Lee Kuan Yew speaking at the People’s Action Party’s inaugural meeting held at the Victoria Memorial Hall (c.1954. Image from National Archives of Singapore)
Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew (b. 16 September 1923 – d. 23 March 2015) is widely regarded as the founder of modern Singapore, serving as the nation’s Prime Minister for 31 years from 1959 to 1990. A well respected leader in the global community, Lee introduced pioneering policies that transformed Singapore into a modern metropolis.
Lee grew up in 92 Kampong Java Road before moving into his maternal grandfather’s house in Telok Kurau in 1929. He studied at Raffles Institution and received a scholarship at Raffles College – which was disrupted by the Japanese Occupation. During the Occupation, Lee narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Kempeitai (Japanese military police). He managed to slip away from a screening process that claimed victims of the Sook Ching Massacre by laying low in a house at 75 Maude Road that belonged to a friend of his family’s rickshaw driver, Koh Teong Koo.
In 1945, Lee and his family moved into 38 Oxley Road, a place that he would continue to reside with his wife Madam Kwa Geok Choo and their children, up till the day of his death.
Lee Kuan Yew with Mdm Kwa Geok Choo at their home in Oxley Road (c.1950. Image from National Archives of Singapore)
In 1946, Lee enrolled in the London School of Economics before transferring to Fitzwilliam Hall in Cambridge University in 1947. During his time in the UK, Lee’s political awareness grew due to his involvement with the British Labour Party and more importantly, London’s Malayan Forum, the place where he would come to meet lifelong comrades, including Dr Goh Keng Swee and Toh Chin Chye. Lee secretly married his wife, Mdm Kwa Geok Choo on December 1947 in Stratford, England. Together, they were called to the bar in Singapore on 7 Aug 1951.
Lee’s professional career began with the law firm Laycock and Ong. He slowly gained attention from the public through various high-profile cases, particularly his fight for local civil servants to receive similar benefits as their European counterparts. In 1955, he co-founded the firm Lee & Lee together with his brother and wife where he continued to practice up till 1959.
Career & Accomplishments
In 1954, Lee and a select group of individuals, including Dr Goh Keng Swee and Toh Chin Chye, began meeting in “basement group” at his home to discuss the nation’s future. They eventually decided to form the People’s Action Party (PAP) on 21 November 1954 and contested in the 1955 Legislative Assembly elections. Lee was elected to represent the Tanjong Pagar constituency, a role he would serve till his last days as a Member of Parliament.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at Cheng Cheok Street off Tanjong Pagar Road during his tour of Tanjong Pagar constituency (c.1968. Image from National Archives of Singapore)
Lee Kuan Yew, then Secretary-General of the People’s Action Party, walks alongside party members on polling day at the 1955 Legislative Assembly General Elections (c.1955. Image from National Archives of Singapore)
In the 1959 elections, Lee’s fiery debates in the house led him and the PAP to capture 43 out of 51 assembly seats. At the age of 35, Lee became the Prime Minister of the self-governing state of Singapore.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew posing for a group photograph with his Ministers and Legislative Assemblymen In front of City Hall after the swearing-in of the new Government. (c.1959. Image from National Archives of Singapore)
Merger With Malaya
Singapore’s lack of natural resources and economic dependence on Malaya would see Lee push for perhaps the most pressing issue of his early years as Prime Minister – that of merger with Malaya. Lee’s push for merger would however lead to a breakaway within the PAP’s own ranks, resulting in the formation of the Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front). Lee eventually negotiated a favourable deal a won a referendum in 1962.
On September 1963, the new country of Malaysia was formed with the merger of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. Tensions, sometimes escalating into violent riots – like the Communal Riots of 1964 – soon led to the separation of Singapore from Malaya on 9 August 1965, an event that left Lee distinctively distraught in a widely televised moment remembered by many Singaporeans.
Lee Kuan Yew walks alongside Tengku Abdul Rahman before he heads off to London to discuss about Singapore’s merger with Malaya. (c.1962. Image from National Archives of Singapore)
Leading an Independent Singapore
Backed by a dedicated and talented team with stalwarts like S. Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye, Dr Goh Keng Swee, Ong Pang Boon and E W Barker, Lee faced the massive task of developing a newly independent Singapore. He put his full faith in his cabinet ministers and gave each minister departmental objectives such as Defence (Dr Goh Keng Swee) Foreign Affairs (S. Rajaratnam) and Education (Ong Pang Boon).
Lee Kuan Yew, Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament attending a Parliamentary sitting. (c.1965. Image from National Archives of Singapore)
To many, Lee was a visionary who pioneered successful policies that would later be copied by both developing and developed nations. His anticipation of future challenges would see him ensure long-term security of Singapore’s water supply with Malaysia, while his vision of Singapore as a Garden City would lead to national efforts in tree planting across the island, beginning with himself in June 1963 when he planted a Mempat Tree at Farrer Circus.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew planting a mempat (cratoxylum formosum) tree at Holland Circus to mark the beginning of his tour of Ulu Pandan constituency. The ceremony also signified the beginning of an island-wide tree planting campaign. (c.1963. Image from National Archives of Singapore)
Lee was known for his firm approach to governance and believed that Singapore was too small to afford liberal experiments. Lee also saw the dire need to create a pool of capable leaders for the future, and began recruiting new talent from the early 1970s before easing out the old guard by the mid-1980s.
For the next 21 years, Lee remained in cabinet as Senior Minister, then as Minister Mentor when Lee Hsien Loong took over as prime minister in 2004. During this time, Lee continued to travel widely despite his age, and readily spoke out on Singapore and world affairs. He left the cabinet on 14 May 2011 together with Goh Chok Tong, marking a new beginning of a political era in Singapore.
Lee Kuan Yew, who took on the role of Senior Minister when he stepped down in 1990, is seen taking an oath as a Member of Parliament during the first session of the Ninth Parliament at Parliament House. (c.1997. Image from National Archives of Singapore)
Group photograph of Senior Minister and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, Deputy Prime Minister and Mrs Ong Teng Cheong, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lim Boon Heng (second from left) with officials at Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai, during their two-week official visit to China in October 1992 (c.1992. Image from National Archives of Singapore)
Lee’s legacy is commemorated through various tributes, such as the establishment of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in 2004, and the creation of the Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship by the Public Service Commission.
Lee Kuan Yew passed away at 3.18 am on 23 March 2015 at the age of 91. A week of national mourning and a state funeral was held in honour of his contributions to Singapore.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew arriving at the school foyer during his visit to Dunman High School. (c.2011. Image from National Archives of Singapore)