Obituary: Lee Kuan Yew, the benevolent dictator

KUALA LUMPUR, March 23 — The world can finally judge Lee Kuan Yew and determine if Singapore’s glittering skyscrapers were worth the price of democracy and chewing gum, although he wouldn’t have cared for such assessments anyway as it was he, and only he, who decided what was right for Singapore. Never mind what the people thought.  

Lee, who transformed Singapore from a backwater to one of Asia’s richest nations in three decades of what some called dictatorial rule, died today at 91 in Singapore.

The first prime minister of Singapore, who was in office from 1959 to 1990, died in the Singapore General Hospital at 3.18am after being admitted for severe pneumonia.

When Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965, two years after the federation was formed, Lee was left with a tiny city-state of migrants without a common language, culture or destiny, with no natural resources, surrounded by powerful neighbours like Indonesia and China.

“The basis of a nation just was not there,” Lee told the International Herald Tribune (IHT) in 2007.

He also had to contend with high unemployment, corruption and a housing shortage when he assumed office earlier in 1959.

At the helm of a nation-state in its infancy, Lee built Singapore after his own image - stern, disciplined and no-nonsense. He brooked no dissent and did not tolerate corruption. He focused on running an efficient, pragmatic and meritocratic administration. Corporal punishment was used for even minor infractions like vandalism.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) government under Lee’s leadership industrialised Singapore, turned it into an exporter of finished goods and brought in foreign investment. A low-cost public housing programme was implemented and Lee introduced serious measures to tackle graft by creating an enforcement agency that reported directly to him, besides revising government service salaries periodically and increasing the standard of living for workers.

Lee expanded education and made English the working language in Singapore, although the majority in the multi-racial country spoke Mandarin. While he worried of the racial turmoil that could come with a monolingual policy favouring the majority Chinese community, it was his practical concerns that guided his decision since Singapore was trying to attract multinational corporations as a manufacturing hub.

“I’m a pragmatist and you can’t make a living with the Chinese language in Singapore,” Lee told National Geographic in 2009 after shutting down Chinese education.

He also boosted Singapore’s defence force and implemented an Israeli model of national service, where all 18-year-old men are required to train in the programme for two years.

Singapore spends a quarter of its annual budget on defence and is the fifth-largest importer of military hardware, according to an Al-Jazeera report last March.

Lee described himself as a street fighter. A knuckle duster who took on communists with “killer squads” and “Malay ultras” when Singapore was in Malaysia for two years. A tough and unyielding man feared by citizens. 


Lee was the longest-serving head of government in Asia and remained in government even after stepping down as prime minister in 1990. Although he had resigned as prime minister in 1990, he had remained in government for another two decades: first serving as senior minister and later as minister mentor.

He only fully retired from the Cabinet in 2011 after PAP’s worst electoral showing since independence.

Seth Mydans of the New York Times (NYT) told Lee in 2010 that a taxi driver had said, upon learning that he would interview Lee, it was safer not to ask Lee anything because someone would “follow” him.

Yet, despite Singapore’s success as a “first world oasis in a third world region”, Lee believed that the country was still fighting for survival and that everything could come undone very quickly. He had a paranoid fear of nebulous threats and constantly reminded his people about the country’s vulnerabilities and to be vigilant.  

“Where are we? Are we in the Caribbean? Are we next to America like the Bahamas? Are we in the Mediterranean, like Malta, next to Italy? Are we like Hong Kong, next to China and therefore, will become part of China? We are in Southeast Asia, in the midst of a turbulent, volatile, unsettled region. Singapore is a superstructure built on what? On 700 square kilometres and a lot of smart ideas that have worked so far,” Lee said in a 2007 interview with US columnist Tom Plate and new-media expert Jeffrey Cole.

Crying at Singapore’s separation from Malaysia

The one time when the man known for his strictness and unsentimentality lost his composure in public was when Malaysia ejected Singapore.

In a press conference on August 9, 1965, where he announced Singapore’s independence and separation from the federation, a tearful Lee described it as a “moment of anguish”, his voice choked with emotion, pausing a few times as he spoke before finally asking for the recording to be stopped temporarily.

“For me, it is a moment of anguish because all my life... you see, the whole of my adult life... I have believed in Malaysian merger and the unity of these two territories. You know, it’s a people, connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship... Would you mind if we stop for a while?” he had said.

Singapore joined Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak in 1963 to form Malaysia. At that time, the federation wanted to prevent the communist insurgency from taking root in Singapore.

Political and economical disputes between Singapore and the Malaysian government, however, soon arose. Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Alliance Party took part in Singapore’s 1963 general election but failed to win any seats. PAP retaliated by participating in Malaysia’s 1964 general election, in which it won one out of nine federal seats contested.

Tensions flared between the Alliance and the PAP that Lee co-founded. Umno called on the Malays in Singapore to demand for special rights, special occupancy in government housing projects and job quotas, as what was done in the peninsula.

Two bloody race riots broke out later in Singapore in July and September 1964 between the Malays and the Chinese, killing dozens of people.  

In May 1965, Lee mobilised Malaysian opposition parties, including those from the peninsula and Borneo, to call for a “Malaysian Malaysia” that sought for equality between the Malays and non-Malays.

