Lee Kuan Yew: Creating A Nation

by | 29 Mar 2015 | Leaders from History

Below is a short biography of Lee Kuan Yew taken from my book History Lessons, which looks at the great leaders from history and explores what aspects of their leadership could be considered to have made them ‘great’. I came to the conclusion that the virtually all of the skills, abilities and characteristics of great leaders fell under one of eight headings: Changing the Mood; Boldness of Vision; Doing the Planning; Leading from the Front; Bringing People With You; Making Things Happen; Taking the Offensive; and Creating Opportunities.

I felt that Lee Kuan Yew belonged firmly in the ‘Doing the Planning’ category (along with Napoleon Bonaparte and Martin Luther King). Lee, however, could equally well have fitted into any of the other categories – which is unusual. Part of the core argument of History Lessons is that there is no one template for great leadership, and that great leaders come in all shapes and sizes – and often have considerable weaknesses alongside their considerable strengths.

I must confess that I had reservations about including Lee when I first wrote the book: my liberal western upbringing made me uneasy about some of Lee’s less than liberal actions in consolidating his political power.  History, I am sure, will have few such reservations about a man who single-handedly created a new nation state, generated huge public wealth and gave opportunity to millions. And, without any disrespect to Lee intended, I should remind myself that I included both Napoleon Bonaparte and Genghis Khan as belonging in any list of the great leaders from history — neither of whom were famous for their liberal principles, but both of whom I admire greatly as leaders; as I do Lee Kwan Yew.

Lee Kuan Yew (1923 – 2015 )

From Chapter 3 of History Lessons: ‘Doing the Planning’.

Lee Kuan Yew created the city state of Singapore. He turned a small island that was significant only for its strategic importance as a naval base serving the British Empire’s south-east Asian colonial interests into one of the four Asian Tiger economies, alongside Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. There was absolutely nothing inevitable about this; it happened because of the vision of one man. Lee Kwan Yew’s relationship to Singapore is perhaps best seen as that of a Chief Executive Officer to a corporation. If we were considering Lee’s career as that of an executive rather than that of a politician we would say, without reservation, that his rise to power was brilliantly but ruthlessly orchestrated; that his sharp, legally-trained mind had a crystal-clear grasp of the issues involved and of the interests of the key players, whom he masterfully manipulated; that he made use of various factions to facilitate his own road to power, and that he then unceremoniously (and successfully) dumped them once power had been achieved. We would say that his vision for his corporation’s future was equally single-minded, and that every obstacle to the fulfilment of that vision was brilliantly overcome. We would say, as analysts or as potential investors, that Lee’s efforts on behalf of his corporation had led to unprecedented growth and financial success, to the great benefit of his workforce and his shareholders. Reservations about Lee stem from the fact that he created modern Singapore from the position of a politician rather than as an Executive Officer, and that what reads like firm action in the corporate world can translate as repressive behaviour in the political arena. The cost of Singapore’s ‘Capitalist Statism’, however, can be measured only in lost liberties and in degrees of state interference.

From Raffles to the Republic of Singapore

The island of Singapore was acquired for the East India Company—the quasi-governmental trading organisation for the British Empire—by the marvellous late eighteenth-century figure of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, in 1819. The island became a British colony in 1824 and became a British Crown Colony in 1867. All of which glosses over the fact that the island had been a significant trading post for the Indonesian people for a thousand years or so before a decline in the fourteenth century and long before the rise of the British Empire.

Singapore became an important trading post on the spice route from Indonesia to the west, and then a significant British naval base, built particularly to counter the threat of rising Japanese influence in the region. Unfortunately, when the Japanese did attack Singapore, having fought their way down through Malaya, the British contingent collapsed within days, leading to the largest surrender of British troops in history—80,000 surrendered at Singapore, joining the 50,000 troops who had already been captured on the Malaysian mainland. Winston Churchill called it the ‘biggest disaster and worst capitulation in British history’.

