Premiership of Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore Infopedia


The premiership of Lee Kuan Yew, which lasted over three decades from 5 June 1959 to 28 November 1990, was a dynamic period that saw the transformation of Singapore into one of Asia’s most stable and prosperous countries. Lee identified the five components of successful nation-building as stability, education, attracting investment, improving living standards and ensuring security. In each of these areas, his government made great progress.

During the 1950s and early 1960s Singapore experienced constant protests and strikes, and occasionally deadly riots. The shock of independence and uncertainty over the future made people more amenable to tough measures and the sacrifices required for the common good. The excesses of student groups and labour unions responsible for much of the unrest were curbed and Lee’s government diligently enforced internal security laws. His defeat of the Communists required some difficult actions but prevented them from having the impact that they had had in other newly independent countries. The resulting stability facilitated Singapore’s later economic development, and enabled the creation of a system where hard work reaped rewards.

Another potential source of disharmony was racial tension, which had erupted violently in the past. His government allayed minorities’ concerns through legal equality for all citizens, the promotion of both national identity and multiculturalism, and educational reforms recognising all four languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil) and encouraging bilingualism. It also founded the People’s Association (PA) to bring people from different cultures together and effected integration through housing policies. Lee has called the maintenance of racial harmony his greatest satisfaction.

Shared ideals were further promoted through the school curriculum. This became possible after the government assumed central responsibility for schools, which had been devolved to various community groups. Education was a means of maximising the potential of Singapore’s only valuable resource – its people. While not ideological, Lee believed firmly in meritocracy and that education was the key to social mobility.

One of his government’s earliest successes was achieving free universal primary education and extending secondary education to Malays and Indians. This required intensive school-building and teacher-training and the PAP’s first two terms saw almost a third of the national budget devoted to education. The government also expanded universities, with an emphasis on practical disciplines like science and technology. This created a skilled workforce attractive to foreign companies and made middle-class lifestyles more attainable.

Attracting investment
The planned withdrawal of the British forces by 1971 presented Lee’s government with an economic challenge, as the British military accounted for 20 percent of Singapore’s economy. Although initially a self-described socialist, Lee felt that the government’s role was not to run the economy but to ensure it ran. While many ex-colonies rejected the presence of multinationals, demanded foreign aid or flirted with socialism or protectionism, his government created an attractive climate for foreign investors.

Soon after Singapore’s independence, he made English the country’s working language, thus connecting it to the international business world. His government gave Singapore a competitive advantage by demonstrating its adherence to a level playing field (necessary for winning foreign companies’ confidence) and taking tough measures to guard against corruption, which had undermined many newly independent states.

Advised by Dutch economist Albert Winsemius, Lee’s government exploited valuable assets like former British bases, Singapore’s strategic location and its time zone to establish a significant financial and shipping centre. Then-Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee developed the swampland of Jurong as an industrial estate and Singapore’s southern islands became major oil refineries. These efforts attracted companies like Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, Shell and Esso, and resolved the longstanding problem of unemployment.

Standard of living
With increased prosperity, people expected higher living standards. Slums were duly replaced with clean, modern, high-rise housing and the government later encouraged home ownership, believing this would heighten people’s sense of belonging and citizenship. The Central Provident Fund was therefore expanded to help people save for their homes, and later their health care. Lee rejected Western-style welfare, which he felt eroded personal responsibility and made reliance on the state a first resort. His government promoted family planning (through one of its many campaigns) to avert the looming prospect of overpopulation. The campaign was so effective that the government later reversed its policy, though Lee’s 1983 call for more educated women to start families caused controversy.

Despite Singapore’s dense population, he wished to avoid the development of a harsh urban environment like Hong Kong’s. The island was kept green through tree planting, preserving natural spaces throughout the island, and cleaning the Kallang basin and Singapore River, a process he helped drive. Fines for antisocial behaviour drew international bemusement but helped to keep Singapore clean and liveable. Recalling how fear of punishment during the Japanese Occupation prevented illegality despite widespread hardship, he deterred crime by expanding the strict colonial penal code his government had inherited.

