To BBC – Lee Kuan Yew was not Singapore’s founding father

I refer to the 23 Mar 2015 BBC report “Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew dies at 91”.

Lee Kuan Yew was never Singapore’s founding father and will never be fit to be called one. Americans credit George Washington as their founding father because Washington fought for and won Americans their independence from the British. But Lee Kuan Yew did no such thing. Lee Kuan Yew didn’t even want independence in 1965 let alone fought for it. Lee’s marrying us into Malaysia and subjugating us to Malaysian sovereignty in 1963 also cannot be considered an act of independence.

BBC wrote:

Lee Kuan Yew, the statesman who transformed Singapore from a small port city into a wealthy global hub …

Singapore is still small physically so there isn’t much transformation under Lee Kuan Yew in so far as smallness is concerned. But if BBC was referring to Singapore’s transformation in wealth and global connectedness, it would be good for BBC to note that Singapore was already the estimated 5th most important port in the world back in the 1930s, the most important communications centre in the Far East in the 1950s and the 3rd richest in Asia in per capita GDP in 1960 (Penn World Tables) with the highest per capita ownership of cars in Asia. So whatever transformation that Singapore underwent was from a very high base. Moreover, this transformation closely followed the plans laid out in an industrialization plan written by Dr Albert Winsemius, not Lee Kuan Yew. It is hard to credit Lee for our transformation knowing that the plans came from someone else.

BBC wrote:

The city-state’s prime minister for 31 years, he was widely respected as the architect of Singapore’s prosperity.

The architect should be someone who came up with the plans. Since the plans came from Dr Winsemius and his team in a report entitled “The United Nations Proposed Industrialization Programme for the State of Singapore”, it should be Dr Winsemius, not Lee Kuan Yew who should be considered the architect of Singapore’s prosperity.

BBC quoted Lee Kuan Yew’s son PM Lee saying:

“He fought for our independence, built a nation where there was none, and made us proud to be Singaporeans. We won’t see another man like him.”

BBC also wrote:

Mr Lee oversaw Singapore’s independence from Britain and separation from Malaysia.

The British parliament had already passed the State of Singapore act in 1958 granting Singapore statehood and full internal self-government. That according to Lee Kuan Yew’s own words was three quarters independence (tiga suku merdeka). Thus, when Lee took charge in 1959, Singapore was already ¾ independent. So Lee couldn’t have achieved anything more than ¼ independence as ¾ had already been achieved before he took charge.

Singapore’s supposed independence from Britain was simultaneously accompanied by our dependence on Malaysia. This swopping of British sovereignty for Malaysian sovereignty cannot be considered independence in any sense of the word.

Mr Lee’s overseeing of our separation from Malaysia was accompanied by much grief and tears captured on national television for posterity. He was so clearly distraught that he had to convalesce at Changi chalet for six weeks. Separation from Malaysia or independence was the last thing on Lee’s mind for Lee had fought bitterly to marry us into Malaysia and had clearly stated to the entire nation that Singapore could not survive without Malaysia. It was therefore never Lee’s intention to make Singapore independent so how could he even be considered to have fought for our independence? Lee had independence thrust upon him against his wishes. It is worth emphasizing that there was no independence hero accompanying Singapore’s independence in 1965. There were however, independence heroes who fought hard and eventually pressured the British into granting us statehood in 1959 (decision made in 1958). They were collectively known as the Leftists. It was they who fought for Singapore’s independence, not Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee not so much built a nation but inherited one from the British as all the trappings of a nation were already laid out by the British – excellent civil service, British laws, British system of free trade and enterprise, commerce, trade, port, airport, roads, schools, hospitals, public water system and so on.

BBC wrote:

But tiny Singapore – with no natural resources – needed a new economic model.

Not true. While Singapore did not have mineral resources or oil, Singapore has one important natural resource – our strategic location at the maritime choke point between the Far East and the West. Singapore was founded and prospered on the basis of our strategic location.

BBC wrote:

“We knew that if we were just like our neighbours, we would die,” Mr Lee told the New York Times in 2007.
“We had to produce something which is different and better than what they have.”

That wasn’t what Mr Lee told Singapore back in 1962. While fighting to merge Singapore into Malaysia, Mr Lee declared in no uncertain terms that Singapore’s economy depended on import substitution for the Malaysian Common Market which was no different from conventional wisdom then. It was our separation from Malaysia that gave Singapore no choice but to do things differently from others. But make no mistake, export industrialization was proposed by Dr Winsemius. With Singapore out of Malaysia, what choice was left for Mr Lee but to go along with Dr Winsemius?

BBC wrote:

“Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up,” he told a rally in 1980. “I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.”

Whatever iron Lee had in him or lack thereof can be seen in these two episodes:

When Lee Kuan Yew got back to Singapore, he invited the members of the Convention to attend his press conference. He was crying. I don’t understand him at all. On one hand, he worked so hard for merger. Having gotten the cupful, he shattered it. And then cried over it. He held two successive press conferences, and in which both he cried. On the third morning I went to work, and saw the press boys again. I asked Lee Wei Ching, his press secretary, “Why are they hanging around here?” Another press conference! I told Lee Wei Ching, “You ought to tell the Prime Minister to go to Changi and take a rest. Call the press conference off! Another crying bout, and the people of Singapore will think the government is on its knees. So he went to Changi, staying at the government bungalow for six weeks. There was a big time gap … between our last parliamentary meeting and the next meeting. More than five months. One would have thought with such a big event, Parliament should be immediately summoned and the announcement made to Parliament. The opposition came at me. Why is there no Parliament sitting? So I had to hold the fort. I was not appointed to act for him while he was away. When he went off to Changi, Parliament did not meet. So Singapore had a Parliament in suspended animation. Keng Swee and Lim Kim San saw me and asked me what was the constitutional position. Has he recovered? What if he does not recover? So what happens? I said I thought he was getting better, although I could not see him and telephone calls were not put through.

[Excerpt of an interview with Dr Toh Chin Chye, published in ‘Leaders of Singapore’ by Melanie Chew, 1996]

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.

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

Quite clearly, in times of difficulties, Lee was not the man of iron he claimed to be. His iron depended on the situation just as it did during the Japanese Occupation. While true men of iron like Lt Adnan and Lim Bo Seng fought for and defended Singapore, Lee for all his ‘iron’ chose to work for the Japanese.


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