Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

First among equals: Mr Lee Kuan Yew led a tiny island nation from Third World to First

Lee Kuan Yew led a tiny island nation from Third World to First. In the process, he had to strike a fine balance with the Japanese, British, leftists and communalists

The midnight call from Mr S. Rajaratnam startled Mr Othman Wok. It was Aug 7, 1965.

"'We go to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow,' he said," Mr Othman recalls. "I asked him why. 'Have they arrested PM?' I said."

Mr Rajaratnam did not explain.

The two men were ministers in Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's Cabinet, and Singapore was then part of the 22-month-old federation of Malaysia.

Mr Othman's asking if Mr Lee had been detained reflected the tense atmosphere of the times; being summoned so suddenly to the Malaysian capital lent itself to gloomy and drastic interpretation.

Rumours that Mr Lee would be detained had circulated furiously for two years. A fundamental disagreement between him and Kuala Lumpur on the issue of race had raised temperatures close to boiling point.

The federal government had indeed drawn up a case, secretly, to have him arrested. Malay extremists had been clamouring publicly for his arrest, when they were not calling openly for him to be murdered.

Mr Othman and Mr Rajaratnam reached the Malaysian capital to find Mr Lee still a free man. What he needed to see them about so urgently was Singapore's impending exit from Malaysia.

Today, the Lee Kuan Yew story is a tale of a man who led a tiny island nation from Third World to First. But what narrative would have prevailed had he been locked up in the 1960s? A tragic hero cut down in his prime? A charismatic leader of great but unfulfilled promise?

In the event, he was not arrested, thanks in part to then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Through High Commissioner to Malaysia Anthony Head, Mr Wilson threatened that draconian action by Kuala Lumpur would trigger strong reaction from Britain and the Commonwealth.

"Wilson was a good friend," Mr Lee would say years later.

The escape from incarceration was not his first. Singapore Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock contemplated it before the 1959 elections when it appeared that Mr Lee's People's Action Party (PAP), then in the opposition, was on the brink of victory.

Mr Lee's pre-1965 years were a period marked by close shaves and striking the finest of balance between forces he found himself up against - the Japanese, the British, leftists and communalists.

His generation lived through a world war followed by fierce power struggles as the British gradually withdrew as colonial masters. Those early experiences go some way towards explaining Mr Lee's character, his outlook and ideology and his policy choices later on.

Well-to-do family

MR LEE was a third-generation Singaporean, the eldest of five children born to Mr Lee Chin Koon and Madam Chua Jim Neo, who had an arranged marriage.

His paternal and maternal grandfathers were well-to-do, but saw their wealth decline during the Great Depression.

His paternal great-grandfather was from Guangdong province in China. His grandfather, Mr Lee Hoon Leong, worked his way up in a steamship company owned by Indonesian-Chinese sugar king Oei Tiong Ham, becoming the tycoon's chief legal representative in Singapore.

His father was 20 and his mother 16 when he was born on Sept 16, 1923. They named him Harry Lee Kuan Yew. He later spoke of his family's Anglophile tendencies and how they resolved to shape him into "the equal of any Englishman - the model of perfection".

He attended Telok Kurau English School and Raffles Institution, where he emerged top boy in Singapore and Malaya in the Senior Cambridge examinations, the equivalent of the O levels. A teacher highlighted his good English and described him as "rather mischievous".

He played cricket, debated and was a scout. His parents wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer.

He set his sights on doing law in England, but his plans were disrupted by the war in Europe. He went to Raffles College instead, where he met two men who would be his political comrades, Toh Chin Chye and Goh Keng Swee.

By 1942, the war had come to Singapore. Socially conditioned to respect the white man, he now witnessed the mighty British military capitulating to the smaller Japanese army within weeks.

"In 70 days of surprises, upsets and stupidities, British colonial society was shattered, and with it all the assumptions of the Englishman's superiority," he later wrote.

Under the Japanese, he came face to face with mortality - his own and that of many others. Once, he avoided execution during a retaliatory genocidal campaign against Chinese men by asking to leave a line to collect his belongings, then never returning.

He learnt Japanese and worked as an English editor for the Japanese propaganda department. Later, he tried his hand at construction, brokering and business - producing at one time a popular brand of stationery gum called Stikfas.

The Japanese Occupation proved the most important period in his life, he later said, because it provided him "vivid insights into the behaviour of human beings and human societies, their motivations and impulses".

