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Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew.jpg
Lee Kuan Yew at the Pentagon in 2002.
Minister Mentor of Singapore
In office
12 August 2004 – 21 May 2011
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Position abolished
Senior Minister of Singapore
In office
28 November 1990 – 12 August 2004
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong
Preceded by S. Rajaratnam
Succeeded by Goh Chok Tong
1st Prime Minister of Singapore
Elections: 1959-1988
In office
3 June 1959 – 28 November 1990
President Yusof bin Ishak
Benjamin Henry Sheares
C. V. Devan Nair
Wee Kim Wee
Succeeded by Goh Chok Tong
Secretary-General of the People's Action Party
In office
21 November 1954 – 1 November 1992
Succeeded by Goh Chok-Tong
Member of Parliament
for Tanjong Pagar GRC
Tanjong Pagar SMC (1955–1991)
In office
2 April 1955 – 23 March 2015
Majority Walkover
Personal details
Born successor5
(1923-09-16)16 September 1923
Singapore, Straits Settlements
Died 23 March 2015(2015-03-23) (aged 91)
Outram, Singapore
Resting place successor5
Political party People's Action Party
Kwa Geok Choo
(m. 1950; died 2010)
Children Lee Hsien Loong
Lee Wei Ling
Lee Hsien Yang
  • successor5
Alma mater Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
Occupation Politician
Profession Lawyer
Awards JPN Kyokujitsu-sho 1Class BAR.svg (1967)

Lee Kuan Yew, GCMG, CH (Honorary) (Chinese: 李光耀; pinyin: Lǐ Guāngyào; 16 September 1923 – 23 March 2015; also Lee Kwan-Yew) was a Singaporean politician. He was the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore from 1959 to 1990.

He was the co-founder and first secretary-general of the People's Action Party (PAP), and led the party to a landslide victory in 1959. During his leadership, Singapore separated from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965 and grew from an underdeveloped colonial outpost with no natural resources into a "First World", Asian Tiger. He has remained one of the most influential political figures in South-East Asia.

Under Singapore's second prime minister Goh Chok Tong, Lee served as Senior Minister. He served as Minister Mentor, a post created when his son Lee Hsien Loong became the nation's third prime minister on 12 August 2004, until 2011.

On 13 September 2008, Lee, 84, underwent successful treatment for abnormal heart rhythm (atrial flutter) at Singapore General Hospital, but he was still able to address a philanthropy forum via video link from hospital.

Lee died on 23 March 2015 from pneumonia, aged 91.


Lee says in his autobiography that he is a fourth-generation Chinese Singaporean: his Hakka great-grandfather, Lee Bok Boon (born 1846), emigrated from the Dapu county of Guangdong province to the Straits Settlements in 1862.

Lee Kuan Yew was born at 92 Kampong Java Road in Singapore. He was the oldest child of Lee Chin Koon and Chua Jim Neo. As a child he was strongly influenced by British culture, partly because of the influence of his grandfather Lee Hoon Leong, who had given his sons an English education.

Lee and his wife Kwa Geok Choo were married on 30 September 1950. They have two sons (Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang) and one daughter (Lee Wei Ling).

Lee Hsien Loong 2004-11-21
His elder son Lee Hsien Loong has been Prime Minister of Singapore since 2004.

Many of Lee's family have important positions in Singaporean society, and his children hold high government or government-linked posts. His elder son Lee Hsien Loong, a former Brigadier General, has been the Prime Minister since 2004. He is also the Deputy Chairman of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), of which Lee himself is the chairman. Lee's younger son, Lee Hsien Yang, is also a former Brigadier General and is a former President and Chief Executive Officer of SingTel, a pan-Asian telecommunications giant and Singapore's largest company by market capitalisation (listed on the Singapore Exchange, SGX). Fifty-six percent of SingTel is owned by Temasek Holdings, a prominent government holding company with controlling stakes in a variety of very large government-linked companies such as Singapore Airlines and DBS Bank. Temasek Holdings was until 2009 run by Executive Director and C.E.O. Ho Ching, the wife of Lee Hsien Loong. Lee's daughter, Lee Wei Ling, runs the National Neuroscience Institute. Lee's wife, Kwa Geok Choo, used to be a partner of the prominent legal firm Lee & Lee.

