Lee Kuan Yew is not Singapore’s founder or founding leader

I refer to the 16 Oct 2015 Straits Times report “Public can give views and join forums on Founders’ Memorial”.

It was reported that dialogues will be held to get views from the public on a Founders’ Memorial to honour Singapore’s founding generation of leaders.


According to the Cambridge dictionary, to found means to bring something into existence while founder refers to someone who establishes an organisation. Singapore was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 and has existed for 196 years already. Since Singapore’s 1965 leaders neither brought Singapore into existence nor established Singapore, it would be wrong to commemorate them as founders since they neither fit the definition of found or founder in any sense of the words.

There will of course be those who would play around with words and argue that 1965 was the year that independent Singapore came into existence or was established. But in so far as independent Singapore is concerned, only independence was established in 1965, Singapore itself was established much earlier in 1819.

The independence of an organisation is not the same as its founding just as the independence of a person is not the same as his or her birth. For example, Frasers Centrepoint became independent from the F&N Group in 2013. But that doesn’t mean Frasers Centrepoint was established or founded in 2013. The history of Frasers Centrepoint goes back twenty years earlier to 1983 with the opening of the Centrepoint Shopping Centre.

We shall not even bother with ancient Singapura which was all but destroyed by the Portuguese in the 1600s. Singapore today did not originate from that ancient city. Instead, Singapore today can be traced all the way back to Raffles.

Founding father

There is another definition in the form of the founding father. Cambridge defines it as “one of a group of men who started the United States as a country and wrote its constitution”. This definition cannot be transplanted to Singapore without first understanding the act of founding that led to the birth of America.

George Washington and Gandhi are America’s and India’s respective founding fathers because they were instrumental in delivering their respective nations from the yoke of foreign power subjugation. It was in gratitude of their momentous contributions that they are hailed as founding fathers by their respective peoples.

With this in mind, we have to ask ourselves what did Lee Kuan Yew or his colleagues do to win our independence in 1965? The answer is – nothing. In fact, Lee Kuan Yew didn’t even want independence. He cried bitterly on national television on the occasion of our independence and stated in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want independence; instead he wanted Singapore to be subjugated under Malaysian sovereignty. This is in such stark contrast to what the founding fathers of America did it would be silly for us to remember him as founding leader when he did the exact opposite of what founding leaders do.

Our independence was thrust upon us against the wishes of Lee Kuan Yew when Tunku Abdul Rahman kicked us out of Malaysia. It was the Tunku, not Lee Kuan Yew or his colleagues who gave us our independence. The mere act of receiving independence is too cheap to be considered an act of founding. All Lee ever did was to swap British sovereignty for Malaysian sovereignty in 1963 which was no act of independence either.

Road to independence

It is important to recognise that our independence wasn’t obtained in a single stroke in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew himself said that Singapore was already ¾ independent (tiga suku merdeka) back in 1959 when Singapore was elevated to the status of a state with our own state flag and anthem that are still in use today. So rightfully, it is three times as important to celebrate 1958/59 as it is to celebrate 1965. 1958/59 didn’t just happen out of nowhere but was the culmination of a long road to independence that began soon after the end of the Japanese Occupation with the political awakening of the people.

The war ended suddenly with Japan’s surrender on 14 August 1945 … While the returning British troops were welcomed, the occupation had eroded the innate trust in the empire’s protective embrace. New political forces were at work and the road to independence had begun.

[Singapore, Joshua Samuel Brown and Matt Oakley, page 25]

After the Second World War and a traumatic occupation by the Japanese, a political awakening occurred in Singapore … as they began to anticipate independence … The late 1940s and early 1950s were characterized by labor unrest, strikes, and demonstrations. In 1955, they forced the British to introduce a new constitution proposed by the Rendel Commission … However, the 1955 elections were followed by more riots and social unrest, constitutional negotiations were reopened, and new elections were planned for 1959 with Singapore granted almost complete internal self-rule.

[Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Daron Acemoglu, page 8]

Thus, while Singaporeans today detest protests and riots, we must not forget that it was through them that Singapore’s independence was delivered.

The trade union movement bore Singapore out of colonialism and into statehood.

[Paths not taken – political pluralism in post-war Singapore, Chapter 11, Michael Fernandez and Loh Kah Seng]

There is little doubt that the exodus of British capital and activity due to strikes and unrest hastened the relinquishing of control over internal affairs.

[South East Asia in the world economy, Chris J Dixon, Page 144]

To defuse hostile sentiments against colonial rule, the colonial government in Singapore had agreed to accept the reformation of the local constitutions in 1954, granting Singapore greater internal self-government. Elections held under this constitution in 1955 eventually paved the way for a local government to be formed.

[Singapore in Global History, Derek Thiam Soon Heng and Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, page 220]

The people’s vehement desire for self-government was why Britain had to grant early self-government in order to gain the people’s acquiescence to govern them.

