To The Economist – Lee Kuan Yew is not the founder of Singapore

I refer to the 22 Mar 2015 Economist report “The founder of Singapore died on March 23rd, aged 91”.

Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles before Lee Kuan Yew’s great grandfather was born. There has been no re-founding of Singapore ever since. Thus, Singapore’s founder is Sir Stamford Raffles, not Lee Kuan Yew. Sir Stamford Raffles died on 5th July 1826, aged 45.

The Economist wrote:

… Fidel Castro, perhaps, and Kim Il Sung, in their day … both … failed to match Mr Lee’s achievement in propelling Singapore “From Third World to First” …

Taiwan and South Korea were authoritarian too at first but became more democratic eventually without sacrificing economic development. They clearly show that an economy can continue to develop whether or not there was an authoritarian figure at the helm. Thus, Singapore’s rapid development need not necessarily have been due to the authoritarian Mr Lee but could also have been in spite of Mr Lee.

Singapore’s rapid industrialization post 1965 was in accordance to a plan written by Dr Albert Winsemius and his team from the United Nations. If there was anyone to attribute our propulsion to First Word, it would be Dr Winsemius.

Also, Singapore did not progress from Third World to First under Mr Lee. When Mr Lee took charge in 1959, our per capita GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity already put us in Middle Income status according to World Bank classification ( Thus, Singapore progressed from Middle Income status to First, not from Third World to First under Mr Lee.

The Economist wrote:

… Moreover, he managed it against far worse odds: no space, beyond a crowded little island; no natural resources …

On the contrary, the odds were very much to our favor since according to Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr Lee’s most trusted deputy who was also Mr Lee’s economics tutor at the university, we possessed all four important ingredients to our success (1) excellent geographic location, (2) British system of free trade and enterprise (3) adaptability of the British colonial government honed over more than a hundred years which he described as priceless and (4) stability and progress of our neighbors.

Singapore may not have oil or mineral resources but Singapore has an important natural resource that was the reason for our founding and prosperity – our strategic geographic location at the maritime chokepoint between the Far East and the West.

The Economist wrote:

Lee Kuan Yew made Singapore a paragon of development … In compensation, he turned Singapore into a hugely admired economic success story.

To say that is to belittle the contributions of others and to rob them of their fair share of recognition. What would Lee Kuan Yew have amounted to without the economic plan of Dr Winsemius that was at the heart of Singapore’s development into an economic success story? It was Dr Winsemius who was the savior of the day when Singapore was booted out of Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew’s dream of depending on the Malaysian Common Market for Singapore’s continued prosperity had all but perished.

The Economist wrote:

He also boasted of his street-fighting prowess: “Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac.”

Such bravado was sadly lacking when the Japanese invaded Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew ended up working for them instead of fighting for Singapore’s freedom like Lim Bo Seng and Lt Adnan did.

Economist wrote:

… The regional giant, Indonesia, had been engaged in a policy of Konfrontasi—hostility to the Malaysian federation just short of open warfare …

Konfrontasi ended almost as soon as it began with the toppling of Sukarno by Singapore friendly Suharto only a few months after Singapore’s independence.

Economist wrote:

Singapore as a nation did not exist. “How were we to create a nation out of a polyglot collection of migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other parts of Asia?” asked Mr Lee in retrospect. Race riots in the 1960s in Singapore itself as well as Malaysia coloured Mr Lee’s thinking for the rest of his life … Public housing, one of the government’s greatest successes, remains subject to a system of ethnic quotas, so that the minority Malays and Indians could not coalesce into ghettoes.

Singapore already possessed all the trappings of a nation for more than a hundred years before Lee Kuan Yew took charge – an excellent civil service, British laws, British free trade and enterprise, police force, commerce, port, schools, hospitals, running water, roads and so on. We were in many ways already a nation except in name.

• Singaporeans were already calling themselves Singaporeans during colonial times (

• The various races have already been living together harmoniously for generations before Lee Kuan Yew took charge (

• Racial riots were the result of racial politics played on both sides of the Causeway ( and (

• Public housing was already started by the colonial government (

All that Mr Lee had to do was to inherit the nation but he did more than that. He whitewashed the solid groundwork laid by his British predecessors and shamelessly and unfairly hoarded every bit of credit to himself.

Economist wrote:

… Abandoned by Britain in 1971 when it withdrew from “east of Suez” …

How can Economist say Singapore was abandoned by Britain in 1971 when Singapore, Malaysia, Britain, Australia and New Zealand signed the Five Powers Defense Pact in 1971?

Economist wrote:

The astonishing record of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore
… Mr Lee said in 1994 that he was “not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best”. He said Singapore practised it because that is what the British had bequeathed. So he designed a system where clean elections are held but it has been almost inconceivable for the PAP to lose power. The biggest reason for that has been its economic success: growth has averaged nearly 7% a year for four decades.

The astonishing record isn’t that of Lee Kuan Yew’s alone but those of every Singaporeans’.

Doesn’t Economist ever wonder why Mr Lee practiced one-man-one-vote bequeathed by the British but not press freedom which was also bequeathed by the British? Mr Lee had different explanations for different things that quite often contradicted one another.