The fall of Singapore had a two-fold effect on young Lee Kuan Yew and his contemporaries.  Lee, whose Chinese great-grandfather had emigrated to Singapore in the late eighteen-hundreds, and who was nineteen years old when Singapore was captured by the Japanese, would never forget the effects of foreign domination: ‘(The Japanese) made me, and a generation like me, determined to work for freedom from servitude and foreign domination. I did not enter politics. They brought politics to me’.[i] The second effect on Lee and his contemporaries was the vivid realisation that the mighty British Empire was not all-powerful. Even after Britain, in the magnificently uniformed person of Lord Mountbatten, accepted the surrender of Japan alongside representatives of the other allies, Britain’s humiliating defeat by the Japanese still resonated.

Lee learned Japanese and became a translator for the official Japanese news agency. He fled from Singapore in the last days of the war and hid in the Malayan interior until the British arrived. Lee, a fearsomely bright student, was in a hurry to get on with his studies. His parents found him a civilian berth on the troop-ship Britannia; he arrived at Liverpool, travelled to London and spent one term at the London School of Economics before winning a place at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he took a double first in law. He returned to Singapore and started work as a lawyer in a well-known practice before setting up his own practice with his wife, whom he had met at Cambridge, and his elder brother. The politics of Singapore were changing rapidly; it was not a question of whether Singapore would become independent but when, and who would benefit most. Lee set out to ensure that he would emerge in a position of political control. His vision never wavered, though events took various turns that even the clear-sighted Lee could not have predicted.

Champion of the left

Communism was an inescapable part of the post-war politics of Singapore, Malaya and Southeast Asia as a whole. When China emerged from the Second World War and its own war with Japan, the Communist Party of China had defeated their Nationalist opponents to emerge as the new rulers of China. The Singaporean Chinese had been significant fund-raisers for both parties—Communist and Nationalist—during the Sino-Japanese War.

Communist groups in Malaya had fought a war of resistance against the Japanese. The Malayan Communist Party, formed in 1930, demanded an end to British Colonial rule. After the Japanese invasion, the Party formed the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, and were supported with British arms. At the end of the war, they were recognised legally as a reward for this wartime collaboration against the Japanese. Later, the Communist Party used violent action in support of union demands; as increasing violence led to the threat of a full-scale rebellion, the British colonial government declared a State of Emergency in 1948 that would not be lifted until 1960. The Malay Communist Party was suppressed once more; their anti-Japanese forces re-emerged as the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) and fought a guerrilla war against Commonwealth forces. Support for the MNLA came substantially from Malaya’s three million Chinese. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the war against the French in Vietnam would end in 1954, with communist forces, backed by China and the USSR, driving the French out of Indochina. The Second Indochina War—the ‘Vietnam War’—would begin in 1959.

Britain was determined to avoid a communist government in a newly-independent Singapore. Ironically, since Lee Kuan Yew would eventually emerge as the leader of one of the bastions of capitalism in Southeast Asia, Lee initially tied his flag to left-wing causes in order to harness their popular support. He later comprehensively severed all ties with his former allies, arresting some and exiling others.

Lee made a name for himself in Singapore as legal counsel for two left-wing issues. He represented the Postal Worker’s Union during a strike and was rarely out of the local papers, issuing a barrage of statements and letters to editors. Lee helped to win significant concessions for the Union from the colonial government. Student activists who were backing the strike turned to Lee to defend them against charges of sedition for the publication of a student journal. Lee—ironically, given his later repressive dealings with the Singaporean press—argued for the inviolable right of the students to freedom of speech. The charges against the students were dismissed; the high-profile case established Lee as a champion of the left.

