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The Role Played by Lee Kuan Yew in Transforming Singapore Economy

Updated on April 17, 2013
The map of Southeast Asia Showing the strategic position of Singapore with its Trading partners.
The map of Southeast Asia Showing the strategic position of Singapore with its Trading partners. | Source
Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew | Source
Singapore Parliament Buildings
Singapore Parliament Buildings | Source

Lee Kuan Yew was born in September 1923. He is a Singaporean politician who in most cases is referred by the initials LKY. He was the longest serving prime minister in the world, having served in that capacity for 30 years uninterrupted and on the process transformed Singapore economy. In most cases he is recognized as the founding father of Singapore.

As the secretary General of People's Action party (PAP), he lead the party to clinch eight election victories. That was between 1959 and 1990. He presided over the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965. He then embarked a serious transformation of Singapore economy from just an underdeveloped British colony with scarce resources to a great economic force to recon with in the international arena. Singapore is an Asian Tiger.

As if was not all, in 1990 the new prime minister, Goh Chok Tong appointed him a Senior Minister. Later on when his son became a Prime Ministerm, he was appointed a Minister Mentor. His son, was the third Prime Minister of Singapore starting from August, 2004. During his political life spanning a period of 50 years, he became one of the longest serving ministers in world history. He served for a total of half a century. He announced his retirement from the cabinet after the 2011 General Election.

Lee's brother studied law at the University of Cambridge. After university they set up a law firm called Lee & Lee. This is the firm that Lee left to join politics later on. Lee had another brother called Freddy who became a stockbroker while another brother studied medicine at the University of Cambridge. The doctor later on opened a successful practice.

Lee married his wife, Kwa Geok Choo in 30 September, 1950. The couple could speak English as their native language. It is inspiring to learn that Lee started to learn Chinese language at a late age of 32. Before this age, he knew nothing about the Chinese language. This was back in 1955 and later on he learnt Japanese as well. This made it possible for him to work as a Japanese translator during the period of Japanese occupation of Singapore.

Lee's wife, Kwa Geok Choo died in October 2010 peacefully in her sleep. The couple have have two sons and daughters. His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, became a Brigadier-General and later the third Prime Minister of Singapore. He was the PM starting the year 2004. Hsien Loong was educated at the University of Cambridge. This is where he studied computer science as well as Mathematics. He proceeded to Harvard University when he earned a masters in Public Administration.

There are many other members of Lee's family who hold great positions in the society. Lee has a daughter, Lee Wei Ling, who presides over the National Neuroscience Institute in Singapore.


Lee was born in Java Road in Singapore back in 1923. He was first educated at Telok Kurau Primary School. Later on he attended Raffles Institution (RI). In this school, he found it hard to keep up with the top 150 students who were selected from all corners of Singapore. He worked hard to be at the top of the class. He was a scout for three years. He was a team member for tennis, chess and cricket. He went on to secure a number of scholarships and as a result he emerged at the top of the School Certificate examinations. He obtained a scholarship to study at the present National University of Singapore. He was actually the top student in Singapore and Malaya.

World War II played a role in delaying his studies between 1942-1945. This was the time that Singapore was under the Japanese occupation. After the war, Lee proceeded to England for further studies. For a short period of time he attended the London School of Economics and then later he attended University of Cambridge where he undertook his legal studies at the Fitzwilliam college. He performed exemplary well graduating with a double First Class Honors. After leaving this college, Lee dropped his English name, Harry. Despite that, his close friends such asMargret Thatcher still refer to him by that name.

Lee returned to England in 1949 to work in Singapore despite the fact that he was admitted to the bar in England.
Upon his return to Singapore, he started working with a law firm called John Laycoc. Here he earned a salary of $500 per month. He got a chance to work as legal advisor to the trade unions. His first encounter into politics was in 1951 when he participated as a campaign agent for Laycock under the Progressive Party ticket. In 1954, Lee collaborated with his friends to form a political party. All founder members were all English-educated. They named the new party "People's Action Party(PAP)" . This was the time at which about 70% of Sinapore citizens spoke Chinese language. There was only 20% of the people who could speak English language. These were considered a minority.
Lee became the Secretary General of PAP at the Victoria Memorial Hall. He help this post until 1992.

