Lee Kwan Yew

/ 03:00 AM September 19, 2011

Last Friday, September 16, was the 88th birthday of the longest-serving government minister in the world. From June 1959 to May 2011, almost 52 years, Lee Kwan Yew served in government either as prime minister of Singapore or as senior minister under Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong or as minister-mentor under his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Last May, after the general elections in the country, he announced his retirement from the cabinet.

For Singaporeans, Lee’s official retirement from government service does not mean anything as they remember what he once said, “Even from my sick bed, even as you lower me into the grave, and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.”


In his memoirs “The Singapore Story” (the first of two volumes), Lee tells the story of his country from the years of British colonial rule to sudden independence in 1965. As he puts it, “I had not intended to write my memoirs and did not keep a diary.” But he was concerned by “the over confidence of a generation that has only known stability, growth, and prosperity.” He felt that “our people should understand how vulnerable Singapore was and is.” Most of all, he wanted them to know “how honest and effective government, public order and personal security, economic and social progress did not come about as the natural course of events.”

Lee Kwan Yew was born in Singapore on Sept. 16, 1923, the eldest of four brothers and a sister. His parents were well-off and sent him to the best schools in Singapore and the United Kingdom where he finished Law at Cambridge University.


Lee characterizes the three-and-a-half years of Japanese occupation as the most important of his life. “They gave me vivid insights into the behavior of human beings and human societies, their motivations and impulses. My appreciation of governments, my understanding of power as the vehicle for revolutionary change, would not have been gained without this experience. I saw a whole social system crumble suddenly before an occupying army that was absolutely merciless. The Japanese demanded total obedience and got it from nearly all.”

The Japanese governed by fear and because punishment was harsh and cruel, crime was rare. “As a result, I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime. That was not my experience in Singapore before the war, during the Japanese occupation or subsequently.”

To this day, Singapore does not hesitate to use sharp and strong measures against criminal elements, including carrying out the death penalty for serious offenders.

For many offenses, including minor ones like vandalism, caning is carried out as punishment. Remember the American teenager Michael Fay in 1994 who was caught spray-painting vehicles? He was subjected to caning in spite of appeals from US government officials. In the case of Lee himself, as a student at Raffles Institution, he was given three lashes by the headmaster for being late too often. He didn’t think it did him any harm.

In terms of maintaining military discipline, corporal punishment is an official penalty for the Singapore Armed Forces, one of the few in the world with this policy.

Perhaps the lesson from Singapore is that laws must be enforced and punishment carried out swiftly and fairly.

* * *


In September 1963, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia, which included Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak. Barely two years later, because of fears that Lee and his People’s Action Party (PAP) would one day challenge Malay domination of the federation, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia. In explaining his action, Tunku Abdul Rahman, prime minister of the federation, said that expulsion became necessary since the Singapore state government “ceased to give a measure of loyalty to the central government.”

Lee Kwan Yew explains what he believes were the real reasons for the expulsion of Singapore. He says, “They [Malay political leaders] must have concluded that if, they allowed us to exercise our constitutional rights, they were bound to lose in the long run.”

He goes on to say, “The PAP leaders were not like the politicians in Malaya. Singapore ministers were not pleasure-loving, nor did they seek to enrich themselves. UMNO (United Malaya National Organization) had developed to a fine art the practice of accommodating Chinese or Indian ministers in Malaya who proved troublesome and had within a few years, extended its practice to Sabah and Sarawak.

“Nor was it easy to compromise us. Keng Swee [a PAP colleague] and I once accompanied the Tunku and Tan Siew Sin [a Chinese political partner] to a ‘mess’ in Kuala Lumpur run by wealthy Chinese merchants. These were men’s clubs where excellent food was provided by the best restaurants, where members and their friends could gamble at mahjong or poker and where attractive call girls were available…. But as soon as the girls arrived, Keng Swee and I pleaded pressing engagements and made ourselves scarce….They considered us difficult, almost as dangerous and elusive to handle as the Communists and much too ideological. Worse, we always acted constitutionally and hence were difficult to fix.”

On Aug. 9, 1965, the federal parliament and the senate in Kuala Lumpur passed on three readings the resolution separating Singapore from Malaysia. Singapore was now an independent nation.

Thirty-five years later, Singapore completed the jump from Third World to First World mainly on the strength and leadership of one man—Lee Kwan Yew. From a per capita GDP of $400 in 1959 (when he became prime minister of a self-governing state) to more than $20,000 in 2000, the former British trading post is now one of the most prosperous nations in the world.

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Lee’s eldest son Lee Hsien Loong is the prime minister of Singapore. Another son Lee Hsien Yang was former president of Singtel. Both were brigadier generals in the Singapore Armed Forces. A daughter Lee Wei Ling is head of the National Neuroscience Institute. The wife of the prime minister, Ho Ching, is the CEO of Temasek Holdings, a government holding company with stakes in important agencies like Singapore Airlines (SIA) and DBS Bank.

Last October, Lee’s wife, Kwa Geok Choo passed away in her sleep.

* * *

Good news for senior citizens in Quezon City. They now enjoy free parking in all SM shopping malls in the city. Recently I mentioned that Gateway Mall at the Araneta Center had extended this privilege to senior citizens. Let us hope other cities of Metro Manila will follow suit.

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