Early life

Lee studied at Telok Kurau Primary School, Raffles Institution (where he was a member of the 01 Raffles Scout Group), and Raffles College (now National University of Singapore). He was stopped from going to university by World War II and the 1942-1945 Japanese occupation of Singapore. During the occupation, he ran a successful black market business selling tapioca-based glue called Stikfas. Because he had taken Chinese and Japanese lessons since 1942, he was able to find work transcribing Allied wire reports for the Japanese, as well as being the English language editor on the Japanese Hodobu (報道部 – an information or propaganda department) from 1943 to 1944.

Political career

After the war, he attended the London School of Economics for a short time before moving to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University, where he studied law, graduating with Double Starred First Class Honours. (He was later made an honorary fellow of Fitzwilliam College.) He returned to Singapore in 1949 to practise as a lawyer in Laycock and Ong, the legal practice of John Laycock.

Early political career – 1951 to 1959

Pre-People's Action Party (PAP)

Lee's first experience with politics in Singapore was his role as election agent for John Laycock under the banner of the pro-British Progressive Party in the 1951 legislative council elections. However, Lee eventually realised the party was unlikely to win mass support, especially from the Chinese-speaking working class. This was especially important when the 1953 Rendel Constitution expanded the electoral rolls to include all local-born as voters, resulting in a significant increase in Chinese voters. His big break came when he was engaged as a legal advisor to the trade and students' unions, which provided Lee with the link to the Chinese-speaking, working-class world (later on in his career, his People's Action Party (PAP) would use these historical links to unions as a negotiating tool in industrial disputes).

Formation of the PAP

On 12 November 1954, Lee, together with a group of fellow English-educated middle-class men whom he himself described as "beer-swilling bourgeois", formed the "socialist" PAP in an expedient alliance with the pro-communist trade unionists. This alliance was described by Lee as a marriage of convenience, since the English-educated group needed the pro-communists' mass support base while the communists needed a non-communist party leadership as a smoke screen because the Malayan Communist Party was illegal. Their common aims were to agitate for self-government and put an end to British colonial rule. An inaugural conference was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall, attended by over 1,500 supporters and trade unionists. Lee became secretary-general, a post he held until 1992, save for a brief period in 1957.

In opposition

Lee comprehensively won the Tanjong Pagar seat in the 1955 elections. He became the opposition leader against David Saul Marshall's Labour Front-led coalition government. He was also one of PAP's representatives to the two constitutional discussions held in London over the future status of Singapore, the first led by Marshall and the second by Lim Yew Hock, Marshall's hardline successor. It was during this period that Lee had to contend with rivals from both within and outside the PAP.

Lee's position in the PAP was seriously under threat in 1957 when pro-communists took over the leadership posts, following a party conference which the party's left wing had stacked with fake members. Fortunately for Lee and the party's moderate faction, Lim Yew Hock ordered a mass arrest of the pro-communists and Lee was reinstated as secretary-general. After the communist 'scare', Lee subsequently received a new, stronger mandate from his Tanjong Pagar constituents in a by-election in 1957. The communist threat within the party was temporarily removed as Lee prepared for the next round of elections.

Prime Minister, pre-independence – 1959 to 1965

Self-government administration – 1959 to 1963

In the national elections held on 1 June 1959, the PAP won 43 of the 51 seats in the legislative assembly. Singapore gained self-government with autonomy in all state matters except defence and foreign affairs, and Lee became the first Prime Minister of Singapore on 5 June 1959, taking over from Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock. Before he took office, Lee demanded and secured the release of Lim Chin Siong and Devan Nair, who had been arrested earlier by Lim Yew Hock's government.

Lee faced many problems after gaining self-rule for Singapore from the British, including education, housing, and unemployment.

