The son of the father

Understanding the legacy of Singapore's first prime minister and founding father Lee Kuan Yew

Michael D. Barr
June 4, 2015
The son of the father
In mourning: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong bows in front of the coffin and a picture of his father Lee Kuan Yew during the state funeral in Singapore. Photo: EPA

After the publicity surrounding his death on March 23 it should now be common knowledge that Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015) was the Republic of Singapore’s first prime minister.

It might be less well known that he was also Singapore’s second ‘senior minister’ and its first (and at this stage its only) ‘minister mentor’, stepping down from this role only in 2011. Going back further, he was also the only prime minister of the British Colony of Singapore and the only ‘prime minister’ of Singapore when it was a state of Malaysia. He was also the first, and thus far the only, member of parliament to represent the inner-city residents of Tanjong Pagar, having been first elected in 1955 when the constituency was created and remaining in the role at the time of his death 60 years later.

During this time he has presided over the rise of Singapore to its current status as a highly successful capitalist economy and a stable, peaceful society. Many commentators have suggested in recent weeks that he built up Singapore from nothing and that he did it more or less on his own. This is wrong on both counts. It is too commonly overlooked that Singapore was already a bustling and thriving colonial city and commercial centre when Lee was first appointed prime minister in 1959 and that, throughout his first decades in power, he benefited from a wealth of talent in the form of his ‘old guard’ colleagues in cabinet and the civil service.

But let us not quibble. In 1959 Singapore had no manufacturing base, no industry of any sort, no mass education system – let alone one that is world class, which today’s is by many measures – no oil industry and it was not a financial centre. Its inner city was mostly crowded slums, its health system was ‘universal’ but grossly inadequate, and its social welfare system was totally underdeveloped. Today all these things have changed for the better, and have done so at a pace that has generally outstripped other post-colonial societies, including Singapore’s immediate neighbours.

Lee Kuan Yew thus casts a long shadow over Singapore. Just how long is yet to be seen. In practical terms, Lee has been a marginal figure in the governance of Singapore for some years now. His withdrawal from serious engagement in the business of government began some time after 2004, when his son became Prime Minister. It is difficult to be sure whether his son’s succession was the main trigger for the withdrawal or whether it was his own failing health, energy and ability to concentrate, but in retrospect there can be little doubt that from about 2005 or 2006 the elder Lee was moving increasingly out of the operation of government and the younger Lee – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – was carving his own destiny.

In this sense, Singapore has already been in a post-Lee Kuan Yew era for the best part of a decade. Certainly this is how the markets have viewed the situation, failing to even show a slight fluctuation in response to the death of the older Lee. Yet there is another sense in which the post-Lee Kuan Yew era is just beginning – a sense that was highlighted by the week-long period of mourning that preceded Lee’s funeral on March 29. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Singaporeans lined the streets and queued for up to eight or nine hours to show their respect. His image was projected onto buildings, stuck onto cars and sold as figurines. Newsreels of his old speeches going back to the 1950s seemed to be on a near-continuous rolling loop on local television, along with contemporary tributes. Even the netizens of social media behaved themselves – with just one exception, who has since been charged.

When Lee Kuan Yew stepped down from the premiership in 1990, Singaporean society and politics was on the cusp of fundamental change that ‘threatened’ to make it more democratic and open

So in political and practical terms, it can be difficult to pin down exactly what happened when Lee died on March 23. It might be the end of an era, but what does that mean for Singapore and – in particular – to his son and successor, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong?

There has been some commentary to the effect that Singapore has already had two successions since Lee left the premiership – first to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, and then to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – and these peaceful and smooth transitions are marks of Lee Kuan Yew’s success. And yet there is a real sense in which we can say that Lee Kuan Yew presided over both of these ‘successions’.

One of the less-remembered facts of Lee Hsien Loong’s succession from Goh Chok Tong in 2004 is that Lee Kuan Yew was still a great power at the time and was actively managing the succession from Goh to Lee. The older Lee even inserted himself into cabinet, announcing his own appointment, inventing his own title of “minister mentor” and even determining his own ranking within cabinet. We had to wait a full week for his son to confirm these arrangements, and even then it was done with a minimum of grace through an anonymous government spokesman.

