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Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew (b. 16 September 1923, Singapored. 23 March 2015, Singapore) was the first prime minister of Singapore and held this post from 1959 to 1990. Although widely known as Lee Kuan Yew, he was addressed by his English name Harry among family members and some close friends.

Rodion Ebbighausen among others noted that the People's Republic of China followed Lee's example - the political deal being that while the Communist Party has a monopoly on political power, the economy is allowed to develop in its own way. This form of justification for holding on to political power began to enjoy a certain benevolence among western commentators as well, who were concerned that the West might be losing its economic advantage vis--vis Asia, and that the time-consuming process of arriving at a democratic consensus may not suit a world grown immeasurably fast.

Lee is credited with the transformation of a former tropical colonial outpost into an ultra-modern, global finance-and-trade hub. He oversaw its transformation from a developing ex-colony into one of Asias most stable and prosperous countries and remains an influential figure domestically and abroad. Prioritizing clean and efficient governance, pro-business policies and social order, sometimes at the expense of democratic freedoms, Lee was revered for his results.

He advocated free-wheeling market capitalism while keeping tight control over social behaviour, from banning chewing gum to caning those caught painting graffiti on public property. Lee was renowned for his wit and firebrand comments. He had few kind words for former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, and he dismissed the dull life of New Zealanders. He wrote a handful of books and voiced strong opinions on everything from eugenics and the slothful sport of golf to fengshui and astrology, which he decried as utter rubbish!

Lee was opposed to a liberal democracy as much as he was against the welfare state. He was the paramount example of political legitimization through economic success. He put massive restrictions on the freedom of the press, but offered a high measure of political stability in return, together with modernization in the fields of education and public health, as well as entrepreneurial laissez faire which attracted investors from all over the world.

Lee attended Raffles Institution then studied at Raffles College on scholarship until the Japanese Occupation (19421945). After the war, he enrolled at the London School of Economics in 1946 before transferring to Fitzwilliam Hall at Cambridge University in early 1947.

His political awareness grew through involvement with the British Labour Party and participation in Londons Malayan Forum (a Malayan students discussion group), and he turned strongly against colonial rule. He received a first-class law degree in 1949 and was called to the bar at Londons Middle Temple in 1950.

Returning to Singapore, he joined law firm Laycock and Ong and remained politically engaged as John Laycocks election agent in the 1951 Legislative Council campaign. Colonial politics was detached from most peoples lives, but after Lee became an advocate in 1951 his work introduced him to radicals and student leaders. He won public attention as a legal adviser to trade unions and clan associations, through various high-profile cases and his successful fight for locally engaged civil servants to receive the same benefits as their European colleagues. In 1955 he co-founded the firm of Lee & Lee with his wife and brother and practised until 1959.

Lees legal work raised his standing with the Chinese-educated masses whose support was necessary for political success. In 1954, a series of political meetings at his house led to the founding of the Peoples Action Party (PAP). This socialist democratic, anti-colonial party united middle-class Anglophone professionals under Lee, with more radical Chinese-speaking trade unionists under Lim Chin Siong. As secretary-general, Lee had to monitor carefully the latter faction, which included pro-communists.

He was elected to the new Legislative Assembly in 1955, representing Tanjong Pagar, and excelled in debates as de facto opposition leader. In 1959, the PAP captured 43 of the assemblys 51 seats, and Lee became prime minister of the self-governing state of Singapore aged just 35.

As Singapore lacked natural resources and was economically largely dependent on Malaya, few believed full independence was viable. Lee thus made it a priority to achieve merger with Malaya, which he also felt would keep the radical leftists from attaining power. At the same time, Malayas fears of acquiring a communist neighbour outweighed its concerns about absorbing a largely Chinese state. Yet the PAPs own far left opposed merger, and in 1961 they formed the breakaway Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front). Left with a diminished but more united party, Lee eroded the pro-communists support through a series of forceful multilingual radio addresses advocating merger. He negotiated a favorable deal for Singapore and won a referendum on the terms in 1962.

The new country, Malaysia, was established in September 1963 with the merger of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. This was followed shortly by the PAPs re-election after what would be their toughest campaign ever. Lee remained as prime minister of Singapore and became a member of the federal parliament. However, there were tensions, sometimes violent, with Malay hardliners and the federal government over various issues, culminating in Malaysias expulsion of Singapore in 1965. In his televised announcement, the visibly emotional Lee called it a moment of anguish; the separation from Malaysia remains one of his greatest disappointments.

