Lee Kuan Yew

by Sophie Lee from San Diego, California in United States

124819Hero - the simple, short word that prompts people to ask big questions. Derived from the Greek word hērōs, its literal definition is “protector” or “defender”. Today, a hero is someone who is “admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” Everyone has a hero, whether they be an athlete, scientist, or human rights activist. But what makes these individuals worthy of being esteemed as a hero by others? In my mind, a hero is a charitable leader whose personal agenda is putting the wellbeing of others at the forefront, and not someone who performs a good act and expects to be proffered a crown of laurel wreaths. A hero is one who embodies certain moral traits such as honesty, intrepidness when going against irrational popular opinions, and unshakable perseverance to push through goals. A hero is not an egotistical megalomaniac who is consumed by vainglory, but instead possesses the simple desire, “What can I do to make the world a better place?” Heroes exist in a world full of atrocities; sometimes they come from the most obscure corners of the world or are the unlikeliest of people, such as the Muslims who helped raise money for the Jewish institutes. Last year in 2017, two Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and some of their institutions and schools received bomb threats. Thousands of donations came pouring in, with more than two-thirds of the money coming from the Muslim community. (The New York Times) Their reason for standing with the Jews against hatred and bigotry was plain and simple: they wanted to make a change in the world and rid it of the same prejudice that they are experiencing. Heroes rise from the ashes of cruelties; they are driven to fight the iniquities of the world, and some are even willing to discard centuries of enmity to help their fellow man. In my opinion, a modern hero is selfless, courageous, incorruptible, and someone who has the will to do good for the world. Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore, was such a person who personified all the aforementioned qualities of a hero.

It is 1927 in Singapore, a tiny island situated at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula near the equator. A young boy is held by his ears over a well near his home. He was messing around with his father’s jar of expensive hair oil and was forced to face the harsh consequence. Who would have known that 28 years later, this precocious and yet mischievous boy would later become the firm, iron-fisted leader of a newly born country - Singapore? Born on September 26, 1923 in a middle class Chinese family, Lee Kuan Yew spent his childhood growing up in Singapore with his parents and four younger siblings. Lee’s father was a heavy gambler and frequently came home in a foul mood, which led him to unreasonably ill-treat his family. Luckily his mother, Mdm Chua Jin Neo, was a resilient woman who fought to raise her children to be become well-educated and often stood up to her husband to protect her children's futures. She played an important role in Lee’s life and he knew very well that it was tough for her to nurture five well-educated children while having to fend off her ill-tempered husband. In 1935, Lee attended Raffles Institution, an elite pre-university college, topped his class and won several scholarships, but his studies were abruptly interrupted when the Japanese took sudden control of Singapore in 1942. World War II had a deep impact on Lee; it destroyed his perception of the world in which he was living in and changed the way he felt about the British presence in Southeast Asia and their ability to protect their colonies. After all, the Japanese were the ones who had kindled the flame of nationalistic pride in him and made him think that Singaporeans should take responsibility for their own lives and safety, as well as determining their own futures. During the three cruel years of occupation, the Japanese systematically spread terror and fear throughout the island and murdered over 50,000 Singaporeans. In several interviews, Lee mentioned that the Japanese had brought an interest in politics to him. He described that his first-hand experience of war had allowed him to truly understand the concepts of government and human nature. After the war, Lee went off to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge to complete his education in law, which he graduated from with a double first in his exams and was accepted into the English bar. He then returned to Singapore and started his own law firm with his three brothers and a close friend. Yet politics soon became the main interest calling out to Lee and he left the law firm to become an honorary legal adviser for several trade unions. Several colleagues together with Lee formed the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954 to participate in Singapore’s political elections. By this time, Lee was well-known to the public and had become the longest serving member of Parliament. He later became one of the electoral candidates for the partially elected government. In 1959, Singapore gained self-government and two days later, Lee won the election by 43 out of 51 of the seats - a landslide. Thus began Lee Kuan Yew’s rise as the much respected and incorruptible Prime Minister of Singapore, whose bold but sometimes unpopular policies helped transfer an impoverished, tiny entrepôt into one of the world’s most affluent countries.