That was then. This is now. Lee Hsien Loong has gradually moved out of his father’s shadow, but it took until 2011 for him to fully establish his personal authority. This means there is a real sense that this passing of the baton from Lee Senior to Lee Junior is the first, not the second, succession for independent Singapore.

This analysis is reinforced by a second observation. When Lee Kuan Yew stepped down from the premiership in 1990, Singaporean society and politics was on the cusp of fundamental change that ‘threatened’ to make it more democratic and open. In 1987, just a few years before he stepped down, Lee Kuan Yew took drastic steps to thwart these tendencies. In that year he insisted that his successors engage in a crackdown on a group of mildly left-wing Catholics and alternative-theatre activists, accusing them of being part of a “Marxist conspiracy” to overthrow the state. His success in locking these young idealists up without charge, and exposing his successors to the politics of repression, set the political development of Singapore back by nearly a decade.

One could argue that it was not until the 2006 general election that Singapore had regained the level of openness and political contestation that Singaporeans generally thought they had achieved before the detentions of 1987 – and even then the continuing use of defamation and other legal actions to close down criticism makes such a claim contestable. Yet even if we take the assertion at face value, we remember that in 2004 – two years before the 2006 general election – Goh Chok Tong stepped down and Lee Hsien Loong became prime minister under a process that was closely managed by Lee Senior. It was only after this transition that Lee Hsien Loong quietly and slowly established his own authority until he fully took over the reins of power in 2011, when his father finally left cabinet.

On one level the younger Lee has now had plenty of practice at being prime minister. If his record to date had been a strong one, we would now be able to say with some confidence that Singapore is in strong, competent hands. The problem is, however, that the record of Lee Hsien Loong’s government has been far from strong.

It may not be apparent to outsiders who take only a passing interest in the domestic affairs of the island, but the truth is that there is barely an aspect of government or society to which the government can now point that is not problematic. Difficulties abound across entire fields of core government business: national infrastructure, immigration policy, housing, transport, social (in)equality, social welfare, health and management of foreign worker programmes, to name but a few. The government has even conceded that many of these problems have been government creations. This sort of record might suggest that a change of government is in the offing, but Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy remains sufficiently intact to render such a possibility unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future.

If this is the state of affairs in the midst of the first succession – or even the second succession, for that matter – then it seems that the long-term future of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy must be regarded as being in serious doubt. The question of how to deal with these challenges lies firmly at the feet of Lee Hsien Loong. I think it is safe to say that he would have hoped to be facing
a more benign political outlook 11 years into his premiership. 

Michael D. Barr is an associate professor of international relations at Flinders University, Australia, and editor in chief of Asian Studies Review. He is the author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs behind the Man, Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project, and The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence. He is currently writing a new history of Singapore.

Singapore’s unsung hero: Dr Goh Keng Swee

A key man that Lee Kuan Yew could never have done without

Lee Kuan Yew liked to think he was a pragmatist, but compared to Goh Keng Swee he was a bookish theoretician and an old softie. Goh was Singapore’s second deputy prime minister and for two-and-a-half decades he was Lee Kuan Yew’s primary ‘fixer’ – a role that he somehow managed to combine with his other role as an independent thinker and chief cynic.


Goh was the finance minister who built the economy in the early 1960s, the defence minister who began building the army from nothing in the late 1960s and then returned to the role throughout the whole of the 1970s. He was also the education minister who turned the education system inside out in the late 1970s and early 1980s, just before he retired.

Yet for all these achievements, Goh was the bookish one: he had a PhD in economics from the London School of Economics and in his speeches displayed an extraordinarily broad range of reading that sat uncomfortably with his gruff, mumbling, phlegmatic delivery and caustic wit.

A man of firm convictions and flexible principle, he was a real builder – and not someone to be trifled with.

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