively charged with insulting religious feelings and obscenity and sentenced to four weeks imprisonment despite his youth.[213]

In April 2015, an exhibition of 300 oil paintings on Lee and Singapore opened at Suntec City. Presented by art collector Vincent Chua, The Singapore Story featured 80 portraits of Lee and a life-size statue of Lee shaking hands with Deng Xiaoping when the Chinese statesman visited Singapore in 1978.[214][215]

In May 2015, Singapura: The Musical opened at the Capitol Theatre. Previously reported as a musical "about" Lee, Singapura instead only featured an obliquely named character, "Man in White", drifting across the stage.[216][217] Its creator and composer Ed Gatchalian credited the first volume of Lee's memoirs as the musical's initial inspiration.[218] In the same month, illustrator Patrick Yee released the third title in his best-selling picture book series on Lee, Harry Builds a Nation: The Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew, and comics artist Sonny Liew released the graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, featuring Lee's 1987 Marxist Conspiracy and appearances by Lee and his political rival Lim Chin Siong. Upon its release, the National Arts Council withdrew a $8,000 publishing grant from The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye as it found "the retelling of Singapore's history in the graphic novel potentially undermines the authority of legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions".[219][220] Liew later exhibited selected original artwork and paintings from The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye at Mulan Gallery to coincide with the launch of the international edition of the graphic novel by Pantheon Books[221]

In July 2015, veteran actor Lim Kay Tong portrayed Lee in the historical film 1965, including a re-enactment of the iconic press conference when Lee announced that Singapore would be separated from Malaysia[222] In the same month, actor Adrian Pang played Lee in The LKY Musical opposite Sharon Au's Kwa Geok Choo, directed by Steven Dexter.[223]

In August 2015, approaching Singapore's 50th National Day, SPH's AsiaOne reported a sand artist depicting Lee in a tribute on YouTube entitled (Sand Art) Touching Tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew [SG50 Jubilee].[224] In the same month, Harper's Bazaar Singapore commissioned artists to commemorate Lee in an LKY Art Tribute. The works included photographer John Clang's "One Minute Silence" self-portrait, painter Boo Sze Yang's "290315" and the free-hand portrait "The Boy from Neil Road" by Milica Bravacic.[225]

In October 2015, sculptor Lim Leong Seng exhibited a 75 cm-tall bronze sculpture he made of Lee based on a historical photograph. Both the sculpture and exhibition are entitled Weathering Storms As One.[226]

In November 2015, the Singaporean Honorary Consulate General in Barcelona, Spain unveiled a bust of Lee at Cap Roig Gardens situated in the Spanish coastal region of Costa Brava.[227] Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan was also in attendance.

In December 2015, veteran movie poster painter Ang Hao Sai launched his exhibition The Art of Singapore, featuring multiple paintings of Lee.[228] In the same month, Phua San San released the children's book What's Inside The Red Box?, inspired by Lee's famous briefcase and published by Straits Times Press.[229] A Chinese version of the best-selling book was published in March 2016, when a reading session led by Minister of State Sam Tan was held to commemorate the first anniversary of Mr Lee's death at a PAP Community Foundation Sparkletots Preschool, whose branches received over 700 sponsored copies of the book.[230]

In January 2016, fashion designer turned textile artist Benny Ong, in collaboration with a family of master Laotian weavers, presented The Pioneering Spirit at Raffles Hotel, an exhibition of 21 woven textiles, including the S$10,000 "The Shirt", featuring Lee in his iconic white shirt in the shape of Singapore.[231] In the same month, at Art Stage Singapore, hyper-realist artist M Fadhlil Abdi exhibited The Guardian, an oil-on-canvas portrait of Lee at the Art Xchange Gallery booth. At the same show, Sundaram Tagore Gallery exhibited Lee Waisler's portrait of Lee.