Despite being the pragmatic leader of a tiny island, Lee was a legendary figure of Asia in the 20th and 21st century because his daring and determined governing prowess lifted Singapore out of its perilous condition. As the first Prime Minister of Singapore, the immediate issue at hand was to extricate Singapore and shape it into a first-world economy. Gale Virtual Reference Library informs us about what he did for Singapore:

“When Lee and his colleagues assumed office in 1959… they initiated an industrialization program, a low-cost public housing program, and a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy to tackle these problems. …per capita GNP rose by 15 times from US$443 in 1960 to US$6,634 in the mid-1980s (currently US$90,531). During the same period, unemployment was no longer a problem… and the proportion of the population residing in public housing increased by ninefold from 9 percent to 81 percent. Furthermore, corruption was no longer a way of life in Singapore by the 1980s…. Singaporeans were not only better educated and informed, but also enjoyed a higher standard of living, better medical care and housing, and a longer life.”

After winning the government elections, Lee began his plans to improve Singapore’s condition. Many people at the time were unemployed, homeless, and corrupted because the economy was stagnated for many years. In just over 20 years, he and his colleagues established programs and implemented policies that effectively dealt with these problems. The government set up the HDB (Housing Development Board) and gave it an almost impossible task of building millions of units of housing over a short time frame. But in the end, it was finished - the slums were cleared, the brand new houses were built, and people’s conditions were upgraded. A leader who is faint at heart or afflicted with timidity would not have dared to implement many of the harsh policies that Lee and his government had enforced on the people, which ultimately benefited the people and society. These policies were not the corrupt, self-serving policies that were prevalent in third world countries. The results were plain to see: Singapore now has one of the highest home ownership in the world, 3rd highest per capita GNP, one of the highest literacy rates, one of the highest savings rates, 7th least corrupt country, and among many other accomplishments (Department of Statistics Singapore). Singapore did not achieve its current status because of pure luck, but because Lee was willing and determined to go against ideology and take a pragmatic, common sense approach to governing the country. He avoided emphasizing ideological issues like human rights, but focused on creating jobs for the unemployed, improved the quality of education, and built affordable homes for the poor. Vandalism can get you roundly caned, littering, spitting, and not flushing the public toilet will invite a harsh fine, while chewing gum is just simply banned because there were too many unsightly black spots on the ground. In fact, during the 1950’s, more than half the population of Singapore was living in slums. As the country’s leader, Lee did not want Singapore to have a reputation of having streets littered with garbage and people living on the roads. In 1967, Lee was unafraid to turn the entrenched notion of a ‘slum’ Singapore into his “garden city” vision:

“… to transform Singapore into a city with abundant lush greenery and a clean environment in order to make life more pleasant for the people. It was also envisaged that the presence of ample greenery in an environment clean of litter would signify that Singapore was a well-organised city and hence a good destination for tourists and foreign investments. In the initial phase, the “garden city” vision was implemented in the form of an intensive tree-planting programme spearheaded by the Parks and Trees Division to recreate the tree-lined boulevards that Lee had come across during his overseas trips. The programme was a great success: Over 55,000 new trees were planted by the end of 1970. To maintain the momentum, Tree Planting Day was reintroduced in 1971 as an annual event involving students, grassroots leaders, and residents living in both public and private housing estates. …These greening initiatives had a significant impact on the rate of tree-planting: The number of new trees planted increased from about 158,600 in 1974 to 1.4 million by June 2014.” (History SG)

124820Lee knew that in order for Singapore to attract the attention of the other nations, he had to come up with unique plans to distinguish themselves from the rest of the third world countries. After setting up programs that touched on pollution, water, tree-planting, and maintaining the streets’ cleanliness, Singapore’s environment began to flourish. By asking all the local citizens to participate in tree-planting, instituting heavy fines for littering and spitting, and keeping the city beautiful, Singapore began to look cleaner, safer, more orderly and more attractive to the other countries. The secondary benefit of such a policy was that it also generated foreign interest and investments, thus bringing in capital to help the industries in Singapore grow further. Lee knew that planting trees not only improved Singapore’s appearance, but also reduced air and water pollution, gained the attention of other countries, and brought together the racially diverse people of Singapore. To have clean streets and lush greenery set among well-planned office buildings are not going to be enough to attract foreign investors to set up in Singapore; what was also needed was a government free of corruption and leaders who are not tempted by monetary gains.