Lee began to focus on a political career—the goal of all of his previous efforts. He and a group of like-minded friends formed a new political party, the People’s Action Party (PAP). Lee became secretary-general. The new party had solid Trade’s Union support. The elections in 1955 were fought on a limited franchise—the bulk of the Chinese population was still disenfranchised, but those Chinese with dual citizenship of both the United Kingdom and of the Colonies were entitled to vote for the first time. Lee knew that to attract the Chinese vote he needed a left-leaning, communist-friendly agenda. He was about to play a remarkably subtle political hand: harnessing pro-communist support without being taken over by them, while remaining the leader of choice for anti-communist supporters.

The new party’s platform was unashamedly populist: repeal of the State of Emergency imposed after the Communist insurrection in Malaya; independence for Malaya and Singapore; Malays (and Singaporeans) to take on the running of the civil service; universal adult suffrage. At this point, Malaya and Singapore saw themselves as one nation, though Singapore was predominantly Chinese, while Malaya was a mixture of ethnic Malay, Chinese and other ethic groupings. Prominent Malayan politicians joined Lee and his colleagues on electioneering platforms. The relationship would later fall apart.

Prime Minister; Independence

Lee continued to play both sides of the electorate. With several prominent left-wing members of the PAP in jail (conveniently enough for Lee’s leadership) the PAP nevertheless needed the section of the vote that these imprisoned figures represented. The PAP campaigned on a platform promising that they would refuse to assume power unless the Trade Unionists were released from prison. In the elections, the PAP won forty-three of the fifty-one constituencies with fifty-four per cent of the total vote.

There was one last-minute hurdle. When the executive committee came to choose a Prime Minister, Lee was shocked to find that he had a serious rival. Ong Eng Guaan had been elected with an impressive seventy-seven per cent of the vote in his constituency. He was popular, larger-than-life, and had been a very successful mayor of Singapore. He had the popular touch: on the day of his inauguration as mayor, he had set off firecrackers outside City Hall and got himself arrested. He refused to wear the colonial wig and regalia and performed his mayoral duties in his shirt sleeves. It is hard not to like Ong’s way of handling people whom he felt to be wasting time in meetings at City Hall. To encourage committee members to be more concise, Ong would make tactful suggestions, such as, ‘Shut up!’, ‘Sit down!’, ‘Get out!’, or ‘Blab, blab, blab, blab!’[ii] The vote between Ong and Lee was split down the middle; Lee was saved when his ally, Toh Chin Chye, exercised his casting vote, as Party Chairman, in Lee’s favour. Lee Luan Yew, at the age of thirty-six, was Prime Minister of Singapore.

Lee began to lobby for Singapore to be united with an independent Malaya—Malaya had become an independent state in the British Commonwealth in 1957. Lee argued that Singapore, left on its own, could fall into the hands of the communists. One of the most compelling reasons for Malaya to accept Singapore into the greater Federation of Malaysia was the fear of a communist ‘Cuba’ off the southern tip of Malaya.  In fact, Lee cracked down so hard on communists in Singapore that, over the next year or two, this threat was soon proved to be non-existent. Lee worked hard to have his Singaporean political party, the PAP, accepted into the Federal Government, but was rejected. Lee almost certainly had plans to become the Prime Minister of Malaysia. The two sides fell out over Lee’s political ambitions, exacerbated by the issue of race: Malaysia’s population was almost equal split between Malay and Chinese citizens, with about twenty percent other ethnic groupings. When Lee formed an opposition grouping in Malaysia based on his predominantly Chinese PAP, this polarised politics between Malay and non-Malay groupings; there were riots between Malays and Chinese. It seemed possible that Lee wanted to form a rival Federation based on the predominantly Chinese islands of Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah (Malaysian states on the island of Borneo). Singapore was ejected from Malaysia in 1965, and became the Republic of Singapore.