A key event was the motion of confidence of the government in which 13 PAP assemblymen crossed party lines and abstained from voting on 21 July 1961. Together with six prominent left-leaning leaders from trade unions, the breakaway members established the new party, the pro-communist Barisan Sosialis. At the time of inception, it had popular support rivalling or even superseding that of the PAP. 35 of the 51 branches of PAP and 19 of its 23 organising secretaries went to the Barisan Sosialis. This event was known as 'The Big Split of 1961. The PAP's majority was now 26-25 in the legislative assembly.

In 1961, the PAP faced two by-election defeats, the defections and labour movements by leftists. Lee's government was near collapse until the 1962 referendum on the issue of merger, which was a test of public confidence in the government.

Merger with Malaya, then separation – 1963 to 1965

After Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman proposed the formation of a federation which would include Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak in 1961, Lee began to campaign for a merger with Malaysia to end British colonial rule. He used the results of a referendum held on 1 September 1962, in which 70% of the votes were cast in support of his proposal, to demonstrate that the people supported his plan.

On 16 September 1963, Singapore became part of the Federation of Malaysia. However, the union was short-lived. The Malaysian Central Government, ruled by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), became worried by the inclusion of Singapore's Chinese majority and the political challenge of the PAP in Malaysia. Lee openly opposed the bumiputra policy and used the Malaysian Solidarity Convention's famous cry of "Malaysian Malaysia!", a nation serving the Malaysian nationality, as opposed to the Malay race.

The 1964 race riots in Singapore followed, such as that on Muhammad's birthday (21 July 1964), near Kallang Gasworks, in which 23 people were killed and hundreds injured as Chinese and Malays attacked each other. It is still disputed how the riots started, and theories include a bottle being thrown into a Muslim rally by a Chinese, while others have argued that it was started by a Malay. More riots broke out in September 1964, as rioters looted cars and shops, forcing both Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew to make public appearances in order to calm the situation.

Unable to resolve the crisis, the Tunku decided to expel Singapore from Malaysia, choosing to "sever all ties with a State Government that showed no measure of loyalty to its Central Government". Lee was adamant and tried to work out a compromise, but without success. He was later convinced by Goh Keng Swee that the secession was inevitable. Lee Kuan Yew signed a separation agreement on 7 August 1965, which discussed Singapore's post-separation relations with Malaysia in order to continue co-operation in areas such as trade and mutual defence.

The failure of the merger was a heavy blow to Lee, who believed that it was crucial for Singapore’s survival. In a televised press conference, he broke down emotionally as he announced the separation (this particular conference is used as evidence by supporters of Lee that he had not intentionally instigated the breakup of Malaysia):

"For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I believed in merger and unity of the two territories. ... Now, I, Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, do hereby proclaim and declare on behalf on the people and the Government of Singapore that as from today, the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five, Singapore shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of the people in a most and just equal society."

On that day, 9 August 1965, the Malaysian Parliament passed the required resolution that would sever Singapore's ties to Malaysia as a state, and thus the Republic of Singapore was created. Singapore's lack of natural resources, a water supply that was beholden primarily to Malaysia and a very limited defensive capability were the major challenges that Lee and the Singaporean Government faced.

Prime Minister, post-independence – 1965 to 1990

In his biography, Lee stated that he did not sleep well, and fell sick days after Singapore's independence. Upon learning of Lee's condition from the British High Commissioner to Singapore, John Robb, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson expressed concern, in response to which Lee replied:

"Do not worry about Singapore. My colleagues and I are sane, rational people even in our moments of anguish. We will weigh all possible consequences before we make any move on the political chessboard..."

Lee began to seek international recognition of Singapore's independence. Singapore joined the United Nations (UN) on 21 September 1965, and founded the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 8 August 1967 with four other South-East Asian countries. Lee made his first official visit to Indonesia on 25 May 1973, just a few years after the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation under Sukarno's regime. Relations between Singapore and Indonesia substantially improved as subsequent visits were made between Singapore and Indonesia.

Singapore has never had a dominant culture to which immigrants could assimilate even though Malay was the dominant language at that time. Together with efforts from the government and ruling party, Lee tried to create a unique Singaporean identity in the 1970s and 1980s—one which heavily recognised racial consciousness within the umbrella of multiculturalism.

Lee and his government stressed the importance of maintaining religious tolerance and racial harmony, and they were ready to use the law to counter any threat that might incite ethnic and religious violence. For example, Lee warned against "insensitive evangelisation", by which he referred to instances of Christian proselytizing directed at Malays. In 1974 the government advised the Bible Society of Singapore to stop publishing religious materials in Malay. -->

Decisions and policies

Lee had three main concerns — national security, the economy, and social issues — during his post-independence administration.

National security

The vulnerability of Singapore was deeply felt, with threats from multiple sources including the communists, Indonesia (with its Confrontation stance), and UMNO extremists who wanted to force Singapore back into Malaysia. As Singapore gained admission to the United Nations, Lee quickly sought international recognition of Singapore's independence. He declared a policy of neutrality and non-alignment, following Switzerland's model. At the same time, he asked Goh Keng Swee to build up the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and requested help from other countries for advice, training and facilities.

Government policies

Like many countries, Singapore was not immune to political corruption. Lee introduced legislation giving the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) greater power to conduct arrests, search, call up witnesses, and investigate bank accounts and income-tax returns of suspected persons and their families.

Lee believed that ministers should be well paid in order to maintain a clean and honest government. In 1994 he proposed to link the salaries of ministers, judges, and top civil servants to the salaries of top professionals in the private sector, arguing that this would help recruit and retain talent to serve in the public sector.

In the late 1960s, fearing that Singapore's growing population might overburden the developing economy, Lee started a vigorous 'Stop-at-Two' family planning campaign. Third or fourth children were given lower priorities in education and such families received fewer economic rebates.

In 1983, Lee sparked the 'Great Marriage Debate' when he encouraged Singapore men to choose highly-educated women as wives. He was concerned that a large number of graduate women were unmarried. Some sections of the population, including graduate women, were upset by his views. Nevertheless, a match-making agency Social Development Unit (SDU) was set up to promote socialising among men and women graduates. Lee also introduced incentives such as tax rebates, schooling, and housing priorities for graduate mothers who had three or four children, in a reversal of the over-successful 'Stop-at-Two' family planning campaign in the 1960s and 1970s. By the late 1990s, the birth rate had fallen so low that Lee's successor Goh Chok Tong extended these incentives to all married women, and gave even more incentives, such as the 'baby bonus' scheme.

Corporal punishment

One of Lee Kuan Yew's abiding beliefs has been in the efficacy of corporal punishment in the form of caning. In his autobiography The Singapore Story he described his time at Raffles Institution in the 1930s, mentioning that he was caned there for chronic lateness by the then headmaster, D. W. McLeod. He wrote: "I bent over a chair and was given three of the best with my trousers on. I did not think he lightened his strokes. I have never understood why Western educationists are so much against corporal punishment. It did my fellow students and me no harm."

Lee's government inherited judicial corporal punishment from British rule, but greatly expanded its scope. School corporal punishment (for male students only) was likewise inherited from the British, and this is in widespread use to discipline disobedient schoolboys, still under 1957 legislation. Lee also introduced caning in the Singapore Armed Forces, and Singapore is one of few countries in the world where corporal punishment is an official penalty in military discipline.

Relations with Malaysia

Mahathir bin Mohamad

Lee looked forward to improving relationships with Mahathir bin Mohamad upon the latter's promotion to Deputy Prime Minister. Knowing that Mahathir was in line to become the next Prime Minister of Malaysia, Lee invited Mahathir (through the then President of Singapore Devan Nair) to visit Singapore in 1978. The first and subsequent visits improved both personal and diplomatic relationships between them. Mahathir asked Lee to cut off links with the Chinese leaders of the Democratic Action Party; in exchange, Mahathir undertook not to interfere in the affairs of Malay Singaporeans.

In June 1988, Lee and Mahathir reached an agreement in Kuala Lumpur to build the Linggui dam on the Johor River.

