The Rise of Singapore

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In 1959, Singapore was one of the least prominent nations in the world. It encompassed a miniscule amount of territory, had a low population and possessed absolutely no natural resources. The Second World War and Japanese occupation had crippled a fragile country, and fifteen years later, it was in a truly decrepit state. The infant mortality rate was 3.6%, one in seven people were unemployed and only half of the population was literate. Yet despite these inauspicious beginnings, Singapore would ultimately overtake its competitors and emerge as one of the region’s greatest success stories – an ‘Asian tiger’. The reason for this remarkable transformation was Singapore’s legendary leader, Lee Kuan Yew. 

Singapore had been a British colony since 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles founded the city. Straddling the straits of Malacca, Singapore occupied a key strategic location and had become a cultural melting pot – three quarters of the city was ethnically Chinese, 15% was Malay and 8% Indian.

Lee Kuan Yew was born into a relatively prosperous Chinese family. He attended Raffles College, but his education was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. As a British colony in the Far East, Singapore was a target for the advancing Japanese empire and on 15 February 1942, in one of the most humiliating incidents in the World Wars, a Japanese army half the size of its British opponents seized the city. The Japanese administration of Singapore was as brutal as it was across the rest of Asia. Strict rationing was imposed, the kempeitai ran rampant and between 9,000-50,000 civilians died during the occupation. Years later, Lee recalled being slapped and forced to kneel for refusing to bow to a Japanese soldier. The experience turned Lee, and many others, into an opponent of imperialism and a passionate advocate for Singaporean independence. He would later state in his memoirs that, “no one – neither Japanese nor British – had the right to push and kick us around … we could govern ourselves.”

Eventually Singapore was liberated by Allied forces and Lee completed his education in England, studying law at Cambridge and the London School of Economics. Once he had returned to Singapore, Lee gradually made his name through the courts as an advocate. At this point, Singapore was still a crown dependency of Great Britain. The city held elections, but these only chose six members of the governing Legislative Council – the other nineteen were appointed by the British governor directly. Understandably, many Singaporeans were unsatisfied with this arrangement and there was a widespread desire for independence.

Lee’s political career began in 1954, when he successfully defended the members of the Fajar Club against charges of sedition. Later that year, with the help of several grateful members, he formed the People’s Action Party (PAP), which aimed to create an independent Singapore. In 1955, he won his seat in Tanjong Pagar and became the Leader of the Opposition. In 1955, the Legislative Council was replaced with a Legislative Assembly, which consisted of thirty-two members, twenty-five of whom were elected and seven of whom were British appointees. Despite these democratic developments, the colonial government still reserved excessive control through the power of Veto. In 1958, the Legislatively Assembly was again overhauled due to pressure from men such as Lee Kuan Yew: now, there would be fifty-one seats, and all of them would be elected. On 3 June 1959, the PAP won a resounding victory, taking forty-three seats in Parliament. Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister and began to steer his country to prosperity. 

At first, Lee wished to pursue a merger with Malaysia. Yet Kuala Lumpur was hesitant. The leaders of Malaysia believed that Singapore was a bastion of extreme left-wing politics, which they feared might spread to their homeland if the two nations became one. To assuage these concerns, Lee launched Operation Coldstone, which saw the mass detention of the Barisian Socialists. With Singapore’s internal stability having been secured, Malaysia and Singapore were unified in 1962. Lee Kuan Yew believed this moment was the turning point of the nation, and proclaimed it the beginning of a golden age for his people.

Yet the union was to be less a marriage than a short-lived affair. Savage race riots between the Singaporean Chinese and the Malay combined with other structural issues to doom the union. Lee made a rare strategic mistake in taking part in the Malay parliamentary elections, as doing so infuriated the Malays, who saw Singapore as a Chinese country and agent. Their initial concerns returned with a vengeance and the union collapsed in 1965. For Lee, this was a calamity. In a speech on the separation, he declared “Every time we look back on this moment when we signed this agreement which severed Singapore from Malaysia, it will be a moment of anguish.” The first years of this nascent democracy were not an optimistic golden age, but a terrifying era, in which any misstep could spell the end of Singapore as a nation. Lee Kuan Yew had accidentally made his bed and now he had to lie in it. Singapore was extremely poor, surrounded by potential enemies and completely isolated. Lee’s early decisions were, in reality, not designed to transform Singapore into the powerhouse it is today. Instead, they were a desperate series of practical policies, designed to avoid the certain crisis which one wrong foot would trigger.