Inventing An Economy

With Singapore unexpectedly independent and thrown onto its own resources, Lee set about planning the development of the economy with impressive single-mindedness. He set up the Economic Development Board, which set out to attract both foreign investment and any necessary outside expertise. The Board itself was staffed with experts in every necessary field. Lee employed a Dutch economist Dr Albert Winsemius, to help develop the country’s national economic strategy. Singapore had traditionally relied on entrepot trade—its geographical location gave it the perfect position from which to buy goods from shippers who did not want to undertake the full journey between, for example, east and west, and sell them on, at a profit, to more distant customers in both markets (the French word entrepôt translates as ‘between two places’.) The developing plan was to transform Singapore from an entrepot economy to an industrialised manufacturing base within ten years.

Lee was conscious that his neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, would be increasingly keen to cut out the middle man and that, with the world shrinking daily, shipment direct from supplier to customer on a world-wide basis would become increasingly common. This did not mean that Singapore’s location on the main shipping route from the Far East to Europe was a shrinking asset: Singapore built Southeast Asia’s first container-ship terminal, offering a twenty-four hour berthing system to speed-up turnaround. In the first ten year’s of Lee’s Prime Ministry, the volume of cargo handled by Singapore doubled. The island, with no oil resources of its own, developed a major oil-refining capacity; crude oil was imported via the Persian Gulf, and shipped on as refined products to markets from Indonesia to Australia.

When the British decided to close their huge naval base in Singapore, it was a potentially devastating blow. Lee turned it into a tremendous opportunity: he persuaded British Prime Minister Harold Wilson not to destroy the base, which was normal practice (to prevent naval facilities from being used by a hostile power) but to allow Singapore to develop it for civilian use.  Singapore became the best-equipped shipbuilding and ship repair yard between Japan and Europe.

New legislation gave the Corrupt Practices Investment Bureau substantial powers to investigate and prosecute anyone suspected of corruption. Civil Service salaries were improved and reviewed regularly to remove the incentive for corruption. An Employment Act guaranteed an absence of labour disputes and wage restraint by making arbitration compulsory. Singapore could offer foreign investors relatively inexpensive industrial labour costs with a stable and corruption-free administration. Equally important were Singapore’s strong work ethic and can-do attitude. Singapore was beginning to emulate the other ‘Tiger’ economies of Southeast Asia. Unemployment fell dramatically between 1965 and 1973. Huge housing developments sprang up on land reclaimed form swamps or from the sea itself. Slums disappeared. Industrial, shopping and office complexes were built.

Cleaning up

Lee decided that Singapore should be ‘Clean and Green’. Teams of gardeners appeared and began planting. Shop owners were obliged to keep their shop fronts clean and tidy; littering became a relatively serious offence.

By the end of the 1960’s, Singapore was ready to offer more than a stable and low-cost manufacturing base; a new industrial development was planned to deliver sophisticated and capital-intensive factories producing high-technology goods: cameras; electronics; machine tools. The country could afford to be more selective about its inward investment—new criteria looked at investment proposals that developed worker skills, offered technological growth and had guaranteed export potential. Singapore began to develop as a financial market. By the end of the 1960’s there were over twenty foreign banks on the island; Asia dollar deposits were tax-free (compared to 15% tax on deposits in Hong Kong); hard currencies were exchanged free of charge. Growing American interest in Southeast Asia made Singapore a vital part of the flow of American capital towards the region—and later of European capital also. Dr Wilhemus, the economic advisor, encouraged new investment in further education: the unemployment issue had been effectively solved, what was need now were higher-level skills and knowledge-based services.

My original text quotes the then-current World Bank figures on GDP per capita: “Singapore ranks nineteenth on the World Bank’s 2007 list of GDP per capita. The United States rank tenth. Japan ranks twentieth. It is amazing what planning can achieve.”  The figures current today would read: “Singapore ranks fourth on the World Bank’s 2011-13 list of GDP per capita. The United States rank tenth. Japan ranks twenty-sixth.”

[i] Le Kuan Yew quoted in T.J.S. George, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, André Deutsch, London, 1973, p 22

[ii] T.J.S. George op. cit. p 50

Share this article on social channels: