Lee Kuan Yew: Leader of Singapore who brought wealth and stability to the new state at the cost of personal freedoms

With unlimited powers of detention and a powerful and brutal security apparatus, Lee found it easy to maintain a disciplined society

Derek Davies
Monday 23 March 2015 19:16
Lee campaigning in 1955; he began as a Marxist, but later filled his prisons with them
Lee campaigning in 1955; he began as a Marxist, but later filled his prisons with them

In strict political and economic terms, Lee Kuan Yew was arguably the most successful postwar leader. That verdict on a politician who was repeatedly re-elected to untrammelled power would be endorsed by businessmen, bankers, investors and others who put a premium on the high growth rates, general prosperity and social stability achieved during Lee's long reign.

After he led his People's Action Party to victory in 1959 after Britain had granted internal self-government, Singapore prospered with double-digit growth rates helped by high savings rates and foreign investment. Today it is a major industrial city and a major telecommunications and transport nexus. The soaring skyscrapers of Singapore's business district and the sprawling blocks of low-cost housing provide Lee's most suitable monument.

Lee was born in 1923, the son of a well-to-do immigrant family. He was a scholarship student at the elite Raffles College, and during the Japanese occupation monitored Allied radio communications for Domei, the Japanese news agency. After the war he attained a starred Double First in the Law Tripos at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. He was called to the Bar in 1950, the year he married Kwa Geok Choo, who obtained her First at Cambridge after only two years, and who ran Singapore's most prominent law firm, Lee & Lee; she died in 2010. The couple had three children; one son, Hsien Yang, heads the state's civil aviation authority. The other, Hsien Loong, has been Prime Minister since 2004.

Lee founded the People's Action Party in 1954, organising it along Marxist, cellular lines, and began using his formidable rhetorical skills to campaign against British rule. The Party's Marxists later hived off to form the Barisan Socialis and provided a large percentage of the inmates of Lee's detention centres.

In these years, Lee championed human rights and democracy. He attacked a proposal to retain emergency powers of detention without trial saying, "If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally... Repression is a habit that grows. I am told it is like making love – it is always easier the second time."

Such statements contrast vividly with his later espousal of "Asian values". As prime minister he was to say "We have over 100 political detainees, men against whom we are unable to prove anything in a court of law." In 1987, he justified detentions: "[I will not allow] subversives to get away by insisting that I've got to prove everything against them in a court of law."

In 1963 Singapore became a state within the new country of Malaysia. It was an unhappy marriage, with Lee's barely concealed desire to take the leading role on the greatly enlarged stage arousing the Malays' deep-seated suspicions of their Chinese fellow citizens.

In 1965 the patience of the avuncular Malaysian leader, Tunku Abdul Rahman, snapped, and Singapore was ejected from the Federation. Lee gave a rare display of emotion, weeping bitterly before the television cameras, but set about creating a new "rugged society" with a sense of Singaporean identity.

Singaporeanness was defined in negative terms; Lee fostered a garrison mentality: "My deepest concern is how to make the young more conscious of security. By security I mean defence against threats to our survival, whether the threats are external or internal." Critics were branded as Marxists and subversives, while Hanoi (not Peking) was represented as the great regional threat. Such attitudes endeared him to a succession of Western leaders.

National Service plus high defence spending made Singapore a formidable military power in South-east Asia. With the collapse of Communism, however, it became clearer that the real enemy was closer to home: Singapore's identity was being quietly defined as that of a lonely, beleaguered, essentially Chinese island in the midst of a Malay, Islamic sea.

Lee worried that the nation's Indians and Malays boasted a higher birthrate than the Chinese, that Chinese men tended to marry less intelligent women and that educated women often did not marry or had fewer babies, diluting the quality of the elite's sperm bank. He organised cruises on "love boats" for graduates, and at a dinner for the visiting Princess Anne, he propounded his ideas on this subject, whereupon the Princess told him, "I really don't know what to say to you, Mr Prime Minister. All I can tell you is that it doesn't work with horses."

