Lee Kuan Yew is the founding father of Singapore; the longest-serving Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. Many regard him as the embodiment of Singapore itself. It was under his leadership that Singapore was catapulted from a small insignificant state to one of the world’s prosperous and progressive nation.
Lee Kuan Yew, also known by his English name, Harry Lee, was born on September 16, 1923 at 92 Kampong Java Road in colonial Singapore. His parents are Chua Jim Neo and Lee Chin Koon from a middle-class Chinese family.
Lee excelled in his education and was the top student in his class and he was admitted to Raffles College on a scholarship. Lee’s university studies were disrupted by the onset of World War II and the Japanese Occupation of Singapore where he was almost killed.
After the war, Lee went to England in 1946 and first enrolled at the London School Of Economics. He eventually moved to Cambridge University in 1947 and he earned his law degree in 1949. In 1950, Lee was admitted to the English Bar but he returned to Singapore instead.
A Lifelong Romance
Lee met Kwa Geok Choo, his future wife when they were students at Raffles College. Ms Kwa was an excellent student who outdid him in several subjects. The two became friends and that was the start of a remarkable love story that spanned more than half a century. The couple was separated when Lee went to study in England but they were eventually reunited after Ms. Kwa was awarded the Queen’s Scholarship to read law at Cambridge. Both graduated in Cambridge with honours.
Lee and Kwa married in Stratford-upon-Avon on December 23, 1947. They held a second public ceremony when they returned to Singapore on September 30, 1950.
The Rise Of A Leader
When Lee returned to Singapore he initially worked in Laycock & Ong’s law firm where he had firsthand experience in politics. During that time, Singapore was under the British colonial rule. It was where he saw how detached colonial politics was from the lives of most people. Lee had the firm belief that Singaporeans and Malayans should govern themselves. Calls for constitutional reform and independence were starting in the early 1950s.
In 1954, Lee together with other like-minded citizens, formed the People’s Action Party (PAP) which challenges the existing governing structure of the country. The PAP formally launched on November 21, 1954 with Lee as the first Secretary-General. The party won three seats in the April 1955 general elections.
Singapore As A Malaysian State
In 1959, Singapore was granted a self-government by the British in all matters except defence and foreign affairs. Lee became the first prime minister of Singapore on June 3, 1959.
Lee campaigned for a merger with Malaysia to end British colonial rule. On 16 September 1963, Singapore became part of the Federation of Malaysia. However, this merger was short-lived. The Malaysian central government became worried by the political challenge that PAP posed in Malaysia. This resulted in the 1964 riots in Singapore. Tensions mount and hundreds of people were injured, some killed. Looting followed which forced curfews to be imposed.
The Birth Of A Nation
Singapore was finally expelled from Malaysia on August 09, 1965 and all ties to the Malaysian government were severed. Lee tried to work out a compromise but it was a futile effort. Lee was emotional and he fought back tears as he announced the separation in a televised press conference.
On the same day, August 09, 1965 the Republic Of Singapore was born. Lee Kuan Yew and his team are now faced with the challenge of ensuring the survival of the young nation against enormous challenges.
Per Aspera Ad Astra
Many did not believe that Singapore will succeed; It lacked natural resources, it was a nation of immigrants, it was a small and vulnerable young nation. Lee Kuan Yew and his team undertook a series of planning and concrete actions that would transform Singapore into a powerhouse that it is today in just a span of 50 years.
Lee championed Singapore’s urban renewal, improvement of infrastructure, equal rights for the citizens no matter what race, education reforms and massive export-oriented industrialisation. Lee also believed that growth was meaningless if workers cannot enjoy it with better homes and quality of living.
Lee also opened Singapore to the international community by joining the United Nations and forming the ASEAN. From a per capita GDP of about $500 in 1965, Lee’s administration raised it a staggering 2800% to $14,500 by 1991.
Today, Singapore, dubbed as the Little Red Dot is not so little at all. It is one the economic power in Asia and the World. It’s quality of living, safety, economy and education ranks among the best in world.
Lee understood that one of the leader’s toughest job is to ensure a smooth succession. He handed the reins of prime ministership to Goh Chok Tong on November 28, 1990 but continued to serve as Senior Minister under Goh and then as Minister Mentor under Lee Hsien Loong.
At 3:18 AM Singapore local time on March 23, 2015, Lee Kuan Yew passed away at the age of 91. He succumbed to severe pneumonia. Seven days of national mourning have been declared with the funeral scheduled for March 29, 2015.
Here is the official statement of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.