[Defence and decolonisation in Southeast Asia, Karl Hack, page 224]

The leading force driving Singapore’s push towards independence was the Leftist Chinese whose endless strikes and riots gradually forced the British to cede power. Even Lee Kuan Yew readily admitted this.

For Lee the greatest sins of the English-educated lie in their self-interest, and failure to cast their lot with the anti-colonial movement. He was certain that Singapore’s political future would be in the hands of the Chinese radical left.

For Lee, the Western-educated elite too prone to kowtow to the British were pathetically ‘irrelevant’ in the anti-colonial struggle; labour unions and the Chinese-educated world were something else altogether

[Singapore: The State and the Culture of Excess, Yao Souchou, page 35, 38]

So if Singaporeans truly treasure the independence that we enjoy today, we must not forget that it was primarily won by the struggles of the Leftist Chinese who bore the brunt of the sacrifices that the fight for independence called for.

A growing chasm between the Chinese-educated and English-educated population was clearly developing. This chasm was marked by the general allegiance of the English-educated to the British. This was in clear contrast with the vehemently anti-colonial and anti-imperial Chinese-educated Chinese.

[Negotiating Multiculturalism: Disciplining Difference in Singapore, Nirmala Purushotam, page 53]

Singapore’s anti-colonial movement was largely organised by Chinese-educated leaders from the Chinese middle schools

This (anti-colonial) movement was led largely by Chinese-educated leaders enjoying popular Chinese support

The citizenship-language campaign … had whipped up considerable Chinese interest in politics by 1954

[Political Development in Singapore, 1945-55, Yeo Kim Wah, page 173, 248, 260]

The left wing, strongly supported by the Chinese-educated working class, was probably the more passionately anticolonial entity.

[Fates of Political Liberalism in the British Post-Colony: The Politics of the Legal Complex, Terence C. Halliday, Lucien Karpik, Malcolm M. Feeley, page 157]


Our 1965 leaders will fail any conventional definition of what a founder or founding father or leader is. Unfortunately, Singaporeans die die must credit our 1965 leaders as their fathers, mothers, founders, founding leaders, founding prime minister because they falsely believe it was they who delivered Singapore’s prosperity.

How sadly misinformed they are. Suppose the Leftist Chinese didn’t foolishly sacrifice themselves to fight for independence and Singapore remains a British Crown Colony till this day, Singapore would invariably have ended up like another Hong Kong – different but prosperous just the same.

Suppose Barisan had won power instead, we would have business magnates like Lee Kong Chian, Tan Lark Sye and Tan Kah Kee who would undoubtedly have turned Singapore into an economic powerhouse just the same but perhaps more entrepreneurial like Hong Kong.

More importantly, the economic strategy that Singaporeans always credit our 1965 leaders for actually came from someone else – Dr Albert Winsemius. He is the single most important person Singaporeans should credit for our economic success today:

He was Singapore’s trusted guide through economically uncharted waters for 25 years from 1960. Through him, Singapore borrowed ideas and strategies that worked for Netherlands and other developed nations. Singapore’s economy is flying high today, thanks in large measure to his sound advice and patient counsel. He is the Father of Jurong, the Dutchman behind Singapore Incorporated. Dr Winsemius was a special person for he had changed Singapore to what it is today. For Singaporeans today, a huge debt of gratitude is owed to the Dutch economist.

[Straits Times, Dr Albert Winsemius Singapore’s trusted guide, 7 Dec 1996]

Singapore and I (Lee Kuan Yew) personally are indebted to him (Dr Albert Winsemius) for the time, energy and devotion he gave to Singapore. I learnt much about Western business and businessmen from him … He gave me practical lessons on how European and American companies operated … showed me that Singapore could plug into the global economic system of trade and investments.

[Straits Times, Singapore is indebted to Winsemius: SM, 10 Dec 1996]

Singaporeans insist we owe Lee Kuan Yew but Lee Kuan Yew said he and Singapore owe Winsemius. So in the end, who do we really owe?

More below:


Japanese Occupation

The most significant episode of Singapore history wasn’t 1965 but 1942 when Singapore was plunged into 3 years and 8 months of darkness under the Japanese Occupation. The Japanese massacred 50,000 of our forefathers as described in Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs:

Dalforce … Put together by John Dalley … brought together Chinese from all walks of life, supporters of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), including notably some 500 communists freed from prison by the British at the eleventh hour. Once armed, the volunteers were sent to hold the ground east of Kranji River on the flank of the 27th Australian Brigade. They fought ferociously. Many died, but so did many Japanese. They made Dalforce a legend, a name synonymous with bravery …

… those picked out at random at the checkpoint … 40 to 50 lorries arrived to collect them. Their hands were tied behind their backs and they were transported to a beach at Tanah Merah Besar, some 10 miles away on the east coast, near Changi Prison. They were made to disembark, tied together, and forced to walk towards the sea. As they did so, Japanese machine-gunners massacred them. Later, to make sure they were dead, each corpse was kicked, bayoneted and abused in other ways … A few survivors miraculous escaped to give this grim account.

