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Lee Kuan Yew

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Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew
Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the Pentagon in 2002.
Minister Mentor of Singapore
In office
12 August 2004 – 21 May 2011
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Position abolished
Senior Minister of Singapore
In office
28 November 1990 – 12 August 2004
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong
Preceded by S. Rajaratnam
Succeeded by Goh Chok Tong
1st Prime Minister of Singapore
Elections: 1959-1988
In office
3 June 1959 – 28 November 1990
President Yusof bin Ishak
Benjamin Henry Sheares
C. V. Devan Nair
Wee Kim Wee
Succeeded by Goh Chok Tong
Secretary-General of the People's Action Party
In office
21 November 1954 – 1 November 1992
Succeeded by Goh Chok-Tong
Member of Parliament
for Tanjong Pagar GRC
Tanjong Pagar SMC (1955–1991)
Assumed office
2 April 1955
Majority Walkover
Personal details
Born Harry Lee Kuan Yew
(1923-09-16) 16 September 1923
Singapore, Straits Settlements
Nationality Singaporean
Political party People's Action Party
Spouse(s) Kwa Geok Choo (m. 1950; died 2010)
Children Lee Hsien Loong
Lee Wei Ling
Lee Hsien Yang
Alma mater Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
Occupation Politician
Profession Lawyer
Religion None[1]
Military service
Awards (1967)
Lee Kuan Yew- The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World
Chinese 李光耀

Lee Kuan Yew, GCMG, CH (born Harry Lee Kuan Yew, 16 September 1923[2]), is a Singaporean politician.[3][4][5][6] He was the first Prime Minister of Singapore, governing for three decades. He is also widely recognised as the founding father of modern Singapore.

As the co-founder and first Secretary-General of the People's Action Party (PAP), he led the party to eight victories from 1959 to 1990, and oversaw the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965 and its subsequent transformation from a relatively underdeveloped colonial outpost with no natural resources into a "First World" Asian Tiger. He is one of the most influential political figures in Asia.[7]

Singapore's second prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, appointed him Senior Minister in 1990. He held the advisory post of Minister Mentor, created by his son Lee Hsien Loong, when the latter became the nation's third prime minister in August 2004.[8][9] With his successive ministerial positions spanning over 50 years, Lee is also one of history's longest-serving ministers. On 14 May 2011, Lee and Goh announced their retirement from the cabinet after the 2011 general election.[10]

Family background

According to his autobiography, Lee is a fourth-generation Singaporean. His Hakka great-grandfather, Lee Bok Boon, who was born in 1846, emigrated from Dabu County, Guangdong province, China, to Singapore in 1863.[11] He married a shopkeeper's daughter, Seow Huan Nio, but returned to China in 1882, leaving behind his wife and three children. Lee Bok Boon built a little manor in his home village, and bought himself a mandarinate, but he died just two years after his return.[12][13]

Lee Kuan Yew's grandfather was Lee Hoon Leong, born in Singapore in 1871 and a British subject. He was educated in English at Raffles Institution to standard V, which is equivalent to lower secondary school in Singapore today. Lee Hoon Leong then worked as a dispenser, an unqualified pharmacist, and later was the purser on a steamship of the Heap Eng Moh Shipping Line, then owned by an ethnic Chinese businessman, Oei Tiong Ham.[11]

While working as a purser, Lee Hoon Leong, age 26, married Ko Liem Nio, age 16, in Semarang, Java, Indonesia.[12] 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.[13] Lee Hoon Leong eventually became managing director of the Heap Eng Moh Steamship Company Ltd.[11]

Lee Hoon Leong had two wives, which was common at that time, and fathered five daughters and three sons. His son Lee Chin Koon, also English-educated and a British subject, would marry Chua Jim Neo, who gave birth to Lee Kuan Yew in 1923, at 92 Kampong Java Road in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew has three brothers: Dennis Lee, Freddy Lee and Lee Suan Yew. He has one sister, Monica Lee.[11]

Lee Kuan Yew's grandfathers' wealth declined considerably during the Great Depression, and his father, Lee Chin Koon, became a poor shopkeeper.[13]

Like Lee, 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.[11]

