founder singapore

Lee Kuan Yew



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outfit illiteracy natural resources
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taboo visionary authoritarian
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 Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) was the first prime minister of Singapore who greatly shaped the city-state’s development. Under his rule, Singapore became one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

After taking office in 1959, Lee introduced reforms that boosted the nation’s economy. His government continued to exercise strong control over the economy and political system.

By the time he stepped down in 1990, Singapore’s GDP per capita had risen to more than $12,000, from $512 in 1965. The figure now stands at more than $55,000 according to the World Bank.

From Third World to First

In his autobiography “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story,” published in 1999, Lee described the challenges he face: a poor country with high illiteracy and no natural resources.

From the beginning, he introduced measures to jumpstart the manufacturing of finished products for export, and created a better business climate that drew in foreign investment.

Social Programs

In addition, Lee focused on improving education standards and expanding modern health care. Efforts to provide clean water to households and eradicate diseases like malaria were intensified. His government also built affordable housing for working-class families.

But though many saw Lee as a visionary, others saw him as a harsh, authoritarian ruler.

Authoritarian Ruler

During his time as premier, Lee limited freedom of speech. Reporting on ethnic or sectarian conflicts between the city-state’s many ethnic communities, such as the Chinese, Malays and Indians, was a taboo subject for journalists.

At 1971 press conference in Helsinki, Lee stated, “Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government,”

Singapore’s media is still far from the Western standard of free press.

Chewing Gum

In the authoritarian city-state, even chewing gum was outlawed and spraying graffiti could lead to corporal punishment and jail time. Drug trafficking became punishable with the death penalty.
Lee also jailed his political opponents, sometimes for decades.


Lee was born in Singapore. He attended Raffles College in Singapore, and in 1949, graduated from Cambridge University in England with a law degree.

Lee returned to Singapore in 1951, and became a labour lawyer. He helped found the People’s Action Party, Singapore’s dominant political party, in 1954.

Lee became prime minister in 1959, when Singapore gained self-government for its internal affairs.

Political Career

Under Lee’s leadership, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.

But the arrangement lasted less than two years due to strong ideological differences between the political outfits in Malaysia and Lee’s People’s Action Party.

When race riots broke out between ethnic Chinese and Malays in 1965, Singapore was forced to leave the union by the Malaysian Parliament.

Lee continued to serve as prime minister after Singapore became an independent country in 1965.

After his resignation, Lee was succeeded by Goh Chok Tong. But Lee remained an important political figure as head of his political party, and as a senior minister in Goh Chok’s cabinet.

A Role Model

In 1978, Lee said to China’s then leader Deng Xiaoping that “there was nothing that Singapore had done that China could not do, and do better”. Lee and Singapore’s success probably influenced Deng in initiating economic reforms in China.

Although China is now home to turbo-capitalism, its communist elite still rules the country with an iron fist.

In comparison, Singapore resembles a beacon of freedom. However, the city-state appears to have enlightened absolutism rather than a Western-style democracy.

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1. Who was Lee Kuan Yew?

2. Singapore was always a rich, prosperous country. Is this true or false? Describe Singapore in 1965. What was Singapore like in 1965?

3. How did Lee improve the economy?

4. He only focused on helping businesses and improving the economy. Is this correct or wrong?

5. Lee was a completely democratic leader. Yes, no, maybe, both yes and no? What were or are some restrictions in Singapore?

6. Was Lee born in Singapore? Where did he study?

7. Did Singapore undergo lots of change from the late 1950s through the 1960s?

8. Did Lee complete retire from politics in 1990?

9. What is Lee’s legacy?


A. What comes to mind when you think of Singapore? What do you associate with Singapore

B. I want to live in Singapore. Yes or no?

C. Singapore should be a role-model for the rest of the world. What do you think? Could other countries learn from Singapore.

D. Should Singapore be more like other (Western) countries?


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