No amount of clean election can cleanse the stain of the lack of press and television freedom that are at the roots of democracy.

Nazi Germany was another country in another era where economic and military successes led the people to support its Fuhrer and to close their eyes to the injustices suffered by the Jews and other minorities.

Economist wrote:

… The traditional media are toothless; opposition politicians have been hounded into bankruptcy … voters … if they elect opposition candidates, their constituencies will suffer in the allocation of public funds; constituency boundaries have been manipulated by the government. The advantage of Mr Lee’s system, its proponents say, is that it introduced just enough electoral competition to keep the government honest, but not so much that it actually risks losing power. So it can look around corners on behalf of its people, plan for the long term and resist the temptation to pander to populist pressures.

Despite being one of its worst performing years, the ruling party still won an enviable 81 of 87 or 93% of electoral seats in 2011. 93% is virtual monopoly and far from adequate competition.

Regardless of whether or not the government had been honest, there has been a long and growing list of false statements made by them (, (, (, (, (

Instead of looking around corners on behalf of the people, the government has been looking at all angles to skin the people. Instead of planning for the long term, the government has been taking the ‘instant tree’ approach of doing things, a term coined by one of its own, Mr Inderjit Singh. Instead of resisting populist pressures, the government has started to pander to its people after losing just one Group Representative Constituency (GRC). The funny thing is that the things that the government finally decided to pander to are things that are no longer seen as populist but necessary and well deserved.

Economist wrote:

Mr Lee was a firm believer in meritocracy. “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think,” as he put it bluntly in 1987. His government’s ministers were the world’s best-paid, to attract talent from the private sector and curb corruption. Corruption did indeed become rare in Singapore … As a police state, however, Singapore was such a success that you rarely see a cop.

Mr Lee’s firm belief was in feudal Chinese meritocracy where one’s success depended on the outcome of the once-in-a-lifetime imperial examination. He once ridiculed opposition member of parliament Mr Chiam See Tong for his less than sterling ‘O’ level results (equivalent to high school) by comparing them with those of Mr Mah Bow Tan’s, his own party candidate. But Mr Mah’s stirling ‘O’ level results and world’s highest pay could not prevent him from screwing up big time and causing the ruling party to suffer a GRC loss in 2011.

Paying millions to curb corruption is like paying robbers not to rob or paying thieves not to steal. To say that there is no robbery or theft because the robber and thief have been paid handsomely is ridiculous and silly.

One wonders from which corner of Singapore the Economist came to observe that a cop is rarely seen.

Economist wrote:

They … blamed high levels of immigration for keeping their wages down and living costs up. This was a consequence of a unique failure among Mr Lee’s many campaigns to make Singaporeans change their ways … he could not make them have more children. In the early 1980s, he dropped his “stop at two” policy, and started to encourage larger families among the better-educated. But, three decades later, Singaporean women have as low a fertility rate as any in the world.

High immigration wasn’t a consequence of Mr Lee failing to convince Singaporeans to have more children but the consequence of Mr Lee’s erroneous “stop at two” policy which led to the dramatic plunge in our birth rate.

Economist wrote:

… Singapore’s prime minister for seven years had been Lee Hsien Loong, his son. The Lee family would sue anyone who hinted at nepotism. And, for Mr Lee, that talent is hereditary was an obvious fact. “Occasionally two grey horses produce a white horse, but very few. If you have two white horses, the chances are you breed white horses.”

There has been widespread dissatisfaction with PM Lee Hsien Loong’s rule, culminating in his apology to the nation in 2011. Judging from his son’s performance, wouldn’t the elder Mr Lee perhaps wonder if his genes weren’t so white horse after all?

Economist wrote:

Thus Mr Lee, famous as both a scourge of communists at home and a critic of Western decadence and its wishy-washy idealism, revelled in the role of geopolitical thinker.

The communist label was a convenient pretext for Mr Lee to detain his political opponents without charge, trial or proof. Even then UK Deputy Commissioner to Singapore Philip Moore commented that Mr Lee’s evidence was circumstantial, stale and nothing very definite. Two notable detainees, Dr Chia Thye Poh and Dr Lim Siew Hock, stood the test of time and maintained their innocence throughout 32 years and 19 years of detention respectively. Doesn’t the Economist ever wonder what communist crime necessitated the detention of Dr Chia Thye Poh till 1998?

Mr Lee’s criticism of Western ideals was hypocritical at best. Before he came to power, Mr Lee championed for press freedom but once he consolidated his power, Mr Lee sang a different tune and murdered press freedom.

Economist wrote:

What, he must have wondered, if fate had allotted him a superpower instead of a city state?

Perhaps Mr Lee should wonder if fate had him born in Russia, India or Africa, would he have amounted to anything at all.


2 Responses to “To The Economist – Lee Kuan Yew is not the founder of Singapore”

  1. Alan Says:

    “… and murdered press freedom”.

    How appropriate and precise to describe such a murderer literally.!

  2. Ray Says:

    Thank you for your articles. Very well articulated. Point by point – with facts.

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