Lee and his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, were married on 30 September 1950. Both speak English as their native tongue. Lee started learning Chinese in 1955 at age 32, before which he was illiterate in Chinese.[14][15] Lee also learned Japanese as an adult and he worked as a Japanese translator during the Japanese occupation of Singapore.[11][16]

Kwa Geok Choo died on 2 October 2010 in her sleep. Lee and Kwa have two sons and one daughter.[17]

Lee's eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, a former Brigadier-General, became Prime Minister of Singapore in 2004. Lee Hsien Loong was educated at the University of Cambridge as well, where he studied mathematics and computer science. He graduated as a Wrangler, where he scored 12 more alphas (an alpha is one problem solved) than his nearest competitor, which has never been seen in the history of the Tripos at Cambridge. He later went on to Harvard University to gain a Master in Public Administration.[11]

Several members of Lee's family hold prominent positions in Singaporean society. His youngest son, Lee Hsien Yang, was also a former Brigadier-General and former President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of SingTel. Lee Hsien Yang was also educated in the University of Cambridge, where he read engineering and graduated with first class honours. He is currently the Non-Executive Director and Chairman of Fraser and Neave Ltd and Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS).[18]

Lee's daughter, Lee Wei Ling, runs the National Neuroscience Institute. Lee Hsien Loong's wife, Ho Ching, is the Executive Director and CEO of Temasek Holdings.[18][19]

Early life

Lee was born a British subject in 1923 at 92 Kampong Java Road in Singapore. According to his memoirs, Lee was first educated at Telok Kurau Primary School. He described his primary students at Telok Kurau as poor and not very bright and advantaged. He then attended Raffles Institution (RI). In RI, Lee had difficulties keeping up because he met the top 150 students from all over Singapore. He made an effort to get into the top class and joined the Scouts for three years. He also played cricket, tennis and chess and debated for the Institution. During his junior Cambridge years, he obtained several scholarships and subsequently came in top for the School Certificate examinations, obtaining the John Anderson scholarship to attend Raffles College (now National University of Singapore). Lee was the top student in Singapore and Malaya.[11]

Lee's university education was delayed by World War II and the 1942–1945 Japanese occupation of Singapore. During the occupation, Lee learnt Japanese and first worked as a clerk in his grandfather's friend's company—a textile importer called Shimoda. Lee then found work transcribing Allied wire reports for the Japanese where he listened to Allied radio stations and wrote down what they were reporting in the Hodobu office (報道部 – a Japanese propaganda department).[7] Towards the end of the war, by listening to Allied radio stations, he realised the Japanese were going to lose, 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 that if he went ahead, he would be in trouble. Lee also ran his own businesses during the war to survive, among which, he manufactured stationery glue under his own brand called 'Stikfas'.[13]

During the occupation, Lee was asked by a Japanese guard to join a group of segregated Chinese men. Sensing that something was amiss, he asked for permission to go back 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 in Singapore.[11][20]

After the war, Lee went on to study in England. He briefly attended the London School of Economics before moving to the University of Cambridge, where he read law at Fitzwilliam College and graduated with a rare Double Starred (double First Class Honours). (After leaving Cambridge, Lee decided to omit his English name, Harry, and simply be known as Lee Kuan Yew,[21] although to this day, old comrades and English friends still refer to him as Harry Lee.) Lee was subsequently made an honorary fellow of Fitzwilliam College.[13]

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. 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.[11][13]

Lee, in his memoirs, recounted how he has had to sing four national anthems in his lifetime: first, God Save The King when Singapore was a British colony; second, Kimigayo, the Japanese national anthem during the Japanese occupation; third, the Malaysian national anthem Negaraku, when Singapore was part of Malaysia for two years; fourth, Majulah Singapura, the current national anthem of Singapore.[11]

Early political career – 1951 to 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. He also worked as a legal advisor to the trade and students' unions.[11]

Lee's 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.[11]

Formation of the PAP

On 12 November 1954, Lee, together with a group of fellow English-educated middle-class men whom he described as "beer-swilling bourgeois", formed the 'socialist' People's Action Party (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 pro-communists' mass support base, while the communists needed a non-communist party leadership (PAP) as a 'smoke-screen', because the Malayan Communist Party was illegal.

At that time, almost 70% of Singaporeans spoke Chinese and various Chinese dialects as their native tongues. Those who spoke English as their native tongue comprised only 20% or so of the population and were therefore, a minority.[12] Their common aim was to agitate 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.[12]

In opposition

Lee 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.[12]

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.[22] 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. The communist threat within the party was temporarily removed as Lee prepared for the next round of elections.

Prime Minister, pre-independence – 1959 to 1965

Self-government administration – 1959 to 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 3 June 1959, taking over from Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock.[23] Before he took office, Lee demanded and secured the release of Lim Chin Siong and Devan Nair, who had been arrested earlier by Lim Yew Hock's government.

A key event was the motion of confidence in the government, in which 13 PAP assemblymen crossed party lines and abstained from voting on 21 July 1961. Together with six prominent left-leaning leaders from trade unions, the breakaway members established a new party, the Barisan Sosialis.

Merger with Malaysia, then separation – 1963 to 1965

After Malayan 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 with Malaysia to end British colonial rule. He used the results of a referendum held on 1 September 1962, in which 70% of the votes were cast in support of his proposal, to demonstrate that the people supported his plan; most of the other votes were blank, as Lee had not allowed a "No" option.

On 16 September 1963, Singapore became part of Malaysia. However, the union was short-lived. The Malaysian central government, ruled by the bumiputra policy and used the Malaysian Solidarity Convention's famous cry of "Malaysian Malaysia!", a nation serving the Malaysian nationality, as opposed to the Malay race.

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, "The Tunku" 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 was adamant and tried to work out a compromise, but without success. He was later convinced by Goh Keng Swee that the secession was inevitable. 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 heavy blow to Lee, who believed that it was crucial for Singapore’s survival. In a televised press conference on television that day, he fought back tears and briefly stopped to regain his composure as he formally announced the separation and the full independence of Singapore to an anxious population:

"Every 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 ... you see, the whole of my adult life ... I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories. You know that we, as a people are connected by geography, economics, by ties of kinship..."[24]

On that same day, 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 thus 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 that Lee and the Singaporean government faced.[25]

Prime Minister, post-independence – 1965 to 1990

Lee Kuan Yew and his wife with Ronald Reagan, the US president, and his wife on 8 October 1985

In his autobiography, Lee stated that he did not sleep well, and fell sick days after Singapore's independence. 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..."

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. 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.[26]

Decisions and policies

National security

The vulnerability of Singapore was deeply felt, with threats from multiple sources including the communists and Indonesia with its Confrontation stance. As Singapore gained admission to the United Nations, Lee quickly sought international recognition of Singapore's independence. He asked Goh Keng Swee to build up the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and requested help from other countries, particularly Israel,[27] for advice, training and facilities. Lee introduced conscription whereby all abled-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. Singapore has been ranked consistently in the top five positions in the Global Competitiveness Report in terms of its reliability of police services. Singapore has consistently been ranked as the safest country in the world. In 2011, there were 0.3 intentional homicides out of 100,000 people in Singapore compared to 4.3 intentional homicides out of 100,000 in the United States.[28]


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",[29] something that has been sustained to this day.

Government policies

Like many countries, 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.[30]

Lee believed that ministers should be well paid in order to maintain a clean and honest government. 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.[31]

In the late 1960s, fearing that Singapore's growing population might overburden the developing economy, Lee started a vigorous 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.[31]

In 1983, Lee sparked the 'Great Marriage Debate' when he encouraged Singapore men to choose highly educated women as wives.[32] He was concerned that a large number of graduate women were unmarried.[33] Some sections of the population, including graduate women, were upset by his views.[33] Nevertheless, a match-making agency Social Development Unit (SDU)[34] was set up to promote socialising among men and women graduates.[31] 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. 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.[31]

Corporal punishment

One of Lee's abiding beliefs has been in the efficacy of corporal punishment in the form of caning.[35] In his autobiography The Singapore Story he 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."[36]

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.[37] By 1993 it was mandatory for 42 offences and optional for a further 42.[38] 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[39] and to 6,404 in 2007.[40]

In 1994 judicial caning was intensely publicised in the rest of the world when an American teenager, Michael Fay, was caned under the vandalism legislation.[35]

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.[41] 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.[42]

