Singapore is testament to the vision of Sir Stamford Raffles and Dr Albert Winsemius, not Lee Kuan Yew

Dear Professor Simon Chesterman,

I refer to the 5 Jun 2013 Straits Times report of your speech on the occasion of the conference of an honorary doctorate of laws to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s [1].

Your assertion that Mr Lee’s vision of independence was sown during his time at Cambridge contradicts our Chief of Government Communications Mr Janadas Devan’s article [2] in which he wrote: “Every one of Singapore’s founding fathers began their political careers believing … that Singapore couldn’t possibly be independent.” If Mr Devan is correct, how could Mr Lee have envisioned Singapore’s independence if he didn’t even believe Singapore could ever be independent?

It wasn’t Mr Lee who led PAP to victory in the 1959 General Election. It was Mr Lim Chin Siong’s popularity with the Chinese educated masses that gave PAP its victory in 1959 [3].

Singapore did not transition from Third World to First under Mr Lee. Singapore’s purchasing power parity adjusted per capita GNP was already US$4,794 [4] back in 1960 which according to World Bank classification today [4] was already of Upper Middle Income status, just one step away from High Income status. This is further supported by Carl Trocki who wrote in his book [5] “Singapore had already attained a middle income status in 1960 with a per capita GDP of $1,330”. So at best, you can only say that Singapore transitioned from Next to First World to First World under Mr Lee, not from Third World to First.

Furthermore, our transition from Next to First World to First World was under the economic policies of Dr Albert Winsemius, not Mr Lee. Mr Lee, following conventional wisdom, actively pursued import substitution [6] which history has shown to be an inferior economic policy compared to the export industrialisation policy designed by Dr Winsemius. Thankfully, we were separated from Malaysia, which scuttled Mr Lee’s plans and freed Singapore to pursue the right path set by Dr Winsemius [6].

Why would our transition owe much to Mr Lee’s embrace of the rule of law when Singapore already had rule of law before Mr Lee came to power? It doesn’t make sense to say that we required him to embrace something that we already had.

Whether it is life expectancy or literacy rate, little if any separates Singapore from other First World nations [7]. As for greenery, Hong Kong, our closest rival, has 60% more green space per person than Singapore [8] even though Hong Kong doesn’t have Lee Kuan Yew which shows we didn’t need Lee Kuan Yew to have greenery.

Ranking first in one World Justice Project category doesn’t mean Singapore is first overall. The following table shows that when the average of all scores is taken, Singapore is more middling amongst First World nations [9]:

Country 2012 WJP Rule of Law average score As percentage of highest average
Sweden 0.88 100%
Denmark 0.88 99%
Norway 0.87 98%
Finland 0.87 98%
Netherlands 0.84 95%
New Zealand 0.83 94%
Australia 0.82 92%
Austria 0.80 91%
Singapore 0.79 90%
Japan 0.79 90%
Germany 0.79 89%
Canada 0.78 88%
United Kingdom 0.78 88%
Hong Kong 0.76 87%
France 0.76 86%
Belgium 0.74 84%
Spain 0.73 83%
Republic of Korea 0.73 83%
United States 0.72 82%
Portugal 0.66 75%
Italy 0.64 72%
Greece 0.61 69%

Strangely, many of the categories in which Singapore came in last (or near last) in the 2011 World Justice Project suddenly became unavailable in 2012. Furthermore, in categories like fundamental rights, freedom of opinion and guarantee of expression, Singapore’s ranking suddenly swung from second last to first. The extreme ranking swing from year to year makes the World Justice Project somewhat not dependable.

World Justice Project factors 2011 rank out of 23 First World nations 2012 rank
4.6 The right to privacy is effectively guaranteed. 23 #N/A
5.6 Official information is available to the public 23 #N/A
7.2 People can access and afford legal advice and representation 23 #N/A
Factor 4: Fundamental Rights 22 2
1.6 Government powers are effectively limited by non-governmental checks 22 #N/A
4.4 Freedom of opinion and expression is effectively guaranteed 22 1
4.7 Freedom of assembly and association is effectively guaranteed 22 1
5.4 The right of petition and public participation is effectively guaranteed 22 #N/A
7.6 Civil justice is free of improper government influence 21 #N/A
1.7 Transfers of power occur in accordance with the law 20 #N/A
6.5 The Government does not expropriate property without adequate compensation 20 #N/A
7.3 People can access and afford civil courts 20 #N/A
8.6 The criminal justice system is free of improper government influence 20 #N/A
1.2 Government powers are effectively limited by the legislature 19 1
Factor 1: Limited Government Powers 18 1
4.5 Freedom of belief and religion is effectively guaranteed 18 1
Factor 5: Open Government 17 2
4.2 The right to life and security of the person is effectively guaranteed 17 3

While Mr Lee may not have foreseen our success when he took leadership in 1959, Dr Winsemius did when he came onboard two years later. Just as Mr Lee was totally devastated by our separation [10], Dr Winsemius confidently said our hands are now free, we can use them and it was the best thing that happened to Singapore [6].

It was strange that Mr Lee should say in 1965 that Singapore would be a metropolis ten years on because he told American businessmen in a speech in Chicago in 1967 that we were already a metropolis [11]. If he had predicted in 1965 our road to becoming a metropolis would take 10 years, it is unlikely that the objective would suddenly be achieved in just 2 years. More likely than not, Singapore was already on the threshold of becoming a metropolis back in 1965 on the basis of our accumulated strength since 1819.

Singapore stands testament to the vision of people like Sir Stamford Raffles and Dr Albert Winsemius, not Lee Kuan Yew. Few people have had their contributions so completely blown out of proportions. Lee’s actual impact on the nation’s development is quite ordinary if important contributions from others are rightfully attributed to them and not to Lee. Lee’s impact on the nation’s character has sometimes brought us ridicule as we were at times labelled as un-entrepreneurial, cultureless or even stupid.

Singapore is not the lifework of Lee Kuan Yew but that of Sir Stamford Raffles, past British Governors, pioneers like Tan Tock Seng and generations of Singaporeans past and present. Our successful launch in 1965 wouldn’t have been possible without the 140 years of solid foundation laid during colonial times. It was a launch that resulted not from Lee’s success but from his failure to keep Singapore in Malaysia, a failure that saw us getting kicked out of Malaysia by Tungku Abdul Rahman and leaving Lee to cry on national TV on the occasion of our separation. If there had been any inspiration for the continent, it was a borrowed one and any admiration a false one for it was ultimately Dr Winsemius, not Lee who should be credited for our success formula that took us from next to First World to First World.

Singapore did not transition from Third World to First under Lee for we were already Upper Middle Income status according to World Bank classification of our 1960 per capita GNP. Instead, we transitioned from Upper Middle Income status to First World status by building on 140 years of solid foundation laid by the British using Dr Winsemius’ economic plans. Singapore’s success is testament to the vision of our founder Sir Stamford Raffles, the economic plan of Dr Winsemius and the hard work of generations of Singaporeans past and present.

[1] Straits Times, The lawyer and his vision for S’pore, 5 Jun 2013, Simon Chesterman

[2] Straits Times, Choosing the better angels of our nature, 22 Apr 2013, Janadas Devan


• Phyllis Chew Ghim Lian, A Sociolinguistic History of Early Identities in Singapore: From Colonialism to Nationalism, Chapter 9 Language, Power and Political Identities: The 1959 Singapore Political Elections

In the 1959 elections with the implementation of compulsory voting, the PAP reaped the full voting force of the Chinese-educated and lower income groups … Lee was assured of not being over-shadowed by the charismatic Hokkien-Mandarin speaker, but yet was free to ride on the wave of Lim’s popularity.

• Haig Patapan and John Wanna and Patrick Moray Weller, Westminster Legacies: Democracy And Responsible Government in Asia And the Pacific, page 112

Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan gave the party access to trade union, student and cultural organisations that could be harnessed to mass political mobilisation. It was an uneasy but powerful alliance, ultimately bring the PAP to victory in 1959 polls.


World Bank classifies nations as follows:

Category Criteria (based on 2011 per capita GNI)
High Income US$12,476 or higher
Upper Middle Income From US$4,036 to US$12,475
Lower Middle Income From US$1,026 to US$4,035
Low Income US$1,025 or below

World Bank GNI figures only stretch back to 1980. So have to rely on Penn World Tables instead. Although Penn World Tables doesn’t have GNI figures, it has GNP to GDP ratios which can be used to obtain GNP figures from GDP figures. GNP figures are similar to GNI figures and they stretch all the way back to 1960 for Singapore. The figures, in 2005 PPP USD, are then converted to 2010 PPP USD. 2010 is the last year available in Penn World Tables and is as close to 2011 as one can get.

[5] Carl A. Trocki, Singapore: wealth, power and the culture of control, Page 166


• The Fraser Institute, Case Studies in the Relationship between Political, Economic and Civil Freedoms, page 155

Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP proposed a political union with Malaysia, which would provide a good-sized domestic market for an industrial strategy of import substitution. Expulsion from the union with Malaysia in 1965, on political grounds by the government in Kuala Lumpur, destroyed the import-substitution strategy.

• Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Asia Competitiveness Institute, Remaking Singapore, Michael Porter and Christian Ketels and Neo Boon Siong and Susan Chung, July 2008

During the federation period and immediately afterward, Lee’s government initially pursued an import substitution strategy … but the alienation from Malaysia, with its much larger market, rendered the strategy impractical.

• Helen Hughes, The Dangers of export pessimism: developing countries and industrial markets, page 225

Until 1965, the economic strategy of the country hinged on a merger with Malaya to establish the larger domestic market, deemed necessary for economic viability [5-3].

• Jacques Charmes, In-service training: five Asian experiences, Bernard Salomé, Page 21

Singapore at first adopted the industrialisation policy of import substitution, followed after 1966 by the export of labour intensive manufactured goods.

• Robert Fitzgerald, The Competitive advantages of Far Eastern business, Page 55

Singapore’s industrialisation strategy was originally dependent on policies of import substitution within the Malaysian common market, but the attainment of political independence in 1965 led to export industrialisation.

• Eddie C. Y. Kuo / Chee Meng Loh / K. S. Raman, Information technology and Singapore society, Page 87

Import substitution was adopted in the early 1960s in anticipation of the Malayan common market. However, Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 dashing the hopes of the common market, hence an export strategy was promoted instead.

• Sikko Visscher, The business of politics and ethnicity: a history of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, page 171

Lee Kuan Yew, appearing in tears on television when announcing separation, was devastated. His feelings strongly contrasted with scenes in Chinatown where firecrackers were set off to celebrate liberation from rule by Malays from Kuala Lumpur. Most Singaporeans did not share the government’s dismay. Winsemius also did not share Lee’s dismay. He said in a 1981 interview: To my amazement, a discussion had started: can Singapore survive? That is the only time I got angry in Singapore. I said: ‘now you have your hands free – use them!’ It was the best thing that happened during the whole period from 1960 till today.

• Tong Dow Ngiam, A Mandarin and the Making of Public Policy: Reflections, page 66

Dr Winsemius and I.F. Tang in their heart of hearts never believed in a Malaysian Common Market.

Dr Winsemius and I.F. Tang made extraordinary contributions to the economic development of Singapore as leader and secretary of the first UN Industrialisation Survey Team in 1961.

• Philip Nalliah Pillai, State enterprise in Singapore: legal importation and development, Page 30

With Singapore’s secession in 1965, the United Nations Proposed Industrialization Programme for the State of Singapore became the basis for Singapore’s industrialisation strategy.

• Danny M Leipziger, Lessons from East Asia, Page 240

The 1960-61 United Nations mission led by Albert Winsemius helped develop a blueprint for Singapore’s industrialisation and development plan and recommended the establishment of EDB.

UN Human Development Index, Gross school enrolment rate 2002 to 2011:

Country Primary (%) Secondary (%) Tertiary (%)
France 111.0 113.0 54.5
Netherlands 108.0 120.0 62.7
Ireland 108.0 117.0 61.0
Spain 107.0 119.0 73.2
United Kingdom 106.0 102.0 58.5
Liechtenstein 106.0 70.0 34.4
Belgium 105.0 111.0 67.5
Australia 104.0 129.0 75.9
Korea (Republic of) 104.0 97.0 103.9
Japan 103.0 102.0 59.0
Italy 103.0 99.0 66.0
Germany 102.0 103.0 ..
United States 102.0 96.0 94.8
Switzerland 102.0 95.0 51.5
Hong Kong, China (SAR) 102.0 83.0 59.7
Singapore 101.8 106.9 71.0
New Zealand 101.0 119.0 82.6
Sweden 100.0 100.0 70.8
Austria 100.0 100.0 60.2
Luxembourg 100.0 98.0 10.5
Denmark 99.0 117.0 74.4
Norway 99.0 110.0 73.8
Finland 99.0 108.0 91.6
Canada 99.0 101.0 60.0

World Health Organisation Life Expectancy:

Country Name 2010 life expectancy As percentage of highest life expectancy
Japan 82.9 100%
Hong Kong SAR, China 82.9 100%
Switzerland 82.2 99%
Italy 81.7 99%
Australia 81.7 99%
Singapore 81.6 98%
Spain 81.6 98%
Sweden 81.5 98%
France 81.4 98%
Norway 81.0 98%
Canada 80.8 97%
Korea, Rep. 80.8 97%
Netherlands 80.7 97%
New Zealand 80.7 97%
United Kingdom 80.4 97%
Austria 80.4 97%
Ireland 80.3 97%
Luxembourg 80.1 97%
Germany 80.0 96%
Belgium 79.9 96%
Finland 79.9 96%
Denmark 79.1 95%
United States 78.2 94%

EIU, Asian Green City Index, Green spaces per person (m2/person)

Cities Green spaces per person (m2/person)
Guangzhou 166.3
Nanjing 108.4
Hong Kong 105.3
Beijing 88.4
Singapore 66.2
Taipei 49.6
Kuala Lumpur 43.9
Bengaluru 41
Yokohama 37.4
Seoul 23.4
Wuhan 20.9
Delhi 18.8
Shanghai 18.1
Karachi 17
Hanoi 11.2
Tokyo 10.6
Mumbai 6.6
Manila 4.5
Osaka 4.5
Bangkok 3.3
Jarkarta 2.3
Kolkata 1.8


Only high income economies considered; ex-communist nations excluded as it is unfair to compare nations that have suffered under decades of communist rule.


Straits Times, What if there had been no Toh Chin Chye?, 4 Feb 2012

During the Big Split … Dr Goh Keng Swee … recalled Dr Toh Chin Chye visiting him in his Fullerton Building office in 1961, after seeing Mr Lee, saying: ‘I have just come from Harry’s office. He was staring at the ceiling just like you did. You should snap out of this mood. The fighting has just begun. It is going to be long and nasty. But if we keep wringing our hands in anguish, we are sure to lose.

[11] Peter Wilson / Gavin Peebles, Economic growth and development in Singapore: past and future, Page 26

LKY had already acknowledged in an Aug 1967 speech to American businessmen in Chicago that we were already a metropolis.


3 Responses to “Singapore is testament to the vision of Sir Stamford Raffles and Dr Albert Winsemius, not Lee Kuan Yew”

  1. johor Says:

    and the most important difference of all is that stamford raffles and dr albert winsemius were not S’pore citizens, but LKY is.

  2. ;Annonymous Says:

    Great piece but then the victor always get to write the official history. Reminds me of the headlines of the MSM proclaiming that LKY planted the tree. Anyone with eyes to see will see that that big tree had already been planted by others. He did not even have the strength to hold the spade and the watering can. That’s life.

  3. Velva Says:

    Great post.

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