Lee Kuan Yew: Singapore’s Founding Father

When Lee Kuan Yew sadly passed away on March 23, 2015 he left behind one of the world’s most advanced economies; a far cry from the Singapore he rose from the proverbial ashes more than 60 years previously.

Born in 1923, Lee Kuan Yew – informally known as LKY – is widely accepted as the founding father of the independent Singapore we know today, leading the city-state from 1959 to 1990 as Prime Minister, before being appointed as Senior Minister and later, Minister Mentor before leaving the cabinet finally in 2011.

Continuing his role as part of the Tanjong Pagar constituency right up to his recent death, the legacy that Lee leaves compares to some of the most renowned names in political history, having performed what analysts have called an ‘economic miracle’, a political revolution which influenced one of the world’s major economies, and an infrastructural overhaul which has now established Singapore as one of the most developed nations in the world.

Economic miracle

Based on principles of meritocracy and multiracialism, Lee’s ‘economic miracle’ comprised a multi-faceted overhaul of all key performance indicators, following the country’s brief merger, and subsequent break-up from Malaysia.

The two key events, occurring in 1963 and 1965 respectively, left Lee despondent and upset at the merger’s unsuccessful and brief existence, but following a short period of reflection, the determined Prime Minister went to task in revolutionising an independent Singapore from an underdeveloped colony to a so-called Asian Tiger economy.

Bucking the trend of a nation, and also a region to some extent, Lee took a long-term view on policies, instilling core philosophies with sustainable development in mind. The results, over the course of his 31-year tenure at the helm, are testament to the unwavering ideologies implemented as a consequence:

·         Gross National Product per capita: $1,240 (1959) to $18,437 (1990)

·         Unemployment: 13.5 percent (1959) to 1.7 percent (1990)

·         External trade: $7.3 billion (1959) to $205 billion (1990)

·         Life expectancy: 65 (1960) to 74 (1990)

·         Population: 1.6 million (1959) to 3 million (1990)

·         Annual visitors: 0.1 million (1960) to 5.3 million (1990)

The country’s overhaul is all the more impressive given its size and subsequent lack of natural resources. So much so that Lee declared the country’s only natural resource to be its people and their work ethic.

To compliment this most important of all resources, Lee encouraged previously unseen levels of savings, investments and improved education, while reducing inflation and taxes dramatically.

 This move brought the city in line with neighbouring ‘Asian Tigers’, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, while putting Singapore on the map as a rapidly developing market consisting of sustainable growth strategies to allow for lucrative business success. 

In the 21st century, Singapore is now recognised as one of the most advanced global economies, attracting vast amounts of foreign direct investment currently, and influencing some of the world’s largest countries in their own developments.

Chinese relations

In recent years, this influence can be seen in Russia through the methodology it instils in its communist leadership, but throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, it was China taking the lead of its significantly smaller Southeast Asian neighbour.

Arguably the most important period of China’s evolution to global economic prominence came under the ruling of Deng Xiaoping, who based much of his policies on what he had seen Lee achieve in Singapore in regards to infrastructural growth, economic empowerment and staunch leadership.

Having visited the city in 1978, Xiaoping later sent 22,000 Chinese officials in the same direction to observe and learn from the methods being implemented. As a consequence, Lee is often hailed by historians as not only salvaging the future of Singapore but for relieving China from widespread poverty and market devolution.

Known tentatively as ‘soft power’, Singapore has benefitted in turn by China’s escalating dominance; building a critical relationship which ensured the retention of traditional, indigenous sentiment between the two nations as well as rewarding the city financially as well.

In the 90s, the Chinese chose Singapore to be one of the first destinations open for members of the public to travel internationally to; a natural choice considering the vast proportion of Chinese speaking communities and the almost identical ways in which the two countries were being run under Lee and Xiaoping.

A smart leader

It wasn’t just China or communist leaders taking Lee’s lead either, with much of the western world at least realising his significance to the development of a single nation.

Henry Kissinger described Lee as “one of the asymmetries of history” while Richard Nixon compared his influence to the likes of Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli. British Prime Minister, Tony Blair later called Lee the smartest leader he ever met.

This recognition stems not necessarily from compassion or love bestowed upon him by the Singaporean population but from his achievements in forging a corruption-free and extremely driven government; a necessity in his eyes to accomplish the change he felt was required.

Criticised in some quarters for creating an elitist system, Lee attributed his approach to pragmatism, seeing western democracy as inappropriate for an emerging nation such as Singapore. Authoritative, rapid and wholesale revolution is what was called for, and it was what Lee achieved across the board.

Infrastructure

Addressing the infrastructural shortfalls that were inhibiting Singapore’s independent evolution was top of the agenda, and to look at the city-state now, the condition in which Lee found the country is unimaginable.

The initial plan was to capitalise on the merger of MalayaSabah and Sarawak under the Malaysia umbrella, optimising a new source of natural amenities. However, following the collapse of the mini empire two years later in 1965, Singapore was backed into a corner from which only Lee could pull it from.

Tackling areas of national security, the economy, corruption, population levels and the aforementioned natural resources, Lee also adjoined Singapore to the United Nations as well as founding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967.

A large facet of the initial revitalisation consisted of improving international relations – as later seen through countries like China and Myanmar –including the likes of Indonesia in the immediate term. This, in turn, opened up a wider spectrum of trade avenues than the city had enjoyed before.

Internally, Lee made huge strides in establishing a national identity which conversely embraced a multiculturalism that was naturally engrained in Singapore’s history, incorporating different languages and races to move forward under one regime.

Half a century on and the fruits of his endeavours can be seen across the entire city’s infrastructure in the form of two casino resorts, and a world-leading airport surrounding a central business district thriving under a canopy of skyscrapers.

The city’s role as a sea freight hub and a centre for extensive foreign direct investment and outsourcing opportunities further confirms that no country in the world punches above its weight quite as much as Singapore.

Singapore’s future

All of this notoriety and prosperity, which is now taken as a given by anyone born after the 1980s, can be traced back to one man.

Lee Kuan Yew not only brought a country from its knees to global prominence, but improved the lives of its populace, and the wealth of those – larger - East Asian nations surrounding the tiny city-state.

‘Miracle’ is the word that gets banded around more than any other by historians describing the man’s efforts, unleashing economic potential that only he had identified, to catalyse what is now one of the world’s most modern and innovative regions.

The city still maintains a multicultural feel, unseen across other neighbouring countries, proving equally as popular to western travellers as it is to the Chinese or Japanese. And it is still on the rise too.

Since 1990, when GDP per capita stood at more than $18,000, that figure has risen to more than $55,000 in 2011 and is expected to have improved dramatically since then also, thanks to globally significant spectacles including Formula 1’s annual Singapore Grand Prix.

The next decade will also likely see an expansion of its shipping and aviation hubs as it continues to enhance its role as a regional headquarters operating to international standards.

 It will perhaps be years and decades further down the line before Lee’s legacy will truly be put into clearer perspective. What is immediately evident though is the sense of loss that Singapore will feel in losing their father; a man who proved that even the smallest nation can rise to the top of the global food chain.