LGBT rights

The first time he was asked a question publicly about LGBT rights in Singapore was in a CNN interview in 1998. The question was posed by an unnamed gay man in Singapore who asked about the future of LGBT people in Singapore. Lee replied that it was not for the government to decide whether or not homosexuality was acceptable; it was for the Singapore 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 straight or otherwise.[43]

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 been told that it was caused by a genetic random transmission of genes.[44][45]

In Lee's book, entitled 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 gay. He replied that he would accept his grandchild because homosexuality is a genetic code.[46] 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.[47]

In Singapore, Section 377A of the Penal Code still criminalises homosexual sexual intercourse. However, Lee Kuan Yew's son, the current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said in parliament in 2007 that the government will not actively enforce the law even though it is in place because of the current sentiment among Singaporeans.

Water resources in Singapore

Singapore has been importing water from Malaysia since independence. However, when tension between the two countries arise, the Malaysian government has threatened to stop the supply of water to Singapore. Lee knew the stoppage of water importation from Malaysia would be disastrous for Singapore. Lee ordered to experiment on water recycling in 1974. 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 bin Mohamad

Lee looked forward to improving relationships with Mahathir bin 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. Mahathir asked Lee to cut off links with the Chinese leaders of the 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.[48]

Senior Minister – 1990 to 2004

Lee Kuan Yew (middle) meets with William S. Cohen, US Secretary of Defense, and Chan Heng Chee, Singapore's Ambassador to the US, 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.[49] He was then the world's longest-serving prime minister.[50]

This was the first leadership transition since independence.

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. He has said in a 1988 National Day rally:
"Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up."

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

Minister Mentor – 2004 to 2011

Since the 2000s (decade), Lee has 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, a year-long campaign called 华语 Cool! (Huayu Cool!) was launched, in an attempt to attract young viewers to learn and speak Mandarin.[51]

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

"...because 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."

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.[52] 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.[53]

In January 2011, the Straits Times Press published the book Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going.[54] 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.[55]

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.[56]

International organisations

Lee is a member of the Fondation Chirac's honour committee,[57] ever since the foundation was launched in 2008 by the former French President Jacques Chirac to promote world peace.

Lee is also a member of Paul Johnson, and Ernesto Zedillo.

Religious views

Lee has been identified as an agnostic on several occasions, notably during an interview with Goh Keng Swee in 1983 when the latter identified Rajaratnam and Lee as agnostics.[58] 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. Lee ceased religious practices of Chinese folk religious customs following the death of his father in 1997.[59] 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."[60] In 2009, Lee Kuan Yew identified himself as a member of the Buddhist/Taoist community in an interview with Mark Jacobson for the National Geographic Magazine.[61] Two of his younger brothers, Freddy Lee[62] and Lee Suan Yew have been active members of the Anglican and Methodist churches respectively.[59]


Political legacy

During three decades in which Lee held office, Singapore grew from being a developing country to one of the most developed nations in Asia, despite its small population, limited land space and lack of natural resources. Lee has often stated that Singapore's only natural resources are its people and their strong work ethic. He is widely respected by many Singaporeans, particularly the older generation, who remember his inspiring leadership during independence and the separation from Malaysia. Indeed, for many people in Singapore and other countries, Lee is inextricably linked with their perceptions of Singapore.[63]

Lee has also been widely praised by other world leaders. [64]

On the other hand, many Singaporeans have criticised Lee as being authoritarian and intolerant of dissent, citing his numerous mostly successful attempts to sue political opponents and newspapers who express an unfavorable opinion. Reporters Without Borders, an international media pressure group, has asked Lee, and other senior Singaporean officials, to stop taking libel actions against journalists.[65]

In addition to being authoritarian, Lee has been accused of promoting a culture of elitism among its ruling class. Michael Barr, in his book, The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Influence and Power, reveals that the system of meritocracy in Singapore is not exactly what the government promotes itself to be. Instead, it is a system of nepotism and collusion between his family and their crony friends and allies. The government is also fond of presenting the city-state as multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan. However, Barr reveals that all the networks are dominated by ethnic Chinese, leaving powerless the minority Malay and Indian ethnic groups. The entire process of selecting and grooming of future political and economic talent is all monpolized 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.[66]

According to Asia Sentinel's article "Singapore's Lee Family and Nepotism," Lee Kuan Yew's family members hold prominent positions of power and wealth in Singapore society. His elder son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current prime minister; his wife, Ho Ching, in turn is the CEO of Temasek Holdings, the sovereign wealth fund which controls much of Singapore's major corporations such as Singapore Airlines and SingTel. Lee Kuan Yew's daughter, Lee Wei Ling, is director of the National Neuroscience Institute. His younger son, Lee Hsien Yang, is a director of many prominent companies.[67]

In 2004 the National University of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy was named after him.

Cultural depictions

Artist Lai Kui Fang has 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, while oil painter Chua Mia Tee has depicted Lee's return from London after the Merdeka Talk.[68]

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.[69]

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.[70] Wee won a $5,000 Singapore Art Exhibition cash prize for being the voters' choice.[71] This work is a part of the series No More Tears, which was first exhibited in New York in 2006.

In 2008, artist Ben Puah unveiled Hero, a solo exhibition of Lee portraits at Forth Gallery.[72]

In 2009, artist Richard Lim Han presented Singapore Guidance Angel, a solo exhibition of Lee portraits at Forth Gallery.[73] 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.[74]

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.[75] Ong was reflecting on the sensitive issue of homosexuality — homosexual acts are illegal — in Singapore, as well as Lee’s change in attitude to support the opening of casinos in the city state.[76] Other works included an installation of a broken piano with a tape recorder playing a crackling version of the National Anthem by multi-disciplinary artist Zai Kuning to white ceramic chains hanging on a wall by ceramic artist Jason Lim to an installation of hammers smashed together by veteran artist Tang Da Wu.[77]

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".[78] Artist Ong Hui Har's Harry (2010) exhibition at The Arts House featured pop art paintings of Lee in his youth.[79]

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.[80] Chinese artist Ren Zhenyu has also created expressionist portraits of Lee as part of his Pop and Politics series, Vietnamese artist Mai Huy Dung crafted a series of oil painting portraits of Lee, 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.[81][82][83][84]

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.[85]

In 2012, urban artist Samantha Lo (SKL0) depicted Lee in her Limpeh series, featuring his image in Shepard Fairey-inspired stickers, mirrors and collages.[86]

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.[87] 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.[88] Artist Sukeshi Sondhi also staged An Icon & A Legend, a solo exhibition at ArtOne21 featuring about 20 pop art style paintings of Lee.[89] Speed painter Brad Blaze was commissioned to craft a portrait of Lee, Trailblazer: Singapore, to raise funds for Reach Community Services Society.[90]

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.[91] In the same month, it was reported that two musicals on Lee are in the works. One involves new Singapore theatre company Metropolitan Productions and composer Dick Lee, while the other is slated to be the opening act for the Capitol Theatre. Both musicals are expected to hit the stage in 2015, in time for Singapore's Golden Jubilee.[92]

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.[93] 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.[94]

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 to mark Singapore's golden jubilee in 2015. So far, the photographers had found Lee Kuang Yeo, a former fish farmer, who shares the same Chinese name as Lee.[95]

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.[96]

In October 2014, it was revealed that veteran actor Epigram Books.[98] 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.[99][100] 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.[101]

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."[102] The book, edited by Christine Chia and Joshua Ip, features poems by Edwin Thumboo, Robert Yeo, Alfian Sa'at and others.[103]


In 1999, Lee Kuan Yew published a two-volume set of memoirs: The Singapore Story (ISBN 0-13-020803-5), which covers his view of Singapore's history until its separation from Malaysia in 1965, and From Third World to First: The Singapore Story (ISBN 0060197765), which gives his account of Singapore's subsequent transformation into a developed nation.

When Lee Kuan Yew left office as Prime Minister to assume the position of Senior Minister, he continued to write about his personal views of the international political and economic landscape and his trials and tribulations before and after becoming Prime Minister. 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/or 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 which is a 458-page questions-and-answers book, in which he is interviewed by journalist 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 issues.

