Who Are the Founding Fathers of Singapore?

Unlike some other nations, Singapore is not recognized as having ‘founding fathers’, as in a group of prominent individuals who steered the country towards independence per se.  Rather the Lion City is known to have a singular founding father, one man who is considered primarily responsible for the nation as we know it today. And that would be Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015). He was not only the first Prime Minister of Singapore, but he also held down that position for over three decades, from 1959 to 1990. That means that in addition to spearheading his people towards and during independence in 1965, he was also at the helm of the country during its transition into one of the Four Asian Tigers.

Perhaps for the people who refer to him as one of the ‘founding fathers’, in the plural sense, of Singapore, what they are actually alluding to is him being amongst the five founders of the People’s Action Party. This is the political organization which has held power in Singapore since the formation of the Republic and well into the 21st century. In other words, they are largely recognized as the group which has run the Lion City for the last 50+ years. And Lee Kuan Yew, even posthumously, remains the most-popular figure from the PAP not only due to his tenure as Prime Minister. For even after leaving the post in 1990, he went on to hold a number of influential positions within Singapore’s government.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Young Life

Like many Singaporeans, Lee Kuan Yew traces his ancestry back to China. In fact he belonged to the fourth generation of his family to be resident in Singapore. Both his grandfather and father set an educational precedent for Lee by themselves being adept in the English language, i.e. the language of the British. This was important in terms of guiding the family’s fortunes since the British Empire colonized Singapore throughout most of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. And Yew’s family did in fact put such a high premium on the English language that his granddad even gave him an English nickname, Harry. And Lee carried that moniker with him, amongst some of his closest English-speaking friends at least, throughout the rest of his life.

Lee Kuan Yew’s mom, Chua Jim Neo, gave birth to him when she was just 16 years old.  Many of his siblings went on to be highly-educated like him. And accordingly, they also held down important positions in their own rights. Even till today, various family members of Yew are still important in Singaporean society to this very day. For instance, one of his own sons, Lee Hsien Loong, went on to become the Singaporean Prime Minister himself in 2004.

Yew’s exceptional education prowess in his youth earned him a scholarship to Raffles College, i.e. the institution which would be renamed to the University of Singapore. This was in 1940, which some readers would instantly recognize as being around the time that World War II officially began. And due to that all-encompassing conflict, Lee’s tertiary education was put on hold. However, this seeming misfortune may have actually worked in his educational favor. And why? Simply because after the War he was able to study at some of the premiere institutions in the United Kingdom itself. This included Fitzwilliam College, where he studied law and once again performed exceptionally well.

During World War II Singapore was occupied by Japan, one of the enemies of the British Empire at the time. And Yew utilized his educational talents to make the best of the situation. That is to say he promptly became adept in the Japanese language and himself served as a translator to the Japanese.

Lee’s Journey to the Position of Prime Minister of Singapore

In the aftermath of World War II, many Singaporeans became disillusioned with the efficacy of British rule. In other words, they felt the great British Empire failed in regards of protecting them from the more-aggressive Japanese. And Lee was amongst the individuals who shared this sentiment. So even after returning from the United Kingdom to his homeland to take up a law profession, it was only a matter of time before he got into politics. And he did so in a big way, by once again being one of the founders of the People’s Action Party in 1954. This was an ambitious project which he and his English-speaking peers initiated in the name of uniting the people of Singapore towards the goal of ending British colonial rule. And when Singapore actually achieved such in 1959, he became the first Prime Minister of the nation.

Shortly thereafter, the PAP led the nation towards a merger with Malaysia as part of the Federation of Malaya. This relationship did not last too long, as within a couple of years’ time Singapore was expelled from the Federation. In the aftermath of the expulsion, Lee Kuan held a press conference to not only break the news to his countrymen but indeed to the entire world. This day, 9 August 1965, is arguably the most-famous of Yew’s entire career. For it was during that event that he became so emotional that he publicly lost his composure. For whereas independence is generally seen as a good thing, such was not the prevailing sentiment amongst Singaporeans at the time. You see Singapore is actually one of the smallest countries in the entire world. And as such, it is devoid of an abundance of natural resources. Thus it had formed a strong dependency on outsiders, most notably its much-larger northern neighbor, which would be Malaysia itself.

But whereas Lee was clearly pro-Federation, he did not take this new unwelcome development as a sign of utter defeat. Yes it did worry him, quite significantly, at first.  But he used the challenge as an opportunity to pledge himself towards the economic development of his country. And in that regard Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew holds a very-unique place in the history of the world. For he is recognized as the only leader to have raised his country’s status from third world to first world within the time span of just a single generation.

