LEE KUAN YEW: FOUNDER AND MENTOR OF SINGAPORE

LEE KUAN YEW

Singapore's success and identity can be pinned on one man: Lee Kuan Yew, the leader of Singapore for 31 years from 1959 to 1990, and the behind the scenes leader and senior statesman from 1991 until the present. Lee turned Singapore from a rowdy seaport in a squeaky clean metropolis without becoming corrupt or ousted from power. Author Michael Leifer described Lee as "a political superman of his time, albeit in charge of a metropolis." Terry McCarthy wrote in Time that he “towers over other Asian leaders on the international stage.” He received the New Century Award from the Nixon Peace Center and has been described by Henry Kissinger as a "great man."

Like Singapore itself, Lee is someone people tend to love or hate. Tough, brilliant, blunt, stern, arrogant and very outspoken, he has been a major proponent of the Asian way of beneficent authoritarianism and the father of the modern paternal Asian style of governing. Even those who don’t like him respect him. His advice and views are sought after by leaders all over the world.

“His stature is immense,”Catherine Lim, a novelist and frequent critic of Mr. Lee, told the New York Times. “This man is a statesman. He is probably too big for Singapore, on a level with Tito and de Gaulle. If they had three Lee Kuan Yews in Africa, that continent wouldn’t be in such a bad state.” In the 2010 interview with The New York Times Lee said: “I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honorable purpose,” he said. “I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”[Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 22, 2015]

Mark Jacobson wrote in National Geographic, “LKY, as he is known in acronym-mad Singapore, is more than the "father of the country." He is its inventor, as surely as if he had scientifically formulated the place with precise portions of Plato's Republic, Anglophile elitism, unwavering economic pragmatism, and old-fashioned strong-arm repression. Few living leaders—Fidel Castro in Cuba, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe come to mind—have dominated their homeland's national narrative the way Lee Kuan Yew has. Born into a well-to-do Chinese family in 1923, deeply influenced by both British colonial society and the brutal Japanese occupation that killed as many as 50,000 people on the island in the mid-1940s, the erstwhile "Harry Lee," Cambridge law degree in hand, first came to prominence as a leader of a left-leaning anticolonial movement in the 1950s. Firming up his personal power within the ascendant People's Action Party, Lee became Singapore's first prime minister, filling the post for 26 years. He was senior minister for another 15; his current minister mentor title was established when his son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004.” [Source: Mark Jacobson, National Geographic, January 2010]

Book: No Man i s an Island: A Study of Singapore;s Lee Kuan Yew by Hames Munchin; Form Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000 by Lee Kuan Yew (HarperCollins, 2000).

See Separate Article SINGAPORE UNDER LEE KUAN YEW factsanddetails.com .

Lee Kuan Yew's Early Life

The eldest son of upper-class parents whose families lost their fortune in the Depression, Lee was born Lee Harry on September 16, 1923 when his mother was 16 and his father was 20. His father worked at a store owned by Shell oil and he occasionally got in big rows with his mother after losing money at blackjack and other card games. Lee admired his mother and once said she would have been an "effective business executive" if she was “born in a different age."

In his autobiography, Lee wrote, "My earliest and most vivid recollection is of being held by my ears over a well in the compound of a house where my family was then living...I was about four years old...I had been mischievous and had messed up an expensive jar of my father's...My father had a violent temper, but that evening his rage went through the roof. He took me by the scruff of the neck from the house to this well and he held me over it. How could my ears have been so tough that they were not ripped off, dropping me into the well."

At the age of six, Lee began his academic career at a small one-room school for fishermen's children. Later he attended the Telok Kurau English School. As a youth, he was active in the boy scout movement, and enjoyed debating, swimming and playing cricket and tennis. In high school he was canned by his principal for being late to school three times during a semester.

Lee Kuan Yew and World War II

Lee survived the war by making chewing gum at home and selling it on the black market and working for the Japanese propaganda department (there were rumors that while he did so he was a spy for the British). According to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks Lee said “that he had learned from living through three and a half years of Japanese occupation in Singapore that people will obey authorities who can deny them food, clothing and medicine.”

