The Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew
Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away peacefully on the early morning of 23 March 2015 at the age of 91. It is especially challenging to write a commentary on the late Mr Lee and his legacy. Dubbed the architect of modern Singapore, Mr Lee’s long list of accomplishments is often met with counterarguments critical of his style of governance. It is paramount to acknowledge his important contributions to our nation without being overzealous by overstating his achievements.
Mr Lee co-founded the People’s Action Party in 1954. When Singapore attained self-governance in 1959, Mr Lee became her first Prime Minister. He would hand over his Prime Ministerial duties to Mr Goh Chok Tong in 1990 – at that point he was the world’s longest-serving Prime Minister. In his 31 years of leadership, Singapore had made the transition from third- to first-world.
There were several over-romanticised stories of Singapore turning from swamp to metropolis in this span. By the 1950s before Mr Lee was Prime Minister, Raffles Place was already an operational commercial centre and the banking industry was beginning to take off. Public housing estates built by the Singapore Improvement Trust already existed in places like Albert Street, Hong Lim Park and Tiong Bahru, the last of which has been preserved and reinvented today. Parts of Singapore’s first satellite town, Queenstown, were already up by the late 1950s.
Mr Lee was however the helmsman who steered Singapore through difficult seas. He made key decisions in trying periods, such as during the merger with Malaysia, the separation, the nation-building years and the long route of independence. During Singapore’s most vulnerable post-separation years, he identified priorities in the economy, national security and the dire public housing situation.
Naturally, Mr Lee didn’t do all of the above alone. He had a wonderful ship crew in the form of capable ministers of his first and second Cabinet teams. Mr Toh Chin Chye was his able deputy. Mr S Rajaratnam as the Minister for Culture and later Minister for Foreign Affairs, fostered diplomatic relations with other nations and world leaders. The team’s economist, Minister for Finance Mr Goh Keng Swee, initiated the setting up of the Economic Development Board to attract foreign investment in Singapore. He also led the defence portfolio as the Minister for Interior and Defence when National Service was introduced in 1967.
Mr Lee took on the unenviable role of taskmaster. He wasn’t only the brain that he was often lauded for. He was also the muscle when it mattered. He cleared the path of obstacles, sometimes with a heavy-handed approach, to allow other equally brilliant politicians to implement and effect policies with little resistance.
Mr Lee didn’t just pour his heart into the single cause of rebuilding Singapore. He was a leader who willed his mind and stuck with the cause. He had dedicated his entire life to this cause.
With his passing a seven-day period of national mourning was declared from 23 to 29 March 2015. As tributes poured in, whether in physical writings in condolence books at tribute sites, or online in social media channels, counterarguments have also emerged but the positives far outweigh the negatives. In grieving it can be difficult to distinguish fact and fiction. However there should be no doubt that a lot of what Singapore has achieved today came with Mr Lee Kuan Yew at her helm.
The greatest tribute of all has been the show of active citizenry and ground initiatives by Singaporeans, who have performed various acts of good will during the national mourning week. From the florist who gave away his flowers to the public as offerings, to the many homegrown companies who gave away umbrellas and beverages to those queuing up to pay respects, and to individuals who volunteered as ushers to help direct other well-wishers, this active citizenry is unprecedented.
The past week of national mourning has proved that the legacy of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew is people: people who care for each other, people who are active citizens, and people who will continue to shape Singapore’s future together. With each night’s passing a new dawn arrives. Mr Lee has left us a legacy to ensure that tomorrow’s dawn can be a better one.