In Lees view, the most important factor in good government was the quality of its leaders. Fortunately for Singapore, Lee faced the new republics massive challenges with a highly talented cabinet, some of whom he had known since university, united by struggles already overcome. Lee gave each minister departmental objectives and freedom to attain them. Yet he was determined to see results and unafraid to publicly upbraid ministers or officials whose delivery fell short. He shook things up when he thought it necessary, intervened in cases of particular interest (such as the creation of Singapore Airlines and the development of Singapore Changi Airport), and instilled into civil servants his zeal for accomplishing tasks quickly.

The PAP won six general elections under Lee in post-independence Singapore, taking all the seats in the first one held in 1968 (which the Barisan Sosialis boycotted) and the subsequent three in 1972, 1976 and 1980. Although he enjoyed debates with well-informed opponents like David Marshall, Lee responded very robustly to criticism that he felt went too far. He took a firm approach to government, believing that Singapore was too small to afford experiments with liberalism and that any mistakes he made would be easier to rectify compared to those that a free-for-all model would entail.

He stepped down as prime minister in 1990, handing power to Goh Chok Tong, but remained influential as senior minister in Gohs cabinet and subsequently as minister mentor when his eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004. However, on 14 May 2011, in a move that surprised many, Lee, together with Goh (then senior minister), announced their decision to leave the cabinet to make way for younger ministers.

Behind the scenes, it was unclear how much say LKY had over policy decisions. Ostensibly, he gave up control in 1990 when he handed the premiership to Goh, and as Minister Mentor, his job was to "mentor" younger ministers. When asked about LKY's role, PM Lee told the press in June 2007 that "All the routine business, we (the cabinet) settle. I think even the major issues, it's up to us to decide ... he (LKY) gives us the benefit of his perspective, his experience and judgment."

Even so, few believed the government would take any major policy decision without first obtaining LKY's support. In 2007 LKY spoke to the press about a future Singapore "after I am no longer in charge." What was clear was that LKY remains highly active, traveling to meet foreign leaders and speaking regularly on policy issues, firing off late-night emails to government ministers and critiquing think-tank papers.

Georg Blume, a journalist working for German newspaper Die Zeit, interviewed Lee in 2011. Blume describes Lee Kuan Yew as a " dictator of Singapore, who - whether in office or not - ruled the country since 1965 with minimal room for opposition." In the authoritarian city-state, spraying graffiti can lead to corporal punishment and jail time and even chewing gum is outlawed except for medical reasons.

In ailing health and at age 91, Lee died 23 March 2015 at Singapore General Hospital. The death of Singapores founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, sparked a flood of tributes for a man who has become synonymous with the modern state he created. A week of official mourning was declared in Singapore and with a state funeral on March 29.

US President Barack Obama described Lee as a true giant of history while the White House said he was a visionary and one of the great strategists of Asian affairs.

Current Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yews eldest son, depicted his late father as a man who unified and inspired a nation. He inspired us, gave us courage, kept us together, and brought us here. He fought for our independence, built a nation where there was none, and made us proud to be Singaporeans. We will not see another man like him. To many Singaporeans, and indeed others, too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore," Lee Hsien Loong said.

Across Asia, leaders sought to emulate the Lee Kuan Yew model. In Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Lee was "widely respected by the international community as a strategist and a statesman." Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei hailed Singapores founding father as a uniquely Asian leader. Hong described Lee as an influential statesman and strategist who combined oriental values and international vision.

In neighboring Indonesia, Vice President Jusuf Kalla said Lee was a very influential ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] leader, and a man who inspired the development of Asia.

President Najib Razak of Malaysia, the country from which Singapore separated in 1965, lauded Lee for his determination in developing Singapore from a new nation to the modern and dynamic city we see today." Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Lee was one of Asias great leaders," while British Prime Minster David Cameron said Lee's place in history is assured, as a leader and as one of the modern world's foremost statesmen.

Prime minister from 1959 until 1990, Lee Yuan Yew continued to play an influential role in the countrys politics even after he stepped down, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In old age, he continued to keep a watchful eye on Singapore. Singapore was his abiding passion," his son said. "He gave of himself, in full measure, to Singapore. As he himself put it towards the end of his life and I quote: 'I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There's nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.

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Page last modified: 23-03-2015 18:28:30 ZULU