Lee worked as a translator and engaged in black market trading during the Japanese occupation in World War II. He wrote: "The three-and-a-half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life. They gave me vivid insights into the behavior of human beings and human societies...Punishment was so severe that crime was very rare. People could leave their front door open at night. Every household had a head and every group of 10 households had a head." [Source: The Singapore Story by Lee Kuan Yew, 1998, Times Editions]

Reporting on what it was like in Singapore during the war, Lee Kuan Yew wrote, "From the end of 1943, food became scarcer and scarcer. Reduced to eating old, moldy, worm-eaten stock mixed with Malayan-grown rice, we had to find substitutes. My mother, like many others, stretched what little we could get...It was amazing how hungry my brothers and I became one hour after each meal...meanwhile, inflation had been increasing month by month, and by mid-1944 it was no longer possible to live on only salary . But there were better and easier pickings to be had as a broker on the black market." [Ibid]

Lee grew up speaking Malay, English and the Cantonese dialect of his maid. Later he learned Japanese, Mandarin and Hokkein to adapt to the changing political climate. His experience with the Japanese and English left him disliking both but admiring the way they did things.

Lee Kuan Yew After World War II

After World War II, Lee studied English and mathematics at Raffles College in Singapore and later secretly married Kwa Geok Choo, the only person at Raffles that outperformed him academically. In 1946 he moved to London, where he said he had problems with preparing tea with boiled milk and the odor of fried bacon. He entered Cambridge in October 1947 and graduated in May 1949. Lee took a double first (first-class honors in two subjects) in law and won the only star for Distinction on the final Law Tripos II. Choo graduated with him and also received a First.

After Cambridge, Lee returned to Singapore and practiced law for a while but quickly found his true calling in politics. He became the leader of a group of Chinese radicals at a time when the political scene in Singapore and Malaysia was a murky, chaotic world of nationalists, Communists, labor organizers, gangsters and spies. Lee had served as a legal adviser to a number of trade unions and, by 1952, had earned a reputation for his successful defense of the rights of workers. He also helped defend Chinese students arrested during the 1954 student demonstrations protesting national service. Through his work with the unions and student groups, Lee had made many contacts with anticolonialists, noncommunists and communists alike. *

Rise of People’s Action Party (PAP) and of Lee Kuan Yew

In 1954, Lee founded the People’s Action Party as its secretary general. He allied with Communists and other Chinese to fight for an independent Malaysia-Singapore union. According to Lonely Planet, “The shrewdly political Lee led the PAP to victory in elections held in 1959, becoming the first Singaporean prime minister – a post he held in his iron grip for 31 years.”

In 1953 a British commission recommended partial internal self-government for Singapore. In this milieu, other political parties began to form in 1954. One was the Labour Front led by David Marshall, who called for immediate independence and merger with Malaya. The same year, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was established under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew. The PAP also campaigned for an end to colonialism and a merger with Malaya. Following Legislative Assembly elections in 1955, a coalition government was formed with Marshall as chief minister. As a result of further talks with London, Singapore was granted internal self-government while the British continued to control defense and foreign affairs. In 1957 Malaya was granted independence, and the next year the British Parliament elevated the status of Singapore from colony to state and provided for new local elections. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In November 1954, the People's Action Party ( PAP) was inaugurated at a gathering of 1,500 people in Victoria Memorial Hall. The party was formed by a group of British-educated, middle- class Chinese who had returned to Singapore in the early 1950s after studying in Britain. Led by twenty-five-year-old Lee Kuan Yew, as secretary general, Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, and S. Rajaratnam, the party sought to attract a following among the mostly poor and non-English-speaking masses.

