International Bussiness Times
March 19, 2015
By Mary-Ann Russon
MINISTER Mentor Lee Kuan Yew who is credited as being the founder of modern Singapore, is critically ill in the Intensive Care Unit ICU) of Singapore General Hospital, just five months shy of the country's 50th anniversary of independence.
The first ever prime minister of Singapore, 92-year-old Lee is one of the longest serving ministers in history and has continued to rule behind the scenes despite having stepped down from his role in 1990.
Many have claimed Singapore is a modern police state but under Lee's leadership, the tiny South East Asian island nation has achieved a great deal in the past 50 years, growing from a
colonial port backwater to a powerful economic superpower that holds its own not just in Asia but in the world.
Apart from being a bustling metropolitan city populated by four different races (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Westerners), Singapore
has state-of-the-art infrastructure, a powerful army and leads the way globally in the fields of medical and scientific research, as well as technological innovation.
This is a far cry from 1965 when the country first became independent. Back then, Singapore was a small island weakened by the Second World War, overrun by communists and experiencing numerous racial riots, following the failure of a much anticipated
merger with Malaysia.
Yet somehow, Lee succeeded in building up the nation and now Singapore has the power and wealth that many countries can only
But how did he do it? Here are some interesting facts about Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore's unique political structure, which
continues to bewilder and interest the world.
1. He's not afraid to give it his all and cry on national TV
Lee Kuan Yew was born to an ethnically Chinese father who was a British subject and English-educated.
He studied law at Cambridge University, becoming a lawyer in Singapore before going into politics with the dream of making the
country independent from British colonial rule and reuniting it with the Malayan states.
Singapore had been a part of the Malay Archipelago for centuries before the British separated the island in the 1800s to become an
East India Company port.
Although the British eventually granted his request, in 1965, Lee cried on national TV after the Malaysian state government voted to
kick Singapore out of the federation, due to concerns the total number of Chinese people in Malaysia and Singapore would add up to be a majority over the indigenous Malay peoples.
But Lee decided the country had to survive and grow from its vulnerable position, so he did not give up.
2. He doesn't believe everyone should be equal but this has made people try harder
The Singapore government touts the island nation as being run not as a democracy, but as a meritocracy, ie a nation whereby intelligence and aptitude are valued above all else.
As such, Lee has been criticised many times for seeking to create a society whereby people are not treated equally, which has created a culture of elitism. There is no welfare system in Singapore and although foreigners are welcome, they need to contribute to the economy in order to stay.
However, while Lee's approach might not have been democratic, it has forced his people to work harder and achieve more.
Singapore is the third best country in the world for its education system, according to Pearson, and the country's GDP is worth 0.48% of the world's economy, an amount much higher than other Asian countries, although the country also has a worrying poverty problem.
3. We like foreign investment and we don't judge, so don't criticise us
One of the hallmarks of Singapore's success in building itself up is in attracting foreign investment for a wide range of industries, from the knowledge economy to the maritime port, to providing a launchpad for other countries to traverse South East Asia with.
Want Singapore to stop piracy of intellectual property? No problem, as long as there is a lucrative trade agreement with a powerful nation involved. However, when it comes to the foreign media and foreign politics, Singapore is less open and sanguine.
Keen to stay out of international problems, while also seeking to show military strength to deter any thought of invasion, Singapore
is always the first to offer military help in times of disaster and crisis.
The nation is also last to ever condemn other nations. But if you are a foreign media agency, criticising Singapore in any way will see you banned from the nation.
Lee told an international press conference in 1980: "We allow American journalists into our country to report the news to their fellow countrymen. We allow American newspapers to be sold in Singapore so that we can know what foreigners are reading about us.
"But we cannot allow them to assume a role in Singapore that the American media plays in America – that of invigilator, adversary and inquisitor of the administration."
4. We like foreign talent, please teach us what you know
In line with Singapore's huge emphasis on education and self-betterment, which follows the traditional Chinese principles of philosopher Confucius, Lee Kuan Yew has always opened his arms to foreign talent – people from other countries who are experts in their fields.
As a result, Singapore is today a cosmopolitan city republic brimming with opportunities and foreigners can truly seek their fortunes in the East.
However, this has caused a great deal of resentment with the local people in the country regarding the disparity in wages paid to Singaporeans versus foreigners, particularly Western expatriates.
5. Ruling with an iron fist
One of the biggest criticisms of Lee Kuan Yew has been his authoritarian style of leadership and his intolerance for dissent.
Although times are slowly changing and Singaporeans are becoming more active when they disagree with national issues, Lee's People's Action Party (PAP) continues to be the reigning political party in Singapore and the people are expected to fall in line and keep their mouths shut.
As a result, Singaporeans have become a "complain nation". They complain about their neighbours singing their karaoke too loudly,
or they moan about why the police have a new expensive car to fight crime with. But they do not complain about the government.
They also embrace organised religion with a fervour that could be an outlet for their suppressed feelings in other parts of their lives.
Also, arguably Lee continues to be in power. After stepping down as prime minister in 1990 he became the senior minister overseeing Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.
And after Goh Chok Tong stepped down, Lee became minister mentor and continues to hold a seat in parliament.
6. Enforced racial harmony, whether you like it or not
If you live in Singapore, you need to play nice with all the races. Keen to avoid the racial riots of the 1960s, which saw the four races of Singapore at loggerheads, racial harmony is preached as a central government policy.
Children are taught about each other's religions and celebration days in school, and there is an emphasis on traditional values that involve respecting all races, and above all, respecting the traditional Asian family structure whereby the elders are always right.
7. Nepotism – keeping it within the Lee family
Lee Kuan Yew has often been accused by foreign media of nepotism, whereby power is kept within the hands of very few. However, even if you try to give him the benefit of the doubt, the fact remains many members of the Lee family and extended family are in power.
His son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the present prime minister of Singapore. Before this, he was the deputy prime minister and the finance minister as well.
His second son, Lee Hsien Yang is the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and was previously the CEO of
Singapore's incumbent telecom company SingTel.
And Lee Hsien Loong's wife Ho Ching is the CEO of Temasek Holdings, the investment company owned by the Singapore government, which has total assets amounting to S$223m (US$160m, £108.8m).