“The special and legitimate interests of different communities must be secured and promoted within the framework of the collective rights, interests and responsibilities of all races,” Lee was quoted saying by Dr Cheah Boon Kheng, retired history professor from Universiti Sains Malaysia, in local daily The Sun.

Umno leaders demanded Lee’s arrest for his criticism of Malay dominance in Malaysia, eventually leading to Tunku’s conclusion that Singapore could no longer remain in the federation for the sake of national security.

Malaysia and Singapore signed a separation agreement on August 7, 1965, and Lee wept two days later on national television.


Lee focused on building a meritocracy in multi-racial Singapore and strove for equality to harness talent that was the city-state’s only resource. He disagreed with the way Malaysia managed its multi-cultural, Malay-majority society through affirmative action policies.

“Our Malays are English-educated, they’re no longer like the Malays in Malaysia and you can see there are some still wearing headscarves but very modern looking,” he told NYT in 2010.

Lee said Malaysians saw Malaysia as a “Malay country” and was critical of how the Bumiputeras dominated Malaysia.

“So the Sultans, the Chief Justice and judges, generals, police commissioner, the whole hierarchy is Malay. All the big contracts for Malays. Malay is the language of the schools although it does not get them into modern knowledge. So the Chinese build and find their own independent schools to teach Chinese, the Tamils create their own Tamil schools, which do not get them jobs. It’s a most unhappy situation,” he said in the 2010 NYT interview.

He even said much of what was achieved in Singapore would be achieved in Malaysia if Tunku had kept Singapore in Malaysia and if Malaysia had accepted multiculturalism like Singapore.

A dictator?

Lee’s critics have often accused him of suppressing civil liberties and using libel suits to intimidate his political opponents into not running against him. The opposition boycotted Parliament from 1966 onwards, leaving a Parliament completely dominated by the PAP until the ruling party lost a parliamentary seat in a 1981 by-election. The watershed 2011 general election later saw the opposition Workers’ Party winning six parliamentary seats.

Lee believed that democracy was secondary to discipline, development and good governance.

“What are our priorities? First, the welfare, the survival of the people. Then, democratic norms and processes which from time to time we have to suspend,” Lee said at a 1986 National Day Rally.

He shied away from Western-style democracy, saying he had to amend the British system for multi-racial Singapore.

“Supposing I’d run their system here, Malays would vote for Muslims, Indians would vote for Indians, Chinese would vote for Chinese. I would have a constant clash in my Parliament which cannot be resolved because the Chinese majority would always overrule them,” Lee told German magazine Spiegel in 2005.

He laughed off a journalist who called him a dictator, saying, with a touch of arrogance, that he did not have to be a dictator when he could win “hands down.”

“I can get a free vote and win. And there’s a long history why that is so. Because I have produced results, and the people know that I mean what I say and I have produced results,” Lee told NYT’s William Safire in 1999.

A different side

Lee, an agnostic, was indifferent to homosexuality. He was fine with gay people, but frowned on pride parades because he wanted to maintain social order.

“China has already allowed and recognised gays, so have Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s a matter of time. But we have a part Muslim population, another part conservative older Chinese and Indians. So, let’s go slowly. It’s a pragmatic approach to maintain social cohesion,” he said.

Lee’s cold pragmatism, in line with his ambivalence about the divine, was devoid of romanticism and ideology. His Confucian values of obedience to authority and respect for social order underlined his policies on discipline above individual rights.

Yet, for all of Lee’s clinical logic, his favourite book was Don Quixote, a Spanish classic about the adventures of a man bent on chivalry and romanticism in pursuing unrealistic ideals.

He also practised meditation, in which he repeated a Catholic mantra “Ma Ra Na Ta” for 20 minutes, which means “Come to me oh Lord Jesus”, though he was an agnostic.

When his wife Kwa Geok Choo was bedridden in 2008 from a stroke for two years before her death, he used to read her favourite poems to her and tell her about his day.

Besides keeping fit through swimming and cycling, Lee stopped drinking tea because his doctors told him it was a diuretic. Since he didn’t like coffee as it gave him a “sour stomach”, he turned to warm water. Cold water reduces one’s resistance to colds and coughs, he told NYT in 2010.

Lee remained a fighter to the end. He didn’t care what his critics thought of him. The final verdict would not be in his obituaries, he said.

He admitted that not everything he did was right; he had to do “nasty things” like detaining people without trial, but it was all for the greater good, he insisted.

Lee had built the foundation for a thriving Singapore from nothing and turned the country into Asia’s financial centre, a developed country in a Third World region. But he also realised that his time of fighting communists and extremists had passed and that it was a new world now. He called for a “fresh clean slate” when he retired from Cabinet in 2011.

Younger voters who grew up in Singapore’s concrete jungle now worry about the cost of living amid a widening income gap and resent the country’s liberal immigration policy that PAP had long introduced to support its flourishing economy.

The government could no longer quell dissent due to the growth of social media, unlike Lee’s days when information was tightly controlled in a muzzled press. It remains to be seen whether his successors can adapt to Singapore’s new age, free from Lee’s prevailing influence over the past 50 years.

“Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up,” Lee once said in 1988.

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