Present at the inauguration of the PAP were a number of noted communists and procommunists, including Fong Swee Suan and Devan Nair, who both joined the new party. Also present were Malayan political leaders Tunku Abdul Rahman, president of UMNO, and Sir Tan Cheng Lock, president of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). The PAP proposed to campaign for repeal of the Emergency regulations, union with Malaya, a common Malayan citizenship, Malayanization of the civil service, and free compulsory education. Ending colonialism, however, was the first priority of Lee and the PAP leadership, although they concluded this could be accomplished only with support from the Chinese-educated public and the communist-controlled trade unions. The PAP, calculating that a united front with the communists was necessary to end colonialism, declared itself noncommunist, neither pro- nor anticommunist, preferring to put off until after independence any showdown with the communists. *

Elections in 1959 Won By the People’s Action Party (PAP) and Lee Kuan Yew

In 1959, the growth of nationalism led to self-government, and the country’s first general election. The People’s Action Party (PAP) won a majority of 43 seats and Lee Kuan Yew became the first prime minister of Singapore. The PAP’s strongest opponents were communists operating in both legal and illegal organizations. The most prominent was the Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front), a left-wing party that retained favor in the 1960s and early 1970s. There also were fears that communists within the PAP would seize control of the government, but moderates led by Lee held sway. In 1962 Singaporean voters approved the PAP’s merger plan with Malaya, and on September 16, 1963, Singapore joined Malaya and the former British territories on the island of Borneo—Sabah and Sarawak—to form the independent Federation of Malaysia. Only Brunei opted out of the federation. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Voting in the 1959 election was made compulsory for all adult Singapore citizens, but the British refused to allow persons with records of subversive activity to stand for election. Ten parties contested the election, but none was as well organized as the PAP, which under Lee Kuan Yew ran a vigorous campaign with huge weekly rallies. Campaigning on a platform of honest efficient government, social and economic reform, and union with the Federation of Malaya, the PAP scored a stunning victory by winning forty-three of the fifty-one seats. The badly divided and scandal-ridden Labour Front had reorganized as the Singapore People's Alliance, which won four seats, including one for Lim Yew Hock. The remaining seats were won by three UMNO- MCA Alliance candidates and one independent. Marshall's Workers' Party failed to win any seats. *

Both foreign and local businesses feared that the PAP victory signaled Singapore's slide toward communism, and many moved their headquarters to Kuala Lumpur. Lee indeed refused to take office until the eight procommunist PAP detainees arrested in 1956 and 1957 were released, and he appointed several of them, including Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, and Devan Nair, to government posts. Lee's closest advisors, however, were moderates Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, and S. Rajaratnam. *

Early Government of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and Lee Kuan Yew

The first task of the new PAP government was to instill a sense of unity and loyalty in Singapore's diverse ethnic populace. A new national flag, crest, and anthem were introduced, and the new Ministry of Culture organized open-air cultural concerts and other events designed to bring the three main ethnic groups together. Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English were all made official languages, but, with its eye on a future merger with Malaya, the government made Malay the national language. Considered the indigenous people and yet the most disadvantaged, Malays were provided with free primary and secondary education. *

After national unity, the second most important task facing the new government was that of transforming Singapore from an entrepôt economy dependent on the Malayan commodity trade with no tradition of manufacturing to an industrialized society. A four-year development plan, launched under Minister of Finance Goh Keng Swee in 1961, provided foreign and local investors with such incentives as low taxation rates for export-oriented manufactures, tax holidays for pioneer industries, and temporary protective tariffs against imports. The plan set aside a large area of swamp wasteland as an industrial estate in the Jurong area and emphasized labor- intensive industries, such as textiles. The overhaul of Singapore's economy was urgently needed in order to combat unemployment and pay for badly needed social services. One of the most serious problems was the lack of adequate housing. In 1960 the Housing and Development Board (HDB) was set up to deal with the problems of slum clearance and resettlement. Under the direction of the banker and industrialist Lim Kim San, the HDB constructed more than 20,000 housing units in its first three years. By 1963 government expenditures on education had risen to S$10 million from S$600,000 in 1960. *

Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore’s Independence

Lee called Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965 his “moment of anguish”. He cried at a press conference the day the separation of Malaysia and Singapore was formally announced. After independence, Lee quashed Communist opponents and began his struggle to overcome the nation’s lack of natural resources, a potentially hostile international environment and a volatile ethnic mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians. “To understand Singapore and why it is what it is, you’ve got to start off with the fact that it’s not supposed to exist and cannot exist,” he said in a 2007 interview. “To begin with, we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny. So, history is a long time. I’ve done my bit.” [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 22, 2015]

According to Lonely Planet, “Although Singapore’s situation looked grim when it was booted out of the nascent federation of Malaysia in 1965, Lee set to work making the most of one-party rule, and pushing through an ambitious industrialisation programme for the island that had no natural resources beyond its labour force.” [Source: Lonely Planet]

David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Lee Kuan Yew was so anxious about the future he had trouble sleeping. His wife got a doctor to prescribe tranquilizers. When the British high commissioner arrived at his residence one day with an urgent message from her majesty's government, a physically exhausted Lee had to receive the envoy while lying in bed. "We faced tremendous odds and an improbable chance of survival," he wrote in his memoir. "...We inherited the island without its hinterland, a heart without a body." [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, September 2007]

“Lee's father was an inveterate gambler whom Lee remembers turning violent after losing nights at the blackjack table and demanding that his wife give him jewelry to pawn. One of the first things Lee Kuan Yew did after independence was take aim at vice. He banned casinos. He slapped high taxes on tobacco and alcohol. He targeted drug traffickers. Singapore emerged as a no-nonsense, moralistic society not noted for humor or levity.” [Ibid]

See Singapore Independence

Lee Kuan Yew’s Character

Terry McCarthy wrote in Time, “A champion of Asian values, he is most un-Asian in his frank and confrontational style. Lee loves Singapore but has relatively few close friends or confidants. He is a man of great intelligence, with no patience for mediocrity; a man of integrity, with an relentless urge to smite opponents; a man who devours foreign news but has little tolerance for disrespectful press at home.” Catherine Lim, the novelist and critic of Mr. Lee, told the New York Times the cost of his success was a lack of emotional connection. “Everything goes tick-tock, tick-tock,” she said. “He is an admirable man, but, oh, people like a little bit of heart as well as head. He is all hard-wired.”

Lee spoke in precise Victorian English, lived in a modest house, flew in commercial airliners and looked down on businessmen in expensive business suits. Work was his primary interest. He once said that the only books and movies he enjoyed were ones that relate to commerce or banking. He occasionally played golf; maintained a careful diet; and exercised for most of his life. Lee was very sensitive to heat and humidity. He spent nearly all of his time in air conditioned rooms with the temperature set at 22°C in the day and 19°C at night.

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times: Despite his success, Mr. Lee said that he sometimes had trouble sleeping and that he calmed himself each night with 20 minutes of meditation, reciting a mantra: “Ma-Ra-Na-Tha.” “The problem is to keep the monkey mind from running off into all kinds of thoughts,” he said in an interview with The Times in 2010. “A certain tranquillity settles over you. The day’s pressures and worries are pushed out. Then there’s less problem sleeping.” He said that he was not a religious man and that he dealt with setbacks by simply telling himself, “Well, life is just like that.” [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 22, 2015]

Lee was famous for his outspokenness. He and Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohammed were major spokesmen and advocates for Asian values. Lee once said that China should have kicked the foreign media out of Tiananmen Square by inducing diarrhea or spreading itching powder. On another occasion Lee said that allowing Japan to send peacekeeping troops abroad was "like giving chocolate liqueur to an alcoholic." He sometimes referred to the citizens of his own country as “digits.”