He emerged from Cambridge, he said, an "Anglicised Chinaman", and only discarded his forename Harry (given to him by his grandfather "who was thoroughly convinced that the white man was superior") when he concluded that it accorded ill with a nationalist, anti-imperialist leader. George Brown, Harold Wilson's Foreign Secretary, once threw an arm around Lee. "Harry," he said, "You're the best bloody Englishman East of Suez."

Lee, whose first language was English, and who learned several dialects of Chinese after he was 30, made clear the difficulties of defining an identity in negative terms. In 1965 he told an Australian newsman: "I am not in fact Chinese. I am Malaysian. I am by race Chinese. I am no more Chinese than you are an Englishman." Later he claimed he was "no more Chinese than President Kennedy was an Irishman".

Lee had few friends in later life, having quarrelled bitterly with many former associates. He invoked the camaraderie of the old days – "We have been through the fire together... These are bonds which cannot be broken" – but broken they were. Anything short of total loyalty incurred his wrath and often provoked a vendetta which he pursued with all the vindictiveness he had shown as an 11-year-old who, denied a canary as a pet, plucked all its feathers out.

Deven Nair was a former Marxist who persuaded the unions to co-operate with Lee, but when he fell from grace Lee unjustifiably denounced him in Parliament as a wife-beating alcoholic womaniser. Francis Seow, Solicitor-General, who dared to criticise a censorship bill and defend his fellow lawyer-critics, was arrested, detained, harshly interrogated, released, elected to Parliament, targeted by the tax authorities and found guilty in absentia.

The longest-lasting vindictiveness was reserved for Chye Thye Poh, arrested in 1966 for demonstrating against the Vietnam war. Chye refused to sign a confession that he was a communist and spent 23 years in jail before being placed under house arrest. Nauseatingly, Lee praised Chye, an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, for his toughness.

Foreign publications which circulated within Singapore also inflamed Lee's resentment, armed with new powers to "gazette" (limit the circulation) of objectionable newspapers, including the Far Eastern Economic Review (of which I was editor for 25 years. In the 1970s he moved with equal ferocity against his own press. He jailed four directors of the Chinese-language Nanyang Siang Pau, for example, accusing it of glamorising Chinese chauvinism, and caused the Eastern Sun to fold.

Lee justified his actions as a neo-Confucianist spokesman for "Asian Values", which included respect for one's elders and betters, for the family, education, hard work and thriftiness – plus, despite Lee's own combativeness, an aversion for confrontational relationships. Opposition was thus anti-Confucian, destabilising, subversive, traitorous. "In a Confucian state," Lee once told me, "the expression 'loyal opposition' is a contradiction in terms". Indeed he was appalled by the emergence of loyal opposition parties and of democracy in East Asian nations. He felt great affinity to the region's dictators, from Deng Xiaoping of China to Ne Win, the murderous tyrant of Burma.

The corollary of this allegedly Asian value system was a downgrading of the individual and of human rights. With unlimited powers of detention and a powerful and brutal security apparatus Lee found it easy to maintain a disciplined society. In general, Singaporeans seemed ready to accept the formula, trading freedoms for prosperity and accepting a nanny state which flogged hooligans, executed drug carriers and forbade long hair for men, littering, gum-chewing, smoking in public, the feeding of birds or the criticism of government by taxi drivers. The result was a frightened society: Singaporeans frequently moaned, but with sideways glances in lowered voices.

Lee's policies also leeched most of the colour from the Singaporean landscape. Far from being "instant Asia" as the tourist advertisements promised, it became a colourless, sterile city with little sign of its ethnic richness.

Lee stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, handing over to Goh Chok Tong. He remained in the cabinet as Senior Minister and served as Minister Mentor in the Prime Minister's office from 2004 until 2011.

Harry Lee Kuan Yew, politician: born Singapore 16 September 1923; married 1950 Kwa Geok Choo (died 2010; one daughter, two sons); died Singapore 23 March 2015.

Derek Davies died in 2002; this obituary has been updated.

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