Lee Kuan Yew: Singapore’s Father and the Patron of ‘Asian Values’

Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, has died at the age of 91. He was Prime Minister from 1959 until 1990 and retained considerable influence over the government and economy in the following years, almost up until his death. Under his stewardship, Singapore developed from being a largely agrarian British colony into a modern economic powerhouse; a manufacturing and financial centre, driven by exports and innovation, the world’s preeminent city state.

Lee Kuan Yew was one of Asia's most recognisable leaders
Lee Kuan Yew was one of Asia’s most recognisable leaders

This legacy of achievement has been tempered by Lee’s autocratic tendencies, his uncompromising stance against political opposition and his promotion of distinct ‘Asian Values’, different to the universal human rights trumpeted by the West. To understand Lee’s political inflexibility and restriction of social freedoms, one needs to look at his and Singapore’s long struggle for a national identity.

Singapore was part of the Straits Settlements, a group of four territories on the Malayan Peninsula that fell under direct British rule in the 19th century. The Settlements were surrounded by a mixture of Federated and Unfederated Malay States, which were subject to varying degrees of British Influence in a region that became known as ‘British Malaya’.

Lee Kuan Yew was born into this world in 1923 and during WWII he would experience first-hand the harrowing Battle of Singapore that led to the humiliating British defeat at the hands of the unforgiving Japanese imperial forces. Lee vividly recalled the ‘daily grind and misery of Japanese occupation’ during which he became a broker on the black market in order to supplement his meagre salary as an intelligence interceptor for the occupying administration. All the while he taught himself Chinese and continued to pursue his studies.

The Japanese surrender saw Singapore returned to British rule and Lee travelled to the motherland to study law at Cambridge before returning home in 1949. Here, he gradually became involved in the country’s politics, becoming a leading campaigner for Singaporean inclusion into the Federation of Malaya, which had been granted independence by the British. Numerous broken promises would harden Lee’s political stance and, whilst he got his wish for Singapore in 1963, the union with Malaya did not last long. Racial tensions between the Chinese-majority Singaporeans and the ethnic Malays led to Singapore being expelled from the union in 1965, albeit now as an independent nation.

Lee fought hard for Singapore's independence from the British
Lee fought hard for Singapore’s independence from the British

It was now that Lee embarked on his ruthless pursuit of Singaporean development, knowing that the tiny, fledgling state would have to adapt and diversity its economy to ensure its long-term survival. As such, he set about creating an export-led economy, relying heavily on the work ethic of the Chinese to drive innovation. Dissent was quelled, political opponents stifled and press freedoms restricted. It allowed for a consistent economic and political policy that prompted strong national growth.

By the 1980s, Singapore was being touted as one of the ‘Four Asian Tigers’ due to its rapid modernisation. It had become a model for a new type of development that Lee put down to ‘Asian Values’. Loosely based on the Confucian principles of familial and societal loyalty, ‘Asian Values’ advocated the foregoing of personal freedoms for the sake of national prosperity, technological development and work ethic.

Along with Malaysian strongman Mahathir bin Mohamad, Lee Kuan Yew was the key proponent of these alternative values to the West’s ‘liberal’ human rights. Whilst nobody could deny Lee’s achievements, there was much scepticism surrounding his seeming denial of universal and shared social and political rights. Lee himself claimed that:

I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development. I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy.

Critics suggested that by linking Singapore’s development to a unique set of indigenous values, Lee was simply attempting to prevent any challenge to his authority from a population that was indebted to his economic vision. Others argued that by identifying distinct ‘Asian Values’, Lee was potentially perpetuating the racism of the past, when the imperial powers of the West looked upon the inhabitants of the Far East as ‘different’ and inherently weaker.

Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy in Singapore is secure. He is their founding father, the creator of a modern society completely alien to those who grew up under British rule and suffered a brutal Japanese occupation. Whilst it is easy to dismiss him as an autocrat because of his refusal to embrace democracy and accept political debate, it is hard to argue that Singapore would be at the same level of development today had Lee not single-mindedly pursued his vision. The days of the impoverished kampong are long gone.



Source of Extracts

Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (2000)


Singapore the World’s Most Expensive City: half-a-century of staggering development

Singapore has replaced Tokyo as the world’s most expensive city according to a cost of living survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It caps a remarkable transformation for the Southeast Asian city-state, from impoverished British colony to one of the world’s most prestigious resides.

Singapore is the epitome of a modern city of success
Singapore is the epitome of a modern city of success

In February 1942, the Japanese Army captured Singapore, marking one of the lowest points for Britain during the Second World War. When the occupation ended in September 1945, and the British returned, Singapore constituted a largely-rural collection of islands, agriculture dominating over other forms of commerce.

Rather than the sprawling mega-city of today, Singapore was made-up of a series of kampongs, small hamlets and villages of wooden huts surrounding a plot of land usually reserved for subsistence farming.


In June 1948, the Malayan Emergency began when British colonial forces attempted to stop a guerrilla insurgency carried out by the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Malaysian Communist Party, which had support in Singapore.

During the 1950s, Singapore agitated for greater self-governance, led by the energetic and inspirational Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party (PAP). Awarded self-governance in 1959, Singapore unilaterally declared independence in August 1963 with the intention of joining the newly-constituted state of Malaysia which had developed out of the Federation of Malaya. Union with Malaysia did not work out, however, and in August 1965 Singapore separated from its neighbour, being admitted into the United Nations (UN) a month later.

The constant political jostling and appeal for indigenous rights after WWII prevented a serious economic overhaul in Singapore which, with a fairly well-educated and industrious Chinese-majority population, had the potential for significant growth.

In the midst of the independence campaign, however, Lee Kuan Yew endorsed an important plan for economic development. In 1961, Dutchman Albert Winsemius visited the country as part of a UN Technical Assistance programme. As Lee notes in his memoirs, Singapore was still in its infancy at the time:

We were then heavily dependent on trade, especially entrepot transactions…Things were so bad that when a local manufacturer planned to expand his cotton-spinning textile mill to include weaving and finishing, it was big news because it would increase the labour force by 300. We were desperate for jobs. Tourism was then an infant industry, as most tourists visited developed countries. (Lee Kuan Kew, 2000, p.180)

Winsemius suggested a plan for industrialisation, which was launched immediately. After going it alone in 1965, Singapore embarked on decades of unprecedented growth, creating a skilled industrial base that relied on market expertise rather than cheap labour and low-end products; a regional financial centre was established and a number of multinational corporations were attracted to headquarter in Singapore; agriculture was gradually eradicated as free land was gobbled up for commercial enterprises and high-rise residences. The export-driven economy, coupled with the need to import virtually all raw materials, also helped Singapore develop one of the world’s largest cargo ports.

Singapore exploited its geographical location to become a crucial cargo port in the region
Singapore exploited its geographical location to become a crucial cargo port in the region

All this from a country reliant on rudimentary cotton mills back in the early 1960s. Of course, high living costs are not necessarily a good thing but, given that Singapore has the third-largest per capita GDP in the world, its citizens can afford the high prices. Quality of life has improved almost incomparably since the dying days of British colonialism.

Without a visionary leader such as Lee Kuan Yew, a convenient geostrategic location, and the timely arrival of a pragmatic Dutch industrialist, Singapore’s position in the world today would almost certainly be less significant.


Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story (2000)