Lee Kuan Yew Retires

In 1990 Lee Kuan Yew resigned as prime minister. "We are going to be a bit lost without him," a Singaporean scholar told Newsweek, "He is so overwhelming, so dominating that perhaps only after he's gone will people start developing their own vision of Singapore." Unlike some Asian leaders who refused to step down and left no successors, Lee stepped down willingly and passed power to capable leaders. He was replaced by Goh Chok Tong, who in turn was replaced by Lee’s eldest son Lee Hsien Loong in 2004.

David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, Lee “had presided over a generation of stunning economic growth, but no one considered Singapore a world-class city like London, New York or Tokyo. There was no magnet except business—no arts to speak of, no creativity, no unpredictability, not a hint of wackiness. And that was costing Singapore a lot of money in lost tourist revenue and expatriates who found Thailand or Malaysia more interesting. The job of fine-tuning Singapore and ushering in an era that didn't equate fun with guilt fell to the prime ministers who followed Lee—Goh Chok Tong and, in 2004, Lee's elder son, Lee Hsien Loong. The younger Lee instructed his cabinet ministers to look at ways of "remaking" Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew After Retiring

After he retired Lee Kuan Yew continued to play an active role behind the scenes in the People's Action Party and the government in the conspicuous position of Minister Mentor. One former diplomat said: ''He didn't leave the stage, he just stepped behind the curtain''. Some people said that after Lee’s formal departure Singapore was run by the father, son and the Holy Goh. The father was Lee Kuan Yew; the son was Lee Kuan Yew's son Lee Hsien Loong, the deputy prime minister and future prime minister; and Goh is a Goh Chok Tong, the current Prime Mister.

Perhaps a better title for Lee Kuan Yew than Minister Mentor would have national “busy body” or micro-manager.” He issued advice on everything from protocol to diet). One academic complained to Newsweek,” "Now he even chooses the kind of trees we plant in Singapore. He gets a bright idea and rings up the person in charge and says, "there's this wonderful tree someone told me about. How come we don't have it?'" Lee became the chairman of the government pension fund, a major investor in China. Some regard this as the most powerful position in the country. He also met with the director of MTV, perhaps to get some tips on how to “lively up” his country.

In May 2006, Reuters reported: “Even at 82, Singapore's elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew relishes a fight. With elections set for May 6, he is once again busy blasting the opposition and silencing his critics with lawsuits. At a late-night People's Action Party rally, Lee took the stage, dressed in the party's trademark pristine whites and a garland of purple orchids, and told voters to ignore the ''rubbish'' they heard at opposition rallies. ''Many people go to their election rallies to enjoy the noise and excitement,'' said Lee, who described one opposition candidate as a ''liar'' and another as a ''bad egg''. ''But when you go home, consider carefully which candidate or the group of candidates ... can look after your lives, your jobs, homes, your children's Education ...,'' he said. Earlier “Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, launched defamation lawsuits against Chee Soon Juan and his sister, Chee Siok Chin, two leaders of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. Several other SDP leaders threatened with similar action over political comments have since apologised. [Source: Reuters May 4, 2006 ++]

Lee, “who follows a strict health regime of lots of sleep, careful diet and exercise, shows no sign of bowing out. ''There are things which I can do as a minister in government which I believe ... no other person can do. It's as simple as that,'' Lee said in a televised debate last month when asked if he would step down. Lee did not elaborate on what he alone could do, but the mere suggestion that he should retire sparked a strong response. ''I felt sorry for Minister Mentor Lee having to defend his continuing presence,'' wrote Tan Bee Lan in a letter to the Straits Times newspaper after the debate. ''I almost flipped when one of them asked him why he is still hanging around.'' What emerged from that televised debate -- which set off ripples of commentary in the local media -- was the sharp difference in views between the younger and older generations. ++

“Many older Singaporeans see Lee as the man whose pro-business and law-and-order policies turned Singapore from a raffish port into a clean, green and safe city. In his Singapore, spitters and jaywalkers were fined, vandals caned and drug offenders hanged. But younger voters seem to chafe against the PAP's authoritarian style: one youth in the debate with Lee called it arrogant, prompting a sharp retort from the minister mentor. ''Yes, we thank Mr Lee for what he has done since the 1950s,'' wrote Clement Wee Hong En in a letter to Today newspaper. ''But we wish to be allowed to shape our country's future in our own way. A great father is one who nurtures his children to prosper in adverse circumstances, but an even greater is one who knows when to let go, and who trusts that his children can take care of their future.'' ++

