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Champion of Progress By Prof. V. Suryanarayan

C3S Paper No. 0076/ 2015

The light that has guided us all these years has been extinguished,” declared prime minister Lee Hsien Long (Lee Kuan Yew’s son), echoing the famous speech delivered by Jawaharlal Nehru soon after Gandhiji’s assassination. Lee Kuan Yew (1921-2015) was not only the founder of modern Singapore, he has left his indelible imprint an all aspects of Singapore’s life—political system, social engineering, economic transformation, foreign policy and educational attainments. His advice and guidance was sought by leaders from across the globe—Deng Hsiao Ping from China, Manmohan Singh from India and successive presidents from the United States. No other political leader has influenced the course of events in Southeast Asia in general and Singapore in particular as Lee Kuan Yew has done. Louis XIV of France is reported to have said: “I am the State.” Lee Kuan Yew’s identification with Singapore is so complete it could be said that “Lee Kuan Yew is Singapore and Singapore is Lee Kuan Yew”.

The emergence of Singapore as a separate sovereign state on August 9, 1965, was a major political setback for Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues. Since the inception of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in November 1954, they had maintained that Singapore is not a nation, and, therefore, it has to seek its independence through merger with the Federation of Malaya. Leaders like Ong Eng Guan and David Marshall who pointed out that Singapore cannot merge with Malaya on honourable terms and, therefore, it should become independent by itself were branded as Chinese chauvinists, communists or a combination of both.

The first essay in Singapore’s independence was in the context of Malaysia. The period from September 16, 1963, the day when Malaysia was formed, to August 9, 1965, when Singapore seceded from Malaysia, were characterised by one crisis after another. Lee Kuan Yew was well aware of the terms of merger. The legal provisions were clearly intended to restrict the political influence of Singapore. What is more, the Malaysian political system was based on the supremacy of the Malays; the Malays were the Bhumiputras and their special rights and privileges were enshrined in the constitution. Lee was a politician in a hurry; he wanted to extend his political influence in the Malayan mainland and began to challenge the political premises on which Malaysia was based. Given the political culture of Malaysia, Lee’s campaign for the establishment of a Malaysian Malaysia could get the support only from non-Malays. Communal tensions were whipped up and Tunku Abdul Rahman resolved the best way to maintain communal harmony was to do talaq (divorce). Singapore, thus, became an independent republic on August 9, 1965.

When Lee Kuan Yew proclaimed independence, there were tears in his eyes, not tears of joy, but tears of sorrow. All his dreams of a united Malaysia were shattered. But he did not lose hope; he wanted to make the best of the situation. He had to make a political volte face; he began to assert that Singapore is a nation and Singapore will succeed as a nation. The early years were beset with great difficulties. Singapore did not have an armed force of its own. Lee approached India for assistance; but New Delhi did not respond favourably. He turned to Israel for the building up of the army. What is more, he introduced compulsory military service for all citizens. His major fear was that as a Chinese island in a Malay sea Singapore should not be viewed as enemy by Indonesia and Malaysia.

In 1965, Singapore had a young population. More than 50 per cent were below 18. Singapore began a concerted drive to reduce its population through both carrot and stick. The population was controlled; today Singapore depends on migrant workers to keep the economy ticking.

Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee (the architect of the Singapore miracle) realised their pet ideology, democratic socialism, has no relevance. Singapore will have to depend upon foreign direct investment for prosperity. The first prerequisite for attracting investment is building up a sound infrastructure; second, provide disciplined and skilled workforce. In his first visit to the US Lee Kuan Yew was able to build up convergence of interests with the political leadership. At a time when the American campuses were protesting against US military involvement in Indochina Lee Kuan Yew pleaded for continued American military presence. Singapore soon became a close and faithful ally of the US.

In the crucial area of nation-building the government began to encourage English as the medium of instruction and as official language. Chinese dialects were discouraged and Mandarin was introduced as the common language of the Chinese. Lee Kuan Yew realised Singapore could develop as a great educational centre. Faculty and students from all parts of the world were attracted to the National University of Singapore (NUS). The NUS today is not only the best university in the developing world, it also ranks 25th among the best universities.

It is necessary to highlight the role played by Lee Kuan Yew in the economic transformation of China. Deng Hsiao Ping frequently visited Singapore and he was impressed with its remarkable progress. Both Lee and Deng were Hakkas and this bond further cemented the friendship. Lee pointed out the Overseas Chinese constituted 4 per cent of the Chinese population, but their income was four times higher than that of China. They were the descendants of poor Chinese from the country’s southern part but by sheer hard work and perseverance they could control the economy of all Southeast Asian countries. The intelligent mandarins remained in China and given encouragement they could transform China and make it the foremost country in the world. Goh Keng Swee assisted China immensely by advising them as to how export promotion zones could be effectively operated. Lee Kuan Yew hoped in an interdependent world China and US need not clash with one another. The two need each other for mutual benefit.

From a liberal point of view it must be highlighted that there is a big democratic deficit in Singapore. It has become an authoritarian state. If Lee Kuan Yew had combined the essentials of a liberal democracy with rapid progress he would have been hailed as another Jawaharlal Nehru. He could have proved that democracy and discipline are not an antithesis; on the contrary they can coexist as sugar in milk.

(Prof. V. Suryanarayan is Nelson Mandela Professor for Afro-Asian Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. His email id:

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