Imagine the citizens of Singapore elected a man to the highest office in the country who was willing to roll the dice on their future, surround himself with venal advisors, and lie through his nose to the public! Unfortunately, for a small indefensible country, it would languish in hardship and perish into history. Not only did Singapore need a leader who is selfless and bold, but someone who is not easily induced by bribery and could enhance the Singaporeans’ reputation as a clean, upright people. In attempt to end corruption in Singapore, Lee enforced laws through a soft form of authoritarianism. The second volume of Lee's memoirs, From Third World To First, talks about how he and his government dealt with cleaning Singapore up:

“We decided to concentrate on the big takers in the higher echelons and directed the CPIB (Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau) on our priorities… As we ran into problems securing convictions in prosecutions, we tightened the law in stages… widened the definition of gratuity to include anything of value. The amendments gave wide powers to investigators, including arrest and search and investigation of bank accounts and bank books of suspected persons…” (Lee 184)

Lee was unafraid of stepping on some important toes or upending traditional practices. By making laws stricter, limiting certain rights, and granting broad powers to CPIB, Singapore was virtually clean of corruption within ten to twenty years. Completely rid of corruption is only an abstract notion. Lee raised the salary levels of government officials and politicians to prevent bribery and any other corrupt activities. If the CPIB suspects someone of corruption, they have the power to search someone without warrant and arrest them if needed. To avoid the abuse of power, they were required to report to the Prime Minister any suspicions. Lee knew that although the punishments were harsh and the authorities were given a unfettered hand, Singapore would at least be low on the corruption scale and subsequently have better and improved ties with countries. Not only was his government clean of corruption, Lee himself was incorruptible. In the 1960’s, he turned down a bribe from the American C.I.A. of $3.3 million to stay quiet on a failed mission to gain information. An article from New York Times reported the incident:

“Washington’s denial of Singapore’s charge against the C.I.A. aroused Prime Minister Lee to anger today. Escorting reporters into his office, he angrily jerked out files stamped “top secret.” Pressing the Rusk letter into an American correspondent’s face, he said, … “If they Americans go on denying, I will have to disclose further details.” Prime Minister Lee’s press secretary, Li Vei Chin, said the American’s $3 million bribe offer was made in January, 1961, before President Kennedy took office.” (U.S. Aides Confirm Singapore Charge of 1960 C.I.A. Plot)

Unlike many politicians in positions of power, Lee was not at all tempted by the large sum of money offered to him. In fact, he brought the incident up to the American government and was utterly insulted by the fact that they thought they could control Singapore with bribery. However, the Americans quickly responded to the public with denial, which angered Lee immensely. He pulled out the secret files and provided audio proof that implicated the C.I.A., which was soon followed by a letter of apology from the American government. Although Singapore was a new and weak nation during this period, his audacity to stand up even against the American government shows that he is no easily tempted by under-the-table offers and that enhanced his reputation of incorruptibility. If, however, he had accepted the bribe, that would have set off the domino effect, and other developed countries become less confident of Singapore, and stereotype it as another corrupt third world country. Many would not be so willing to form economic alliances with Singapore and the country wouldn't be what it is today.