In 2010, Mark Jacobson wrote in National Geographic, “They say Lee Kuan Yew has mellowed over the years, but when he walks into the interview wearing a zippered blue jacket, looking like a flint-eyed Asian Clint Eastwood circa Gran Torino, you know you'd better get on with it. While it is not exactly clear what a minister mentor does, good luck finding many Singaporeans who don't believe that the Old Man is still top dog, the ultimate string puller behind the curtain. Told most of my questions have come from Singaporeans, the MM, now 86 but as sharp and unsentimental as a barbed tack, offers a bring-it-on smile: "At my age I've had many eggs thrown at me." Irked by Viswa's criticisms of the way some ethnic groups are treated in Singapore, LKY interrupted a medical treatment to angrily refute the "highfalutin" speech in a rare appearance on the parliament floor. The patriarch, in case anyone needed reminding, was not yet in his grave.” [Source: Mark Jacobson, National Geographic, January 2010]

Lee Kuan Yew Calls Myanmar Leaders “Stupid” and North Koreans “Psychopathic”

According to a a secret diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks and published in the Phnom Penh Post: Lee Kuan Yew said Cambodia should not have been accepted into ASEAN due to its lack of shared values with the bloc’s founding members.

The Washington Post reported that Lee Kuan Yew considered Myanmar’s junta leaders “stupid” and “dense,” according to classified U.S. documents. The Singapore leader said dealing with Myanmar’s military regime was like “talking to dead people.” according to a confidential briefing on a 2007 conversation between Lee and U.S. Ambassador Patricia L. Herbold and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Christensen released by WikiLeaks. [Source: Associated Press, December 15, 2010]

A cable released by Wikileaks a couple of weeks earlier quotes Lee calling North Korea's leaders "psychopathic types with a 'flabby old chap' for a leader who prances around stadiums seeking adulation." The reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is from a cable citing a May 2009 conversation between Lee and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.

Singapore's Foreign Ministry said "what Singapore officials were alleged by WikiLeaks to have said did not tally with our own records.""One purported meeting (between Singapore and U.S. diplomats) did not even take place," it said. Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo told reporters earlier this week that, in any case, such cables were interpretations of conversations by U.S. diplomats, and therefore shouldn't be "over-interpreted." "These are in the nature of cocktail talk," Yeo said. "It's always out of context. It's gossip."

Lee Kuan Yew Calls Islam a “Venomous Religion”

In 2005, Lee Kuan called Islam a “venomous religion” according to Wikileaks-leaked US diplomatic cables leaked in August 2011. “I did not say that,” Lee said. Lee had previously angered Malaysians with his remarks about Muslim Malays in his book “Hard Truths.”

According to the cable which released after a meeting in July 2005 between Hillary Clinton, at the time a US Senator from New York State, and Congressman Charles Rangel with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, then-Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, and then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (MMLee) : The problem of Islamic terrorism would not be easily extirpated, observed MM Lee. While Muslims in Southeast Asia were traditionally moderate and tolerant, they had been affected by radicalism emanating from Middle East and the spread of wahhabism from Saudi Arabia. Singapore’s Muslim leaders were rational and educated in English and the GOS kept a limit on madrassah-based education. He stressed that moderate Muslims had to be encouraged to stand up and speak out against radicalism. They needed confidence that they could win. We could get to the tipping point, noted MM Lee, but he didn’t know how long it would take.

