Depending on when you were born, you either love or hate Lee Kuan Yew. The first Singapore’s prime minister passed away at the Singapore General Hospital today at 3.18am, aged 91. Mr Lee, whose health rapidly deteriorated after his wife died in 2010, was in the hospital for nearly seven weeks with severe pneumonia. Born Harry Lee Kuan Yew on 16 September 1923, he was Singapore’s prime minister from 1959 to 1990.
Considered as the “Architect of Modern Singapore”, Lee Kuan Yew was an Asian legendary due to his remarkable ability – transforming a colonial trading post into a regional and global financial powerhouse. After graduated with a law degree from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, Mr Lee returned to Singapore in 1950, despite being admitted to the English bar. A charismatic figure, Mr Lee subsequently co-founded the People’s Action Party (PAP).
He became Singapore’s first prime minister in 1959, a position he held until 1990 – making him the longest-serving Prime Minister in global history, for an unbelievable 31-year-rule. In 1959, Dwight Eisenhower was the US president, and when Lee stepped down, George H.W. Bush was in the White House. In short, Lee Kuan Yew saw eight U.S. presidents taking office during his historical premiership.
After a brief and stormy union with Malaysia, he led Singapore to independence in 1965. Interestingly, the day Malaysia was formed also marked Mr Lee’s birthday. There’s little doubt that his biggest achievements could be found from his own son – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – tribute whereby the senior Lee fought for Singaporeans’ independence and built a nation where there was none.
What if Kuan Yew had not fought for the tiny island’s independence? Singapore today would have ended as poor as Sabah and Sarawak, two Malaysian states supposedly to be “equal partners” in the formation of Malaysia. But unlike Brunei and Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak today are among the poorest states in Malaysia, despite possessing massive amount of crude oil, thanks to decades of natural resources plundering from the federal government.
It’s one thing to fight for independence, and another thing to transform Singapore to where it is today. Singapore, on it’s own, has zero natural resources. It was a fishing village at best. Realized that his country cannot be like its neighbours, Mr Lee quickly reached out to foreign investors to turn Singapore into a manufacturing hub, as well as creating a highly educated work force fluent in English.
Subsequently, under his watch, the island developed into a sea trade, air transport and financial hub as well as a high-tech industrial centre. Today, Singapore is the most developed and richest country in Asian, not to mention possesing the strongest currency in the region. It continues to attract the best brains in the high-tech sectors. In comparison, its closest neighbour, Malaysia, is busy attracting cheap labours from poorer countries.
In fact, Lee Kuan Yew was such a legendary that he was despised by Mahathir Mohamad, the longest prime minister of Malaysia, much to jealousy. When opportunities present itself, Mahathir would waste little time by belittling Singapore. And it’s not hard to understand why. Despite blessed with massive natural resources – tin, rubber, palm oil, crude oil, timber – Malaysia has been fighting a loosing battle catching up with Singapore.
However, Mr Lee also had his hands on Singapore’s lack of freedom of speech, often jailing political opponents. His clampdown on the press was equally legendary, so much so that very few dared challenge him during his “dictatorship”. Amazingly, he usually wins if he decided to use courts to sue anyone critical of him. And you certainly don’t want to try bringing chewing gum into the island. Nevertheless, he was unapologetic about his iron-fist rule.
Despite freedom and political opposition suppression, his “Singapore model,” of clean government and economic liberalism worked fabulously. It was so successful that Singaporeans constantly joke about living comfortably with “Five C’s” – Cash, Condo, Car, Credit Card, Country Club. But things have changed with the emergence of young generation, as can be seen in the 2011 election, where opposition won 6-seats.
With Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, his co-founded People’s Action Party could see its power slipping away, slowly but surely. The question – is there anyone left who’s qualified to bring the country out of his shadow and transform the otherwise obedient citizens to a better well-balanced society? Could Singapore actually do better with freedom liberalism, without sacrificing its clean government and free economic policies?
No matter how oppresive and suppresive Lee Kuan Yew was, he will forever be remembered as the man who transformed a mosquito-ridden colonial trading post into a prosperous financial center with clean streets, shimmering skyscrapers and a chewing-gum-free society. Not bad for a translator who engaged in black market trading during the Japanese occupation in World War II.
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