Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015): Singapore’s State maker remembered

March 23, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew was one of the influential State makers of the 20th Century. A case could be made that he conceived and brought about a prosperous and peaceful future for Singapore.

I became interested in the culture of Singapore some years ago, after taking part in the celebrations of its national day. After three decades in power, Lee Kuan Yew had handed over control of the State he had helped create. In the process he was showing dynastic aspirations.

Dynastic aspirations

It was being rumoured at the time, correctly as it turned out, that Prime Minister Goh, who succeeded him, was a transition figure who was to be replaced by Lee’s son. Informally we were also given to believe that Lee would remain the power behind his son’s actions.

Tickets for a celebration

It had been hard to get tickets for the celebrations at the old National Stadium in Kalang Leisure Park, close the Changi airport close to where the new and impressive modern sports stadium was later built.

Our tickets had came from a Singaporean friend who had seen enough ceremonies to make them less valued for him. Well worth seeing it all for the first few times, he reassured us.

We reached the stadium by subway, another of Singapore’s marvels. Allegedly, it was maintained in those days in pristine condition through President Lee’s regime of corporal punishment handed out to any litter-making individual. Westerners tended to admire the results, if not the means of achieving them.


I had preconceived beliefs that we were going to observe a demonstration of State orchestrated loyalty. What happened was enough to unsettle such assumptions. To be sure there was the orchestration. Everyone was issued with a goodie bag, complete with a national flag to wave, an a small torch with coloured tissue paper over the business end,

There were the obligatory displays of military music, and marching discipline. Jet fighters roared low over the stadium, trailing slipstreams in the national colours. We tried to join in the passionate singing of the national anthem. Later, as night fell, the torches helped produce an equally impressive light-show in the national colours.

Unexpected experiences

What was unexpected was a warmth and mood of enjoyment throughout the lengthy event which seemed spontaneous and genuine. This was not evidence of a State operating under dictatorial edict.

At the time, the charismatic President had already become a mythic figure, a State-maker in the mold of Nelson Mandela. Much later, Lee attributed the role of ‘China’s Mandela’ to Xi Jinping, a judgement not shared by Time magazine.

Today, the appreciation of Lee’s period as all-powerful State maker is more balanced internally. His contribution towards the creation of the modern hi-tech, highly educated little country is recognized. But opposing views can be expressed publicly.

Leadership Singapore Style

April 14, 2010

A visit to Singapore prompted reflections on the culture of this dynamic state, and the stories to be found in and behind the media headlines

Singapore owes much to the efforts in the 1960s of Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, founder and first secretary-general of the People’s Action Party (PAP), who oversaw the separation of Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia, and its transformation into a dynamic economic powerhouse. Fifty years later, there is talk of a Lee dynasty. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been Prime Minister since 2004.

Change but not too radical change

I had heard that in the ten years since my last visit, Singapore had changed enormously. It has, although in many ways the changes are incremenatal rather than radical shifts. The newer condos are higher and more space-age in design, but fit in with the older ones (i.e. those venerable skyscrapers built in the 1980s). Traffic still negotiates its regulated way through the crowded central-city area. Business, despite the global recession, seems pretty much as usual. (The Government put plans in place to buy-up unemployment in 2008-9).

Preoccupations remain familiar. Educational opportunities, regional political alliances, invasion of Western pop culture still find their way in to the news, as do shopping and lifestyle stories. This year’s Food and Hotel Asia exhibition will bigger and better including Cypriot mineral water and Argentinian popcorn. Has the 150 year-old Lau Pa Sat become nothing more than a glorified food court?

High-class media coverage

International affairs are still well-covered in TV and press. The Straits Times stands comparison with its better-known Murdoch-owned namesake. Business is well covered in The Business Times. During my visit, the unfolding events in Thailand was receiving extensive and impressive attention.

Local Interest Stories

Local stories capture local interests. Last week[April 10th 2010] a rugby match between St Andrews and Anglo-Chinese (Independent) School ended in an unsightly brawl after “ACS player Leonard Wee was injured in the mouth and taken to hospital”. The next day, his aggressor was suspended after making an apology in front of the entire School at St Andrews.

Like other readers, I was shocked at the growth of “up-skirt photography” carried out by individuals using strategically-positioned mobiles, who then share their work on U-tube.

A less disturbing trend is that of business executives using coffee-shops to finalize business deals. This is, of course, a reminder of the origins of business struck in London’s coffee parlours centuries earlier.

I can’t finish without mentioning those letters to the editor, which reveal the flash points of local interest. Those noisy young people shouting on Clarke’s Quay until long after midnight; the importance of retaining good bus services; comments on indiscrete remarks made by pubic figures. And a favourite of mine: Someone discussing the environmental aspects of golf courses had written “The old myth that golf-courses must be built close the reservoirs no longer holds water”.

A Unique Culture

Singapore remains a vibrant and unique culture, perhaps a little too hasty to aspire to norms of its economic rival Hong Kong. But does Singapore really want to develop an even more frantic life-style? I hope not. If that happens, I won’t recognize the place on my next visit.