MM Lee said Islamic terrorists would continue to use violence until shown that their methods would not succeed. If they were successful in Iraq, they would try to topple secular governments in other countries, such as Indonesia. PM Lee said Singapore supported U.S. efforts in Iraq; it was important to get the Iraqi government working, with a security force that could take over from U.S. forces and fend for itself. Asked by Rep. Rangel how organized terrorists were internationally, MM Lee responded that orthodox Islam was a powerful force capable of recruiting volunteers for terrorist groups. He noted Singapore’s experience in 2001 and 2002 in dealing with Jemaah Islamiyah’s terrorist plots in Singapore and characterized Islam as a “venomous religion.”

Lee Kuan Yew Quits Cabinet Post as His Party and Health Decline

Lee stayed on in the cabinet under Goh and his son, and resigned in May 2011 after his ruling party won the general election with the smallest margin of popular vote since independence in 1965. Associated Press reported: “Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew resigned from the Cabinet, ceding leadership to a younger generation after his party's worst election result since independence in 1965. Lee and fellow former prime minister Goh Chok Tong said in their joint resignation statement they wanted to leave a clean path for younger leaders. "A younger generation wants to be more engaged in the decisions which affect them," they said. "After a watershed general election, we have decided to leave the cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation." Both Lee and Goh won parliament seats in the May 7 election. Lee's resignation marks the first time since 1959 that he hasn't been in Singapore's Cabinet and hails the coming-of-age of his son, 59-year-old Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. [Source: Associated Press, May 14, 2011]

Before the election, Lee Kuan Yew warned voters in the Aljunied district that they would "repent" for five years if they voted for opposition candidates. Prime Minister Lee later distanced himself from his father's comments, but the opposition won all five of Aljunied's seats. "The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation," Lee and Goh said. "The Prime Minister and his team of younger leaders should have a fresh clean slate."

When Lee was 86, he was diagnosed with sensory peripheral neuropathy which impaired feeling in his legs, his daughter Lee Wei Ling, a senior consultant at the National Neuroscience Institute in Singapore, wrote in a column in the Sunday Times in November 2011. He also had a heart pacemaker implanted in 2008 after suffering from an irregular heartbeat.

In November 2003, Lee had prostrate surgery. AFP reported: “Three doctors carried out the transurethral resection of prostate operation at the Singapore General Hospital, a statement issued by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's office said. "After the operation, his condition is stable and he is resting in Singapore General Hospital," it said. TURP is a common prostate operation that takes about one hour and is generally not a serious procedure, according to the prostateinfo.com website. The website said TURP is most often recommended for men with non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate but is sometimes carried out on people with cancer. [Source: Agence France Presse, November 6, 2003]

Lee has shown few public signs of physical problems since having an operation in 1996 to clear a blocked coronary artery. Lee's wife suffered a stroke in London in 2003 while the pair were on an official European trip. She died in 2010.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Death

On March 23, 2015,Lee Kuan Yew died at the age of 91 after being hospitalised with severe pneumonia a month and a half earlier. His death, at the Singapore General Hospital, was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr. Lee’s eldest son. Four years earlier he told the New York Times he was feeling the signs of age and of weariness at the self-imposed rigor of his life. “I’m reaching 87, trying to keep fit, presenting a vigorous figure, and it’s an effort, and is it worth the effort?” he said. “I laugh at myself trying to keep a bold front. It’s become my habit. So I just carry on.” [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 22, 2015 */*]

In 1988, Lee said, "Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me in my grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I'll come up." But his immortality was put into question when he was rushed to the hospital in 1995 with near total blockage of a coronary artery.

