News of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, longest serving Singapore’s Prime Minister broke on March 23 and the country has declared a week to mourn him. The 91 year old man widely known as “Harry Lee,” a moniker he acquired while a law student at the University of Cambridge has left behind a legacy of an efficiently run country and as a leader who brought prosperity unheard of before his tenure.
Once in office June 5, 1959, Lee Kuan Yew introduced a five-year plan calling for urban renewal and construction of new public housing; greater rights for women, educational reform, industrialization, and tackled corruption.
He understood, Singapore needed a strong economy to survive as an independent country, and Lee quickly spearheaded a program to transform it into a major exporter of finished goods. He also encouraged foreign investment and made moves to ensure a rising standard of living for workers. By the 1980s, Singapore, under Lee’s guidance, had a per capita income second only to Japan’s in East Asia, and the country had become a chief financial centre of Southeast Asia. His doggedness and commitment paid a way for him in-spite of the many closed doors and the enormous challenges he faced.
The country became pioneers in mass house building and nationalised healthcare, while Lee was adamant that education was essential, often saying Singapore’s only natural resource was its people. Singapore opened up to foreign investment and expertise, recruiting migrant labour widely while enforcing strict racial quotas in housing.
Lee Kuan Yew was the prime minster of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, making him the longest-serving PM in history. During his long rule, Singapore became the most prosperous nation in Southeast Asia.
Harry Lee’s emphasis on a society with 100 percent literacy led to broadening the notion of what many Singaporeans called the “literacy of governance.” It resulted in the establishment of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Its first — and continuing — head was the former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani.
The school trains current and future leaders, mostly from developing countries. The idea is to inculcate in them values such as clean government, attentiveness to everyday people’s concerns, and effective municipal management.
One of the stories that caught our attention this week was the report about some 1,300 pupils from Telok Kurau Primary who were being taught about Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s life and legacy during an hour-long slide show on Tuesday. Teachers took extra care to make Mr Lee’s life resonate with the pupils. They recounted, for instance, how he made bold promises, and delivered.
Today, Singapore is widely considered as a role model for developing countries yearning to establish more prosperous societies but his critics say it “came at a significant cost for human rights, and today’s restricted freedom of expression, self-censorship and stunted multiparty democracy”.
Although he stepped down as prime minister in 1990, handing power to Goh Chok Tong, Lee remained influential as senior minister in Goh’s cabinet and subsequently as “minister mentor” when his son, Lee Hsien Loong became prime minister in 2004. Lee’s political involvement continued almost until his death.
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