Senior Minister – 1990 to 2004

Lee Kuan Yew Cohen
Lee Kuan Yew (middle) meets with U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Singapore's Ambassador to the U.S. Chan Heng Chee in 2000.

After leading the PAP to victory in seven elections, Lee stepped down on 28 November 1990, handing over the prime ministership to Goh Chok Tong. He was then the world's longest-serving Prime Minister.

This was the first leadership transition since independence.

When Goh Chok Tong became head of government, Lee remained in the cabinet with a non-executive position of Senior Minister and played a role he described as advisory. In public, Lee would refer to Goh as "my Prime Minister", in deference to Goh's authority. In practice, it is said, that Lee's opinions still carry much weight with the public and in the cabinet. He has continued to wield much influence in the country and is ready to use it when necessary. As he said in a 1988 National Day rally:

"Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up."

Lee subsequently stepped down as the Secretary General of the PAP and was succeeded by Goh Chok Tong in November 1992.

Minister Mentor – 2004 to 2011

Since the early 2000s, Lee has expressed concern about the declining proficiency of Mandarin among younger Chinese Singaporeans. In one of his parliamentary speeches, he said: "Singaporeans must learn to juggle English and Mandarin". Subsequently, beginning in December 2004, a one-year long campaign called 华语 Cool! (Huayu Cool!) was launched, in an attempt to attract young viewers to learn and speak Mandarin.

In June 2005, Lee published a book, Keeping My Mandarin Alive, documenting his decades of effort to master Mandarin, a language which he said he had to re-learn due to disuse:

"...because I don't use it so much, therefore it gets disused and there's language loss. Then I have to revive it. It's a terrible problem because learning it in adult life, it hasn't got the same roots in your memory."

In an interview with CCTV on 12 June 2005, Lee stressed the need to have a continuous renewal of talent in the country's leadership, saying:

"In a different world we need to find a niche for ourselves, little corners where in spite of our small size we can perform a role which will be useful to the world. To do that, you will need people at the top, decision-makers who have got foresight, good minds, who are open to ideas, who can seize opportunities like we did... My job really was to find my successors. I found them, they are there; their job is to find their successors. So there must be this continuous renewal of talented, dedicated, honest, able people who will do things not for themselves but for their people and for their country. If they can do that, they will carry on for another one generation and so it goes on. The moment that breaks, it's gone."

He was retired from politics in 2011. Goh Chok Tong was also retired as well, but he is staying in Marine Parade GRC.


On 5 February 2015, Lee was hospitalised with "severe pneumonia" and was put on a ventilator at the intensive care unit of Singapore General Hospital, although his condition was reported as "stable". A 26 February update stated that Lee was again being given antibiotics, while being sedated and still under mechanical ventilation. On 23 March 2015, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the death of Lee Kuan Yew, at the age of 91. His state funeral was held at the University Cultural Centre, National University of Singapore at 2 p.m. local time on 29 March 2015.


During the three decades in which Lee held office, Singapore grew from being a developing country to one of the most developed nations in Asia, despite its small population, limited land space and lack of natural resources. Lee has often stated that Singapore's only natural resources are its people and their strong work ethic. He is widely respected by many Singaporeans, particularly the older generation, who remember his inspiring leadership during independence and the separation from Malaysia.

On the other hand, many Singaporeans have criticized Lee as being authoritarian and intolerant of dissent, citing his numerous mostly successful attempts to sue political opponents and newspapers who express an unfavorable opinion. International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has asked Lee, and other senior Singaporean officials, to stop taking libel actions against journalists.


Lee has written a two-volume set of memoirs: The Singapore Story (ISBN 0-13-020803-5), which covers his view of Singapore's history until its separation from Malaysia in 1965, and From Third World to First: The Singapore Story (ISBN 0060197765), which gives his account of Singapore's subsequent transformation into a developed nation.


Meeting the U.S. President at the White House Oval Office a day later, President Barack Obama introduced him as:

"... one of the legendary figures of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is somebody who helped to trigger the Asian economic miracle."

  • On 15 November 2009, Lee was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of APEC Singapore 2009.

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