Lee realised that these achievements only mattered if the country was secure and Britain’s withdrawal forced Singapore to develop its armed forces quickly. As defence minister at the time, Goh Keng Swee persuaded him to introduce national service and a reserves system instead of relying on volunteers; this strengthened both the country’s security and people’s sense of national identity.

Although keen to achieve military self-reliance, Singapore was far from being isolationist and sought as many friends as possible. Lee was an early supporter of Afro-Asian non-alignment with the big powers and Singapore pursued an independent course, joining the Non-Aligned Movement. His firm anti-communism stance facilitated a strong partnership with the United States, but did not stop the pragmatic Lee from separating politics from business to forge practical relations with communist states. His government worked for stability in the Asia Pacific region and strove to minimise tension in Southeast Asia, partly through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which he helped establish. He was also personally instrumental in achieving rapprochement with Indonesia, Singapore’s largest neighbour.

Lee’s premiership transformed Singapore into a secure, stable and prosperous regional and international hub. By the time he stepped down in 1990, its stature was disproportionate to its small size and its people were much more united and confident than in 1959.

Duncan Sutherland

C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 299–300, 302, 304, 308–10, 313–5, 320–1, 334. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])

Chua Mui Hoong, Pioneers Once More: The Singapore Public Service, 1959–2009 (Singapore: Straits Times Press; Public Service Division, 2010), 31, 63–64, 93, 95.
(Call no. RSING 351.5957 CHU)

Edwin Lee, Singapore: The Unexpected Nation (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 218–9, 266. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])

Gretchen Liu, The Singapore Foreign Service: The First 40 Years (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2005), 15. (Call no. RSING 327.5957 LIU)

Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandez and Sumiko Tan, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, 1997), 81–83, 119, 138. (Call no. RSING 959.57092 HAN-[HIS])

Melanie Chew, Leaders of Singapore (Singapore: Resource Press, 1996), 137–8, 142. (Call no. RSING 920.05957 CHE)

Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions, 1998), 327. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])

Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions; Singapore Press Holdings, 2000), 30, 69, 81–82, 87, 117, 122–124, 127. (Call no. RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS])

Lim Yann Ling, “Living with Nature,” Sunday Times, 25 July 2010, 9. (From NewspaperSG) 

N. Ganesan, Realism and Interdependence in Singapore’s Foreign Policy (London: Routledge, 2005), 117. (Call no.: RSING 327.5957 GAN)

National Archives (Singapore), 10 Years That Shaped a Nation (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2008), 46, 55–56. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 TEN-[HIS])

National Library Board, Singapore, Singapore: The First Ten Years of Independence, 1965 to 1975 (Singapore: National Library Board; National Archives of Singapore, 2007), 170–1, 198. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 SIN-[HIS])

“People’s Association,” in Tommy Koh et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 409. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]) 

 “‘Play the Race Card and We’re Finished’Straits Times, 13 September 2010, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Philip Lee et al., “From Slave Minds to Free Minds,” Straits Times, 17 September 1983, 14. (From NewspaperSG)

Sonny Yap, Richard Lim and Leong Weng Kam, Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, 2009), 633. (Call no. RSING 324.25957 YAP)

Tham Kum Chee, Many Pathways. One Mission: Fifty Years of Singapore Education (Singapore: Ministry of Education, Curriculum Planning & Development Division, 2007), 24, 33–34. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 MAN)

Tom Plate, Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew: Citizen Singapore: How to Build a Nation (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2010), 46–47. (Call no. RSING 959.5705092 PLA-[HIS])

Tommy Koh, “Forging New Frontiers: Goh Chok Tong’s Foreign Policy Legacy,” in Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years in Singapore, ed. Bridget Welsh et al (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 119. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 IMP)

Further resources
Alex Josey, Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years (Singapore: Times Books International, 1980). (Call no. RSING 959.57092 JOS-[HIS])

Anthony Oei, What If There Had Been No Lee Kuan Yew? (Singapore: Heinemann, 1998). (Call no. RSING 959.57 OEI-[HIS])

Discovery Channel (Firm), The History of Singapore: Lion City, Asian Tiger (Singapore: John Wiley & Sons (Asia), 2010). (Call no. RSING 959.57 HIS-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as at 23 March 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.








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