“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 Kuan Yew, in 1988 on a National  Day Rally


With Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing on 23 March, 2015, at the age of 91, it signifies the end of an era. The whole nation grieved as it never had before. Singaporeans, young and old, and even foreigners who had made their home in Singapore, lined up in the blazing sun for hours to pay their respects to the one man that led Singapore to what it is today.

César Chávez said, “History will judge societies and governments — and their institutions — not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.”

I decide to write a post to follow the steps of history to see how Mr Lee Kuan Yew built the miracle, transformed Singapore from a fishing village to a first world country and changed everybody’s life here.

Singapore was, and still is, a tiny little red dot in South-east Asia. Yet Singapore is a vastly different place from what it once was in the 1950s. Post World War II and facing imminent withdrawal of the British Army, Singapore was a struggling seaport with no natural hinterland or natural resources.

Today Singapore is a marvel of modernity and one of the richest countries in the world – the Monaco of the East. It is a place that many Singaporeans (and indeed foreigners) are proud to call Home.

To many Singaporeans, Lee Kuan Yew is synonymous with Singapore. He is widely respected and recognized as the founding father of an independent Singapore. He was an intelligent visionary who engineered and transformed Singapore to what it is now in the space of less than half a century. He was undeniably instrumental in the growth and transformation of modern Singapore. In short, he was the very first architect of Singapore’s success story.

From Colony to Independence

lee-kuan-yew-criesSingapore was a British colony back in the 1800s. Under British colonial rule, Singapore grew in importance as a centre for both the India-China trade and the entrepôt trade in Southeast Asia, rapidly becoming a major port city.

During World War II, Singapore was conquered and occupied by Japan. The Japanese occupation lasted from 1942 to 1945. When the war ended, Singapore reverted to British control, with increasing levels of self-government being granted, culminating in Singapore’s merger with the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963. However, social unrest, racial riots and disputes between Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party and Malaysia’s Alliance Party resulted in Singapore’s separation from Malaysia. Singapore became an independent republic on 9 August 1965.

Rewrote the history

lee-kuan-yew-builtMr. Lee Kuan Yew was the First Prime Minister of Singapore who served from 1959 to 1990.

From the time that he took office, he focused on various issues plaguing Singapore. He tackled racial issues, pushed for meritocracy, undertook urban construction, industrial development, made educational reforms, promoted women’s rights, and built public homes. Most importantly, he made English the common language to integrate its immigrant society and to facilitate trade with the West.

He recognized that Singapore did not have any natural resources to claim as her own and that Singapore did not have sufficient capital and experience in the export markets. So, together with his team, he encouraged foreign direct investments by introducing friendly business policies and took actions to raise the living standards of its people.

As Singapore’s economy was a fragile one, and vulnerable to external forces that could derail the economic progress he was building, he introduced the civilian army. All Singaporean males of above 18 years old are required to perform National Service. He also formed the “Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau” to tackle corruption in the Singapore as be believed that corruption would hinder economic progress.

The controversies

lee-kuan-yew-pointNotwithstanding his contributions, he was not without his critics. Particularly in the West, he was criticised for curtailing civil liberties (public protests, media control) and bringing libel suits against his political opponents.

He was also much criticized for his liberal use of the powers of detention without trial under the Internal Security Act.

Older Singaporeans would also remember the ‘stop at two’ policy, which was meant as population control due to Singapore’s small land size. Subsequently, when Singapore was faced with low birth rates, Lee introduced the very controversial Graduate Mother’s Scheme, which favoured the children of mothers with a university degree in primary school placement and registration over the lesser-educated, in a bid to encourage this selected group to have more children.

But, as Lee puts it himself,

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

Figures don’t lie

singapore-economyNo matter what your view is of Lee Kuan Yew, he is no doubt, one of the greatest gifts for Singaporeans.

Let’s take a look at some brief statistics of our economy from the past to present.

  • Our GDP/Capita was $1240 in 1959 and $18437 in 1990. Now it currently stands at $71318 (2014)
  • Average Economic Growth between 1959 and 1964 was 5.2%, the average further improved to 8.3% between 1965 and 1990.
  • More banks were opened that surged the numbers to 137 from 34.
  • Our literacy rate improved from 52% in 1964 to 90% in 1990, which improved the quality of our workers.
  • During his tenure, the unemployment rate declined from 13.5% to 1.7%, all thanks to Mr. Lee’s reforms on the educational system, industrialization, and foreign direct policies.
  • More hospitals were opened with more appointed doctors and nurses.
  • With overall improvements in the economy, technology, and medical industry, the average life expectancy of Singaporeans were increased to 74 years (in 1990) from 65 years (in 1959). And it is 82.5 years now.

In the last 5 decades, our economy has surged at a pace that outperformed many stronger economies around the world like the US, Hongkong, Japan, etc.

What is the difference between a manager and a leader

Recently I met an Indonesia Tycoon, and he shared what he think is the lasting value of a business.  He said, “It is not what you do, but who you are. If you touch more people, the business will come.”

If we look at Singapore’s economy as a business, I guess Mr Lee, being the top manager for Singapore, must have thought the same. However, Mr Lee is more than just a manager, because the manager does things right, but the leader does the right thing. As he was often quoted,

I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.

He may no longer be able to serve the country, but his legacy and spirit will remain. Singapore’s only natural resources are its people. and “Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. This is not a game of cards.

The future is in our hands. What will you do for the next miracle of Singapore?

About the Author

Ivan Guan is the author of the popular book "FIRE Your Retirement". He is an independent financial adviser with more than a decade of knowledge and experience in providing financial advisory services to both individuals and businesses. He specializes in investment planning and portfolio management for early retirement. His blog provides practical financial tips, strategies and resources to help people achieve financial freedom. Follow his Telegram Channel to join the FIRE community.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. This does not reflect the official position of any agency, organization, employer or company. Refer to full disclaimers here.

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