Lee’s first concern was national security. Surrounded by unfriendly – and much larger – neighbours, Singapore naturally felt threatened. Lee therefore made the unusual decision to maintain the British Commonwealth presence on the island. Most newly independent states instinctively wish to see all foreign forces depart immediately: to prove that they are now the masters of their own destiny. Lee did not have the luxury to indulge in such symbolism. Instead he adopted a strictly pragmatic approach, gradually phasing the British troops out as he established the Singaporean Armed Forces. This was modelled on Israel’s and Taiwan’s militaries, as both were highly effective organisations which had enabled smaller nations to successfully defend themselves from much larger opponents. The introduction of national service in 1967 provided the SAF with a considerably larger pool of manpower. By 1971, all British troops had been phased out, and Singapore could now defend itself with a disciplined and well equipped force, which grew with the addition of 18,000 men every year.

Internationally, Lee would prove himself a brilliant diplomat. Relations with Indonesia had been tense following the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation, which had begun when Singapore was still part of Malaysia. Nevertheless, Lee managed to establish diplomatic relations with Indonesia in 1966, and on 25 May 1973, he made his first visit to Jakarta. This established strong foundations for what would become a warm personal friendship with premier Suharto. Singapore-Indonesia ties were so strong that they co-founded ASEAN shortly after opening up relations. Through cautious diplomacy, Indonesia had been transformed from a potential foe to an ally. Lee also managed to cultivate relationships with Presidents Nixon and Reagan, as well as with other leading statesmen like Kissinger and Schultz. Lee’s policy of diplomacy supported by personal friendships was vital in securing broader American support, and its success was shown in 1985, when Lee was invited by Reagan to address a joint session of the United States Congress.

Yet Lee’s policy of diplomatic statesmanship also saw him court the Chinese, who formalised diplomatic relations with Singapore in 1976. To China, Singapore provided a model on how to modernise an economy. Deng Xiaoping sent tens of thousands of officials to the city to gather information in preparation for China’s opening in 1978, and even appointed Goh Keng Swee (Singapore’s former finance minister) as an advisor on the development of Special Economic Zones. Finally, Lee helped to found ASEAN in 1967, along with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. ASEAN tied the countries together in common aims such as the promotion of regional peace, stability and economic growth. Through his international statesmanship, Lee ensured that the stage was set for Singapore to prosper.

For Lee’s greatest achievements were in the economic sphere. At the beginning of his tenure, he struck agreements that satisfied the powerful labour unions and allowed for significant growth to take place in the future. Lee overhauled Singapore’s infrastructure, as part of a campaign to encourage multi-national corporations to invest in Singapore. This was so successful that by the 1970s, companies such as Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard and General Electric had bases in the city-state, which led to Singapore becoming a major electronics exporter. In doing this, Lee also encouraged major American, Japanese and European professionals to move to and work in Singapore. 

Government corporations were established to support the private sector in areas such as commercial airlines and heavy industry. Manufacturing in Singapore rose (from 14% of GDP to 24%), foreign investment flooded in and the economy boomed. Finally, Singapore became a centre of international finance, as Lee did everything he could to make the island a safe haven for foreign banks. His budgets delivered surpluses (keeping the Singaporean Dollar strong), corporate tax rates were slashed and massive productivity campaigns boosted the economy further. The results were truly astounding. Over the course of Lee’s premiership, unemployment fell from 13.5% to 1.7%, exports soared from $7.4 bn to $205 bn and GNP per capita rose from $1240 to $18,437.

The term ‘economic miracle’ is perhaps overused. Yet what Lee achieved – the transformation of a barren strip of land into an economic powerhouse – was little short of miraculous. By the time he retired, the lives of ordinary Singaporeans were far better than almost any could have dared imagine three decades before. 

Through Lee Kuan Yew’s policies, Singapore was able to overcome what should have been insurmountable. Kissinger once noted: “One of the asymmetries of history is the lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries.” Singapore’s story, however, is a testament to how the abilities of a brilliant leader can dramatically change the course of a country’s history. In 1960, few would have thought that Singapore would survive even a few years. Instead, three decades later, the literacy rate had risen by 38%, life expectancy by nine years and more than 650,000 public flats had been built. These achievements had made Lee extremely popular. His party won every seat in every parliamentary election from 1968-80 and won overwhelmingly in 1984 and 1988. When he retired in 1990, Lee left behind a truly transformative legacy, having made Singapore a safer, more prosperous and more prominent nation. The former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, was accurate in his assessment that Lee was “one of the greatest leaders of modern times that Asia has ever produced.” In the final analysis, nothing is a greater testament to Lee Kuan Yew than the fact that, after his death in 2015, almost half a million Singaporeans queued for over ten hours to pay their final respects to their nation’s founder.