Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Autocrat or incomparable statesman; hard-nosed or visionary. Whatever your take on Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore, there is no denying the rapid progress Singapore has made under his leadership. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered the news of Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, he said, “We won’t see another man like him.” We concur.

On 28 Mar 2015, when the nation was paying its final respects to Lee Kuan Yew at Parliament House, we joined the congregation of more than 1,500 business men and women from various Chambers of Commerce and Trade Associations in the country to pay a special tribute to the Architect of Singapore, which was graced by Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang and Lee’s younger son, Lee Hsien Yang, and his wife.


Speaking on behalf of the British Chamber of Commerce was former Chamber President Jonathan Asherson, Regional Director ASEAN & Pacific, Rolls-Royce. In his condolence speech, Asherson reflected on the Chamber’s 50th Anniversary celebrations, in which Lee was the Guest of Honour. Asherson shared that Lee, in his speech on Singapore-UK relations, noted that British traders from the East India Company laid the foundations of modern Singapore. It was then that he spoke of Singapore’s keenness to establish an EU Singapore free trade agreement. His vision came to fruition in Oct 2014.




Remembering Lee Kuan Yew


As a newly minted lawyer who had just returned home from Britain, the young Lee Kuan Yew devoted time to helping the unions and other vulnerable groups in their run-ins with the British.


His first major case was the postal workers’ union, for whose members he secured wage increases. These cases rarely raked in the big money, much to the chagrin of his firm, Laycock & Ong. He once asked for a token $10 for a case when another lawyer wanted to charge $15,000.


Soon, Lee built a reputation as a champion of society’s underdogs. He became legal adviser to more than 100 unions and associations within two years. That reputation reaped political capital. Many workers whom he helped became fervent campaigners when he first ran for election in 1955. Later, he became uncomfortable with the strident unionism of the leftists within the People’s Action Party. Their strikes often ended in violent action and detentions, such as during the Hock Lee bus strike.


Lee became the first prime minister of Singapore after his People’s Action Party won a landslide victory in the 1959 election— Singapore’s first election under full internal self-government. As then PAP chairman Toh Chin Chye and Organising Secretary Ong Pang Boon later recalled, Lee got the post only after beating comrade Ong Eng Guan by one vote at a post-election central executive committee meeting. Lee disputed this, pointing to a letter Dr Toh later wrote that said the decision had been unanimous.


By 1963, Lee had led Singapore to independence through a merger with Malaysia. During the Malaysia years, he retained his title as Prime Minister rather than changing it to Chief Minister, a point of unhappiness with then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. The Tunku’s personality clash with Lee, as well as their divergent views on race relations, caused Singapore and Malaysia to part ways in 1965, making Lee the first prime minister of a fully independent Singapore.


Over the next two-and-a-half decades, he governed decisively.


He opened up the economy to free trade and multinational corporations, which brought about dramatic growth. He also placed special emphasis on meritocracy, multiracialism and a corruption-free society and government. But his hardline approach to political opponents drew some criticism at home and abroad.


By the time Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990, gross domestic product per capita had grown seven times in real terms to nearly US$14,711, and eight in 10 Singaporeans were living in public housing.


Global Links


Even as he cared little for the label, other world leaders regarded Lee Kuan Yew as a statesman whose views were sought after. He was also someone who had seen it all, from being a child of the British empire to a leader who fought against colonialism and steered a small developing country to chart a path for itself amid the big powers.


He approached relations with a firm view to advance Singapore’s interests, and saw the world for what it was rather than what it ought to be, observers have said. In helping to raise Singapore’s profile on the world stage for nearly five decades, he met leaders of revolution, from Mao Zedong to Nelson Mandela to Gamal Abdel Nasser, and forged close ties with regional leaders, such as Suharto.


Some relationships blossomed into deep friendships. There is the fabled bond between Lee and his three friends: former US secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, and former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt. “A small state must seek a maximum number of friends, while maintaining the freedom to be itself as a sovereign and independent nation,” Lee said in 2009.


Lee retired in 1990 after 31 years as prime minister, and was succeeded by Goh Chok Tong. He became Senior Minister, then Minister Mentor, before stepping down from the Cabinet in 2011.


Source: The Straits Times Special Edition 23 Mar 2015



Britain & Singapore


The story of the UK’s relationship with Singapore has many chapters. Our countries enjoy a rich range of cooperation in many areas, founded on a partnership that has evolved and grown over nearly 200 years.


A key element of that partnership concerns our economic and business links. Our countries share many beliefs, among them a commitment to trade and commerce. Singapore has long been a vital platform for the UK’s trade with Southeast Asia and beyond, just as the UK has been a home for Singaporean investment and companies looking to trade with Europe.


In 2012, Singapore President Tony Tan, in his letter commemorating HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, wrote:


“Singapore and the United Kingdom are linked by shared history, a common language and legal system, which can be traced back close to 200 years. We have a long-standing and deep friendship that is underpinned by substantial mutual interests. The strong reservoir of goodwill between our peoples, which forms the bedrock of our strong and enduring relationship, expresses itself in excellent cooperation across a broad range of fields, such as defence, cultural, education, and scientific research and development. Our close linkages have been reinforced by regular high-level exchanges between our two countries.


“Our economic ties, in particular, have remained robust and resilient. The UK is Singapore’s fourth-largest European trading partner and our fourth-largest investor internationally. More than 3,000 British companies continue to make significant contributions to Singapore’s economic and social development. The British Chamber of Commerce plays a pivotal role in raising the profile of British companies in Singapore, and in facilitating networking and business opportunities for companies from both countries. As the UK looks towards expanding its exports to emerging markets of the world, we hope that more British companies will continue to use Singapore as a strategic launch pad to the dynamic and growing Southeast Asian region and beyond.”


In 2012, Foreign Secretary William Hague stated that “today the UK is looking East as never before.” As we do so, the importance of Singapore as our partner increases still further, making this the perfect moment to celebrate the development of our business relationship over the last 50 years.


Singapore’s Golden Jubilee


As we prepare to join Singapore in celebrating its 50th National Day, it is only apt to reflect on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s comment: “We come together not only to mourn. We come together also to rejoice in Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s long and full life, and what he has achieved with us, his people in Singapore. We come together to pledge ourselves to continue building this exceptional country. Let us shape this island nation into one of the great cities in the world, reflecting the ideals he stood for, realising the dreams he inspired, and worthy of the people who have made Singapore our home and nation. Thank you Mr Lee Kuan Yew. May you rest in peace.”