In February 2013, Lee was hospitalized while he recovered from a suspected transient ischaemic attack, which occurs when blood flow to the brain stops for a period of time. Linus Chua of Bloomberg wrote: “ Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, was discharged after being hospitalized two days ago for a condition linked to a prolonged irregular heartbeat. Lee, 89, was sent to the Singapore General Hospital after the suspected transient ischemic attack, a condition with stroke-like symptoms that clear within a day, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office. “The doctors are following up with him to optimize his anti-coagulation therapy, in order to minimize the risk of further transient ischemic attacks,” the PMO said in a statement today. [Source: Linus Chua, Bloomberg, February 17, 2013]

"We all know the MM will die someday," Calvin Fones, a psychiatrist who runs a clinic at Gleneagles Hospital on Orchard Road. Told National Geographic a few years earlier. "When the country was young, there was a need for wise oversight. A firm hand. Now we are in adolescence, which can be a questioning, troublesome period. Coming into it without the presence of the patriarch will be a test." [Source: Mark Jacobson, National Geographic, January 2010]

On Lee’s legacy, the BBC reported: “He was the architect of Singapore's transformation from a dependent, port city to a stable, prosperous independent state and a global financial hub. However, he also introduced tight control. One of his legacies was a clampdown on the press - tight restrictions that remain in place today - while measures such as corporal punishment have been criticised as repressive. Dissent - and political opponents - were ruthlessly quashed. Today, PAP remains firmly in control. There are currently six opposition lawmakers in parliament. He was widely admired by world leaders, but criticised what he saw as the overly liberal approach of the US and the West, saying it had "come at the expense of orderly society". [Source: BBC, March 25, 2015]

Besides the prime minister, Mr. Lee is survived by his younger son, Lee Hsien Yang, who is the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore; a daughter, Dr. Lee Wei Ling, who runs the National Neuroscience Institute; a younger brother, Suan Yew; and a younger sister, Monica. Ho Ching, the wife of the prime minister, is executive director and chief executive of Temasek Holdings, a government holding company. */*

Eight-Hour Line to View Lee Kuan Yew Lying in State

Singapore observed a week of mourning after Lee Kuan Yew’s death. His body was put on view, lying in state at Singapore’s Parliament House. The BBC reported: “A huge queue has formed in central Singapore as thousands wait to pay tribute to late statesman Lee Kuan Yew lying in state in parliament. As of 15:00 local time, the waiting time was eight hours. Officials are discouraging people from joining the queue but said the viewing will now be open 24 hours. The viewing will end on Saturday night and his body will be moved the next day to a cultural centre for the funeral.[Source: BBC, March 25, 2015 ^:^]

“Many stood in the hot sun, shielding themselves with umbrellas, as they waited to enter Parliament House Officials said in a statement they were taken aback by the "overwhelming response" from the public. The viewing was meant to end at 20:00 local time but has since been extended twice. The city's underground train network, the MRT, will also run 24 hours. Many organisations and businesses are giving employees time off to pay their respects.Many brought flowers to pay respects The line snaked along the Singapore River, around the financial district and Boat Quay. ^:^

“The first in line had begun queuing on Tuesday night. By midday, the line was several kilometres long and wound through the heart of the city. Ivy Chiam, 79, spent four hours lining up with her sister. "We felt very tired, but we enjoyed it because we were there with all these people sharing the same feelings, talking about the same thing - Lee Kuan Yew," she told the BBC. "Standing in line for so long was nothing compared to what he did for us." With daytime temperatures above 30C, officials handed out water to those queuing and created a separate line for the elderly, handicapped and pregnant women.^:^

“Mr Lee's body had been resting at the Istana - the official presidential residence - for a private family mourning period. Thousands have already left flowers and message at its gates and signed books of condolence. Thousands gathered earlier on Wednesday to observe his flag-draped coffin accompanied by representatives of the military and government, as it was carried from the Istana through the main shopping and business districts, before arriving at Parliament House. ^:^

The BBC's Tessa Wong says the mood was expectant, even a little festive, along the Bras Basah Road thoroughfare, where hundreds of people - including schoolchildren holding handmade signs stating "RIP Mr Lee" - had gathered by the roadside and on rooftops. Singapore's current prime minster, Mr Lee's son Lee Hsien Loong, thanked all who had paid tribute, via his Facebook page. He also announced that a new orchid - Singapore's national flower - had been named after his father. The orchid, named Aranda Lee Kuan Yew, is on display at Parliament House.” ^:^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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