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Asian history Asian Politics

In memoriam Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) was the father of modern Singapore.

This is a translated and updated version of an obituary authored by me, published in the German weekly Preußische Allgemeine Zeitung on the 4th of April 2015.

On the 23rd of March 2015, Singapore‘s longtime Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died of pneumonia in his hometown, aged 91. His lifelong vision of building a modern nation and his relentless pragmatism turned a city state with no natural resources into East Asia’s richest country: from 1960 to 1980, Singapore‘s gross national product grew fifteen-fold. He was the driving force behind the economic miracle that has made Singapore wealthy, modern, efficient, safe, virtually corruption-free, and very popular among investors.

Born in 1923 to fourth-generation Chinese immigrants, he was deeply shaped by more than 100 years of British presence in the area. English was his first language. After studying law in Cambridge, he worked as legal advisor of various trade unions. Only at the age of 32 he started to learn Mandarin.

In 1954, Lee founded the People’s Action Party (PAP) and would lead it for 38 years. In 1959 the PAP won a majority of seats in the legislative assembly and Singapore finally gained self-government, with autonomy in all state matters except defense and foreign affairs. As the federation with neighboring Malaysia only lasted for two years, the 9th of August 1965 is Singapore’s official birthday.

Lee started enormous reforms, including a social housing program, in order to transform the “cesspool of squalor and degradation” into a modern industrialized state. To achieve his goals, he would resort to all kinds of measures: to imprison critics without a court order, to shut down Nanyang University after large student protests, to censor both local and foreign newspapers, and to sue media which he disliked.

He blatantly interfered in citizens´ private life and always thought he had the right to do so: less educated mothers who already had two children were asked to undergo sterilization, or charged with higher taxes. At the same time, since the 1980s he encouraged the upper class to have more children. Unfortunately that plan didn´t work, as Singapore currently has the world´s lowest birth rate at 0.7 children per woman.

A fervent socialist in his youth, Lee became a convinced anticommunist and Singaporean armed forces up to this day receive extensive military training in Taiwan. At the same time, he strongly objected to the island’s de facto independence, and on the day that Germany reunited in 1990 finally established full diplomatic relations with China.

When he gave up his position in 1990, after winning seven consecutive elections, he was the world’s longest-acting Premier. As éminence grise, Lee took part in numerous political campaigns.

A lasting legacy is the creation of a Singaporean identity out of the very different ethnic groups that constitute most of the population: Chinese, Malays and Indians. This was possible only by implementing an iron fist policy: the law allows caning to be ordered for over 35 offences, but only for men. Lee, who wasn’t fond of liberal democracy, never understood why Western educationalists were so much against corporal punishment. Even if Singapore, due to its highly regulated society, could be called an Eastern “nanny state”, its amazing success story has proven him mostly right!

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