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Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew: Mudflat to metropolis to smart nation

Zafirah Salim | March 23, 2015
Under Lee Kuan Yew's leadership, Singapore - which was once an impoverished port - is now ranked as one of the richest countries in the world.

(Photo by Tara Sosrowardoyo, National Museum of Singapore Collection)

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father and the nation's first prime minister, had been hospitalised since early February, surviving on life support for the past few weeks. He was 91 and suffering from severe pneumonia.

This morning, the nation woke up to the depressing news of Lee's passing. According to a statement by the Prime Minister's Office, Lee passed away peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital today at 3.18am.

Singapore's leader from before "self-government" from Britain in 1959, he was prime minister until 1990. He retired in stages, leaving the cabinet only in 2011, and remaining a member of parliament until his death.

Lee has commanded immense respect among Singaporeans, who this year will celebrate the country's 50th independence anniversary. Although he has been out of the political spotlight for some years, his impact on Singapore cannot be underestimated.

Leading Singapore for more than three decades, Singapore - which was once an impoverished port - is now ranked as one of the richest countries in the world, establishing itself as one of Asia's leading financial centres and high-tech manufacturing hubs.

Lee's legacy includes an efficient government with little corruption, low tax rates to attract foreign investment, excellent schools, and clean and safe streets - all of which have helped Singapore rank consistently near the top of surveys of the most livable cities.

Transforming a third-world nation to first

Lee Kuan Yew became the first prime minister of Singapore after his People's Action Party (PAP) won a landslide victory in the 1959 election - Singapore's first election under full internal self-government.

By 1963, Lee had led Singapore to independence through a merger with Malaysia. However, clashes of perspectives and disparate views on race relations caused Singapore and Malaysia to part ways in 1965, making Lee the first prime minister of a fully independent and separate Singapore.

In September 1965 - soon after our separation from Malaysia - the then-PM Lee delivered a speech at Sri Narayana Mission: "This is not a country that belongs to any single community; it belongs to all of us. We have made this country from nothing, from mudflats... Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!"

Lee took power amid a host of problems, including a multi-racial and multi-religious society with a history of violent outbursts, inadequate housing, unemployment, a lack of natural resources such as a water supply, and a limited ability to defend itself from potentially hostile neighbours.

Over the next two decades, 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.


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