Lee Kuan Yew was a practical man who was not easily seduced by monetary enticement. As Prime Minister, he fearlessly took paternalistic but sometimes unpopular actions to transform the nation into one of the most prosperous countries the world. Although some of his policies were often harsh and disliked, they played out and citizens grew more affluent; Singaporeans began to show greater appreciation of what Lee had done for his people and country. Together with his government, Lee sought out to eliminate homelessness, unemployment, corruption, poverty, to introduced bilingualism, built a world-class education system, and make Singapore into a country with the highest percentage in savings, home ownership, and GDP per capita. These were all accomplished in less than 50 years. Despite criticism of his authoritarian governing style, he stood firm in his beliefs and proved that the actions he took were altruistic and for the greater good of his country. Even after Lee stepped down from his Prime Minister position, he continued to serve with much public spirit as Senior Minister and Minister Mentor for another twenty-one years, nurturing the younger ministers and taking a more international role and as a “grandmaster.” He is remembered to have said, “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.” I grew up in Singapore for the first eight years of my life and little did I know that I shared the same island with this great man. Although I heard a smattering of information about him at the time, only in the later stages of life that I learned the amazing things he had done. The time I spent researching on Lee Kuan Yew, I discovered that he is a fount of inspiration. Lee emboldened me to be persistent and confident, to be steadfast when I know my thinking is right, to contribute more to the public and keep searching for ways to make the world a better place. The decisions he took were at times hyper rational, but no matter what other people said about political correctness, he was committed to finish what he had started as he knew exactly what he had to do for his country. When Lee died peacefully on 23 March 2015, the world lost a capable son who fed and improved the lives of millions and helped markedly raise their living standards. There was a nationwide outpouring of grief; the older generation who benefited from his rule experienced a deep sense of loss and sadness. During the one-week long grieving period, crowds of people, Singaporeans and even foreigners, waited for as long as ten hours in the rain to pay their respects to him. In 1999, Time Magazine named Lee as a Master Planner in their list of Most Influential People of the 20th Century. The magazine remembered him with this quote, “Lee towers over other Asian leaders on the international stage… Lee loves Singapore. What really sets this complex man apart from Asia's other nation-builders is what he didn't do – he did not become corrupt, and he did not stay in power too long.” Lee Kuan Yew was brilliant, yet ruthless, effective yet paternalistic, kind but stern in his ways; for many contradictory reasons, he was respected as a hero in countless ways.

Works Consulted

Alam, Nafis. “How Lee Kuan Yew Transformed Singapore from Small Town into Global Financial Hub.” The Conversation, 23 Mar. 2015, Accessed 19 Apr. 2018.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Lee Kuan Yew.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 16 Mar. 2018,

Han, Fook Kwang, and Lee, Kuan Yew. Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. Straits Times Press, 2011.

Lee, Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2015.

Lee, Kuan Yew. From Third World To First: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2015.

"Lee Kuan Yew." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 9, Gale, 2004, pp. 281-283. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 5 Apr. 2018.

Li, Ho Ai. “'Improper Activities' by American Officials.” The Straits Times, The Straits Times, 19 Jan. 2016, Accessed 17 Apr. 2018.

Mydans, Seth. “Lee Kuan Yew, Founding Father and First Premier of Singapore, Dies at 91.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Mar. 2015, Accessed 5 Apr. 2018.

“President Obama Meets with Singapore Minister Mentor Lee.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 Oct. 2009, Accessed 21 Apr. 2018

Siau, Ming En. “Without Mr Lee Kuan Yew, 'There Would Be No Garden City'.” TODAYonline, 25 Mar. 2015, Accessed 19 Apr. 2018.

Singapore Government, History SG, National Library Board. Garden City Vision is Introduced, March 2015, Accessed 19 Apr. 2018.

Skadian, Carl, and Chee Kong Loh. “Lee Kuan Yew: Architect of Modern Singapore.” TODAY, 23 Mar. 2015, pp. 1–44,

Sutherland, Duncan. “Lee Kuan Yew.” National Library Board Singapore, 23 Mar. 2015, Accessed 13 Apr. 2018

“Transcript of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's Interview with Seth Mydans of New York Times & Iht on 1 September 2010.” Prime Minister's Office Singapore, Prime Minister's Office Singapore, 6 Nov. 2014,’s-interview-seth-mydans-new-york-times-iht-1. Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.

Victor, Daniel. “Muslims Give Money to Jewish Institutions That Are Attacked.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Feb. 2017,


Page created on 5/23/2018 1:26:05 AM

Last edited 2/16/2019 4:39:28 PM

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