In 2013, Lee published two new books, 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 Dmitry Medvedev, Russian President, on 15 November 2009 in Singapore.
Meeting the US 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."[108][109]
  • On 15 November 2009, Lee was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of APEC Singapore 2009.[110]
  • On 29 April 2010, Lee was named in the TIME 100 list as one of the people who most affect our world.[111]
  • 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.[112]
  • 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.[113]
  • On 21 February 2012, Lee was conferred the Kazakhstan Order of Friendship by Ambassador Yerlan Baudarbek-Kozhatayev, at the Istana.[114]
  • On 10 September 2013, Lee was conferred Russia's [115]
  • 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.[116]


On 13 September 2008, Lee, then 84, 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.[117] 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.[118]

In a column in the Sunday Times on 6 November 2011, Lee's daughter Lee Wei Ling revealed that Lee suffers from peripheral neuropathy.[119] In the column, she recounted how she first noticed her father's ailments when she accompanied her father 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 "[p]eople in wheel chairs can make a contribution. I've still got two legs, I will make a contribution."[120]

On 15 February 2013, Lee was hospitalised at Singapore General Hospital after suffering a prolonged cardiac dysrhythmia which was followed by a brief stoppage of blood flow to the brain.[121][122][123][124] 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.[125][126] He was subsequently discharged though he is as of date receiving anti-coagulant therapy.[127][128][129]

In his book One Man's View of the World (2013), Lee shared his thoughts on death, stressing that he wished for a "quick" death. He revealed that he had composed a legal Advanced Medical Directive ordering the doctors to cut off his life support should he fall into a permanently vegetative state.[130]

The following year, Lee missed his constituency's Chinese New Year dinner for the second consecutive time owing to bodily bacterial invasion.[131] In April 2014, a photo depicting a cadaverous Lee was released online, drawing disquiet from netizens.[132]


Devan Nair

In 1999, the former Singaporean President Devan Nair, who was living in exile 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 has a reasonable cause of action.[133]

Defamation judgment

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" meant 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 to avoid exposure of his corruption."[134] 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[134] but lost the case when the Court of Appeal ruled in October 2009 that the Far Eastern Economic Review defamed Lee and his son Lee Hsien Loong.[135]

Defamation lawsuit

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 SG$60,000 to Lee Hsien Loong, SG$50,000 to Lee and SG$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.[136][137][138]


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 qualified his remarks by saying, "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".[139]

The incident followed hot on the heels of Lee's controversial 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".[140]

According to former PM Goh Chok Tong, Singaporean Muslims adjusted their religious practices according to the unique circumstances in Singapore. For example, "Singapore, being a city state, is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. With people living in high-rise apartments and in close proximity, the call of prayer or azan amplified through loudspeakers at mosques during the early dawn or in the evening had to be modified. If not, it would have been an issue with the majority non-Muslims and would make it difficult for them to accept the building of new mosques in their vicinity. At the same time, the Muslims had to be convinced that any changes to their public call for prayer were not aimed at curbing the practice of their religion. The changes were also made incrementally. First, the loudspeakers were tilted inwards and away from nearby houses, and limits were set on their volume levels. Later, a radio frequency was allocated to allow the call to prayer to be broadcast over the radio. In this way, all Muslims who wished to receive the call to prayer could just tune in on their radio. Over time, the mosques did away with loudspeakers."[141][142]

The ethnic integration policy was also implemented to avoid the formation of ethnic ghettoes in Singapore's HDB flats. Every precinct had to have inhabitants from all the ethnic groups according to national proportions.


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External links

Interviews and articles
  • A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew, Fareed Zakaria, Foreign Affairs, March–April 1994
  • War of Words Alejandro Reyes, Time, 25 September 1998
  • Lee Kuan Yew: A Chronology, 1923–1965 Largely based on Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times, 1998. Retrieved 8 December 2004
  • Part 1, Part 2: CNN, Fareed Zakaria talks with Lee Kuan Yew about his life as prime minister of Singapore, 22 September 2008
  • Daddy knows best: The Lee Kuan Yew story, Tom Plate,, 2010(?)
  • Lee Kuan Yew Watch
  • Official Profile at the Wayback Machine (archived February 21, 2009) at the Parliament of Singapore
  • The short film Interview with Lee Kuan Yew (1967) is available for free download at the Internet Archive []
Political offices
New title 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 title Minister Mentor
Position abolished
Parliament of Singapore
New constituency Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar
Constituency abolished
Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar GRC
Party political offices
New political party Secretary General of People's Action Party
Succeeded by
Goh Chok Tong
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