Lee brings Discipline back into the Society

Singapore’s infamous adoption of strict law enforcement measures can also be traced largely back to Lee Kuan Yew. For instance, he bore witness to the murderous racial tensions which erupted in Singapore in 1964 which contributed to the nation being thrown out of the Federation of Malaya. And resultantly upon independence, he embraced multiculturalism and also espoused a zero-tolerance policy towards racism and hate crimes. He also gave the government wide-sweeping powers in terms of confronting practices and individuals who they deemed as being corrupt. 

Additionally he was also heavily into family planning and population control. In fact he may have been too effective in that regard, as some have attributed Singapore’s low birth rate in subsequent generations to his policies. And perhaps most infamously he has been a strong proponent of a practice Singapore picked up from the British, that being the administration of corporal punishment via caning. In fact his government has notably embraced this punitive measure even moreso than the British themselves.

Lee was a Pacifier

In the aftermath of Singapore’s political falling out with Malaysia, Yew successfully worked towards improving relations between the two countries. He is also recognized for having bolstered the friendship between Singapore and the United States. Indeed during the Vietnam War of the 1960s, US President Lyndon B. Johnson himself acknowledged Singapore’s “unequivocal” role in supporting America during the conflict. And in subsequent years Lee would also form notable bonds with US Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, as well as other prominent figures in the American government. For instance, he personally met US President Barack Obama as recently as 2009.

Lee Kuan Yew’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China was not as friendly, considering that he was staunchly anti-communist. However, that still did not prevent China from posthumously awarding him with a China Reform Friendship Medal in 2018.  And the Chinese government did in fact admire Lee due to his accomplishments in terms of transforming Singapore itself. This is manifest by the fact that they actually sent tens of thousands of their own employees to the Lion City to study the methodology which he had implemented to make the country so prosperous and powerful.

Life after Prime Ministerial Position

As noted to earlier, Lee Kuan Yew held a couple of positions in the Singaporean government even after retiring from the Prime Minister role in 1990. And although he still remained influential in the years that followed, nonetheless these positions were of the advisory as opposed to executive variety. And in that regard, he held the post of Senior Minister of Singapore from 1990 to 2004. Then in 2004, he was given the title of Minister Mentor of Singapore. This is a post he held onto until 2011, at that time being in his mid-80s. And he dealt with a number of illnesses during the latter years of his life before finally succumbing to death in March of 2013.

Whereas, as alluded to earlier, Singapore espouses tolerance, the government has infamously had issues with the likes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And for the record, Lee Kuan was definitely not a Christian nor a Muslim. And whereas he did observe certain traditional rituals for the most part Yew appeared as an areligious person. But that being said, he is also on record for having identified with the Buddhist religion on numerous occasions.

All in all…

Ultimately no one in their right mind would deny that Lee Kuan Yew was one of the most-effective politicians of the 20th century. And even during his lifetime, he earned the medals and accolades to prove it. For instance, in addition to China, he also received state decorations from Japan, Malaysia (via Johor) and a number of them from the British government. He has also received awards from organizations in Russia, Australia and the United States. And in 1999, he was formally recognized as one of the Most Influential People of the 20th Century by the highly-reputable Time magazine.

But this is not to imply that his reign was devoid of its controversies. The most-persistent criticisms that revolved around Lee – and by extension his family – were related to the alleged practice of nepotism. Indeed he had been accused, even by Singapore’s own President at one point, of abuse of power. Then in 2008, the highly-reputable Far Eastern Economic Review basically called him corrupt. And in 2010, Mr. Yew even got into beef with The New York Times Company itself. This was because one of its publications, the International Herald Tribune, once again accused him of nepotism. This led to Lee successfully suing the company. And that in turn caused an NGO, Reporters Without Borders, to negatively criticizing the politician for fundamentally preventing journalists from doing their job freely. Also, Yew had the tendency to publicly make elitist comments in which he more or less advocated the practice of eugenics.

Lee also authored a number of books throughout the years. Their subject matter dealt largely with his own opinion on a number of topics but also with the history and development of Singapore in general.

At the end of the day, Lee Kuan Yew may be as polarizing a figure as you would expect of any mid-20th century freedom fighter, even if he was a relatively-nonviolent one. But most people who are familiar with Singapore aren’t really knowledgeable of its history.  Rather what they recognize the Lion City for is being one of the most-impressive, advanced countries on Earth. And ultimately, that is what Lee Kuan Yew is almost most known for – spearheading the transformation of a little, inconspicuous Asian island to one of the most-prosperous nations in the world.

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4 Responses

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  3. November 17, 2020

    […] along. So in 1965, Malaysia gave Singapore the boot. The Singaporean Prime Minister at the time, Lee Kuan Yew (1925-2015), became so distraught that he caught feelings on national TV. And at the end of the […]

  4. November 24, 2020

    […] as the founding-father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was the first Singaporean prime minister, serving in office from 1959 to 1990. He was […]

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