The Japanese admitted killing 6,000 young Chinese in that Sook Ching of 18-22 February 1942. After the war, a committee of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce exhumed many graves in Siglap, Punggol and Changi. It estimated the number massacred to be between 50,000 and 100,000 …

If the Japanese were to be in Singapore as my lords and masters for the next few years, and I had not only to avoid trouble but make a living, I would have to learn their language.

… Shimoda offered me work in the new world in which the Japanese were now the masters … I got another job … in the kumai or guild that controlled essential foods … I read an advertisement in the Syonan Shimbun inserted by the Japanese information or propaganda department called the Hodobu

… This time it was the Japanese who were on the run … I read dispatches of the stubborn resistance they put up as the British advanced towards Mandalay and down the Arakan coast. I felt certain the British would soon push their way down the Malayan peninsula in the same way, and feared that, with the Japanese fighting to the last man, to the bitter end, with enormous civilian casualties. It was only a matter of time …

I decided it would be better to get out of Singapore while things were still calm, and I could resign from the Hodobu without arousing suspicion over my motives. I applied for leave and went up to the Malaya to reconnoitre Penang and the Cameron Highlands, to find out which was a safer place …

… Had the Japanese stayed on in Singapore and Malaya, they would, within 50 years, have forged a coterie of loyal supporters as they had successfully done in Taiwan …

The only people who had the courage and conviction to stand up to the invaders were the Chinese who joined the Malayan Communist Party and, in smaller numbers, the Kuomintang-led resistance. Both groups were fired by Chinese nationalism, not Malayan patriotism, and were to prove as much a source of trouble to the British in peace as they had been to the Japanese in war …

[The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew]

It’s obvious from Lee Kuan Yew’s accounts that while he recognised what bravery was, he didn’t exhibit bravery and while he recognised bestiality, he didn’t resist bestiality. Throughout Singapore’s hour of need, Lee never thought of fighting for the land of his birth but thought only of self-preservation. He obviously could have escaped into the jungles of Malaya to join the resistance there but preferred to work for the Japanese instead. He planned to leave Singapore only when he knew that the Japanese were about to lose.

This is in stark contrast to Lim Bo Seng or Lt Adnan who fought and died for Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew even discredited Lim Bo Seng’s sacrifices by saying it was out of Chinese nationalism rather than Malayan patriotism.

The immortalisation of Lee Kuan Yew as our founding leader would not only be a grave injustice to those who fought and died for Singapore, it would also set a very bad example for future generations of Singaporeans. How can someone who only cared for his life but not for the land of his birth and who readily accepted the cruellest of conquerors as new masters be worthy of our respect as founder or founding leader?

That would be like celebrating Marshall Petain of Vichy France who was branded a traitor after the war instead of Charles de Gaulle who continued to fight after France’s fall. Incidentally Lee once expressed admiration for de Gaulle but was quite clearly the opposite of de Gaulle.

If Singapore is invaded again and Lee Kuan Yew can get up from his grave as he claimed he can, do you think he will fight for Singapore? If Singapore falls again and Lee Kuan Yew can get up from his grave, do you think he will join the resistance to carry on the fight in the jungles?

Singaporeans who still do not see the answer must be really daft. Singaporeans who see the answer but still choose to revere Lee Kuan Yew must have moral compasses similar to Lee Kuan Yew’s. If the people of Singapore by and large have no qualms about self-preservation over the defence of their land of birth, it’s not hard to imagine them putting up token resistance to save their own skins in times of war, and we can’t blame them because their so-called ‘founding leader’ didn’t even try. While it is one thing to choose self-preservation over sacrifice for the nation, it’s a completely different thing to glorify someone like this as founding leader.


The Singapore that we know today has one and only one founder – Sir Stamford Raffles.

The closest to the definition of a founding father that Singapore has were those who fought and eventually won us our ¾ independence – mainly the Leftist Chinese.

Our 1965 leaders fit neither definition of founder or founding father or leader.

The one person whom we should be most thankful for our prosperity today is Dr Albert Winsemius.

But most of all, we should simply be thankful of our own fathers and grand fathers because they were not the stupid ones who had be to led by the nose towards success. Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea became successful too but because they enjoyed much greater democracy they know that prosperity did not come from any single party or leader.

Lee Kuan Yew didn’t fight for Singapore during Singapore’s hour of need but chose to work for the enemy instead. That in most countries is considered treason. To hail Lee Kuan Yew as Singapore’s founding leader is to raise treason to the highest form of honour in Singapore.

The American founding father put his life on the line to fight off the enemy while the soon to be crowned Singapore ‘founding leader’ worked for the enemy to save his own life. How much more stark must the comparison be before Singaporeans finally get it?


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