In 1955, Lee won the parliamentary seat. He then became the opposition leader. He was also appointed to be among the group that was sent to London to discuss the fate of Singapore.


The first time Lee became a PM of Singapore was in 1959. This was the time when PAP won 43 out of the 51 seats in legislative assembly. Singapore achieved self-government with authority in all matters with an exception of foreign affairs and defense. Lee had to contend several problems after gaining self-rule. There were problems associated with unemployment, education as well as housing.

Between 1963 and 1965, there was a merger between Singapore and Malaysia.
The merger was proposed by the Malayan Prime Minister. They wanted to form a political federation consisting of Singapore, Sarawak, Malaya and Sabah. This was in 1961. The aim of the merger was to end the British colonial rule in Singapore. As a result they carried out a referendum where 70 % of the citizens were in support for the merger. There was a short-term union of Singapore and Malaysia. There were were more challenges than advantages in the merger. By 1965 Singapore was a state that lacked natural resources. Singapore depended solely on Malaysia for its water supply and there was limited defense capability. There were great challenges that faced Lee at the time when the nation of Singapore was created in 1965.

PM 1965 - 1990

Lee started out by seeking the recognition of Singapore as an independent country. The first step in that direction involved the joining of the United Nations on September, 1965. The first official visit was made to Indonesia on 25 May 1973. There were more visits afterwards between the two countries. There was improved relations as a result.

Economy Progress

Lee dedicated much efforts towards building the Singapore economy. Singapore earned the name of being a garden city. It has stayed true to this day. Proper government policies were drafted to counter corruption. The anti-corruption body was given more power to arrest those who were corrupt.


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    • gkerosi profile imageAUTHOR

      Geoffrey Kerosi 

      5 years ago from Nairobi

      Hello dwachira,

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. Singapore was at the same level with several African countries but now she is a Tiger economy. We have a lot to learn from this country.

    • dwachira profile image

      [ Danson Wachira ] 

      5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Hi gkerosi,

      Singapore did really get a leap from Lee Kuan Yew, no wonder this country has done much in less period. Great article, voted up and useful.

    • gkerosi profile imageAUTHOR

      Geoffrey Kerosi 

      5 years ago from Nairobi

      Hello alancaster,

      Thank you for the important suggestions that you have made. I will do all I can to incorporate them.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello gkerosi. Interesting material here, fairly well presented (although a bit of grammatical 'polish' would improve it a lot), but do you think you could furnish it with a few more images (overhead views of old and new Singapore would give a good idea of the progress Singapore's made) along with a map of S E Asia showing the city state in its geographic surroundings.

      The close proximity of its trade partners must help a lot, with Australia to the south-east, China to the north (Hong Kong is its nearest serious rival) and Japan a little further off in the same direction.

      Good attempt overall.

    • gkerosi profile imageAUTHOR

      Geoffrey Kerosi 

      5 years ago from Nairobi

      Hello pramodgokhale,

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving a great comment. I am happy to hear that you have been to Singapore. That is where I studied for my second degree. LKY did a great job for that nation.

    • pramodgokhale profile image


      5 years ago from Pune( India)


      I had been to Singapore long back. I found it is a really wonderful creation of LKY. I stayed there one week, discipline and people participation in governance brings wonders and that is Singapore.

      Really cosmopolitan model in front of my eyes , i enjoyed.

      pramod gokhale

    • gkerosi profile imageAUTHOR

      Geoffrey Kerosi 

      5 years ago from Nairobi

      He was a socialist who opposed communism. This brought a lot of financial benefits to Singaporeans. He strongly believed that economic transformation does not go hand in hand with democracy. That is why he paid close attention to the economic progress of his country. He also made sure that there was enough security to avoid aggression from Indonesia and other countries.

    • gkerosi profile imageAUTHOR

      Geoffrey Kerosi 

      5 years ago from Nairobi

      Let us learn the role played by Lee Kuan Yew in transforming Singaporean economy...


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