In March 2016, Lee's first death anniversary, self-taught artist Teng Jee Hum published the book Godsmacked (Ethos Books) featuring multiple paintings of Lee and essays by Seng Yu Jin, Jason Wee and Mei Huang.[232] A portrait of Lee made up of 4,877 Singapore flag erasers was also unveiled by his brother Lee Suan Yew at The Red Box.[233] In the same month, Singapore singer-songwriter Reuby released a song he wrote about Lee, "Legendary", dedicating it to him.[234]


Between 1998 and 2000, Lee Kuan Yew published a two-volume set of memoirs. The Singapore Story (1998) covers his view of Singapore's history until its separation from Malaysia in 1965, and From Third World to First: The Singapore Story (2000) gives his account of Singapore's subsequent transformation into a developed nation. In 2005, Lee published Keeping My Mandarin Alive: Lee Kuan Yew Language Learning Experience, which documents his challenge learning Mandarin in his thirties and why it is important for overseas Chinese to learn and speak Chinese. In 2011, Lee published My Lifelong Challenge Singapore's Bilingual Journey which chronicles his struggle adopting Singapore bilingual policy in a multiracial society. Also in 2011, Lee published Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, a 458-page questions-and-answers book, in which he is interviewed by journalists from Singapore Press Holdings on issues which include the challenges he faced when Singapore first gained independence, the future political landscape, opportunities for youth in Singapore and also his personal views on homosexuality and family.

In 2013, Lee published two new books, namely The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew and One Man's View of the World. The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew contains almost 600 quotations which provides a summary of his views on a wide range of topics on Singapore and the world. In One Man's View of the World, Lee draws on his experience and insight to offer his views on today's world and what it might look like in 20 years.


Lee receives the Order of Friendship from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on 15 November 2009 in Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew towers over other Asian leaders on the international stage. [...] Lee loves Singapore. What really sets this complex man apart from Asia's other nation-builders is what he didn't do--he did not become corrupt, and he did not stay in power too long.

He has become a seminal figure for all of us. I've not learned as much from anybody as I have from Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He made himself an indispensable friend of the United States, not primarily by the power he represented but by the quality of his thinking.

Meeting the United States President at the Oval Office in the White House a day later, Barack Obama introduced him as "one of the legendary figures of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is somebody who helped to trigger the Asian economic miracle".[240][241]

When Lee took over, per capita income was about $400 a year; now it is close to $40,000...Because of his leadership, a medium-size city has become a significant international and economic player, especially in fostering multilateral transpacific ties. There is no better strategic thinker in the world today. Two generations of American leaders have benefited from his counsel.

  • On 14 January 2011, Lee received the inaugural Gryphon Award from his alma mater, Raffles Institution, given to illustrious Rafflesians who have made exceptional contributions to the nation.[244]
  • On 19 October 2011, Lee received the Lincoln Medal in Washington DC--an honour reserved for people who have exemplified the legacy and character embodied by Abraham Lincoln.[245]
  • On 21 February 2012, Lee was conferred the Kazakhstan Order of Friendship by Ambassador Yerlan Baudarbek-Kozhatayev, at the Istana.[246]
  • On 10 September 2013, Lee was conferred Russia's Order of Honour by Ambassador Leonid Moiseev for his contributions for forging friendship and co-operation with the Russian Federal and scientific and cultural relations development.[247]
  • On 22 May 2014, the title of Honorary Doctor of the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was presented by the Russian government to Lee.[248]
  • In 2016, Lee was conferred the Order of the Paulownia Flowers. The award was backdated to 23 March 2015, the date of his death.[249]

Additional honours

  • On 24 March 2015, the National Parks Board named a Singapore Botanic Gardens orchid hybrid called the "Aranda Lee Kuan Yew" in honour of the late Mr Lee for his efforts in launching Singapore's Garden City vision in 1967 and the nationwide tree planting campaign.[250]
  • In 2015, the Asian edition of Time Magazine featured the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew on its cover, describing him as "The Founding Father of Singapore" and that he "is one of those who can say, without fear of contradiction, that he helped make (history)".[251]

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Further reading

Primary sources

Other sources

External links

Interviews and articles
Political offices
New office Prime Minister of Singapore
Succeeded by
Goh Chok Tong
Preceded by
Hon Sui Sen
Minister for Finance

Succeeded by
Tony Tan
Preceded by
S. Rajaratnam
Senior Minister
Succeeded by
Goh Chok Tong
New office Minister Mentor
Position abolished
Parliament of Singapore
New constituency Member of Parliament
for Tanjong Pagar SMC

Constituency abolished
Member of Parliament
for Tanjong Pagar GRC

Succeeded by
Joan Pereira
(Tanjong Pagar ward)
Party political offices
New office Secretary-General of the People's Action Party
Succeeded by
Goh Chok Tong

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