"My appreciation of governments, my understanding of power as the vehicle for revolutionary change, would not have been gained without this experience," he said. "I learnt more from the 31/2 years of Japanese Occupation than any university could have taught me."

After the war, Mr Lee left for England. He spent a term at the London School of Economics, picking up socialist idealism from renowned professor Harold Laski, before moving to Cambridge because he disliked life in London.

At Cambridge he was soon reunited with Kwa Geok Choo, whom he had got to know during the war. He helped the Queen's Scholar to get admitted to Cambridge early to do law. They married secretly in England.

By the time he returned home in 1950, Mr Lee had grown not just anti-colonial, but also anti-British. He said: "It may have begun with my experience of the colour prejudice of the British working classes, the bus conductors and conductresses, the salesgirls and waitresses in the shops and restaurants, and the landladies in Hampstead I encountered in my search for digs."

His stellar grades gave him self-belief in dealings with British officials later on. "At Cambridge I got two firsts and a star for distinction. Harold MacMillan did not," he would say later, referring to the Conservative British Prime Minister at the time.

Heart in politics

HE DROPPED his Western name Harry when he was called to the Singapore Bar in 1950.

By then he was mulling over a political career and a Western name would not have gone down well on the ground. But his wife and close friends still called him Harry, and he continued to sign off as Harry in correspondence with them.

He started work at the law firm Laycock & Ong. He made a name for himself as a skilled barrister and remained there for five years before setting up his own firm, Lee & Lee, with his wife and brother Dennis in 1955.

But his heart was in politics. In the 1951 Legislative Council elections, he was election agent for his boss John Laycock, an Englishman, who was elected under the banner of the pro-British Progressive Party. Mr Laycock left politics after losing his Katong seat in the 1955 elections.

But Mr Lee's first instinct was not to join a party or form one yet. As an English-educated lawyer looking to lead a largely Chinese-educated population, he knew he first had to be recognised as one worth following on account of his beliefs and character.

He brought his professional expertise to bear, representing, often pro bono, unions and other groups that got into legal skirmishes with the colonial government.

His first major breakthrough came with the postal workers'

union, for whom he won a wage rise using a canny mix of strikes, negotiation and newspaper publicity.

He soon became known as a forceful anti-colonial lawyer whose heart was with the common man but whose skill, intelligence and reasonableness earned him the respect of the British.

The sheer diversity of the groups he acted for - from journalists and Chinese middle school students, to hawkers and liquor sellers - became an asset at elections, as beneficiaries transitioned seamlessly into campaigners and loyal party activists.

He was legal adviser to more than 100 unions and associations by the time the People's Action Party was formed in 1954, ahead of a legislative assembly election the following year, the first election that saw elected members outnumbering those appointed by the British.

As he discussed the PAP's formation at his Oxley Road home with his largely English-educated friends, Mr Lee knew one piece of the jigsaw remained missing - they needed to bring on board those who could sway the Chinese-educated working class.

He was introduced to two men who fitted the bill. Trade union leaders Fong Swee Suan and Lim Chin Siong were fluent in Chinese and had access to networks in the unions and Chinese middle schools.

Mr Lee said later that from the start he suspected their links to the communists, who had been carrying out assassinations in Malaya and Singapore.

But, for Singapore's independence, he was prepared to seek common cause with anyone who signed up to the PAP's anti-colonial, socialist, non-communist agenda.

"I wanted to poach in this pond where the fish had been fed and nurtured by the communists, to use hook and line to catch as many as I could," he later wrote.

So began an uneasy alliance between two factions with similar short-term goals but starkly divergent ultimate visions. The incongruity would rip them apart.

Leader of the opposition

THE strident tone of the new political party struck a chord, and the PAP did well at its first outing in 1955, winning three of the four seats it contested for the 32-member assembly. The assembly comprised 25 elected members and seven appointed ones.

He was now leader of the opposition and sat across the aisle from Chief Minister David Marshall, leader of Labour Front.

Mr Lee made it clear that he would be vociferous, and that he opposed the government of the day as well as the system.

"This Constitution is a sham… (It is) colonialism in disguise," he bellowed in his first speech.

In opposition, Mr Lee and his party colleagues - Mr Lim Chin Siong, Mr Devan Nair and Mr Goh Chew Chua - were strong advocates for independence, the most important issue in the political arena at the time. Indeed, Mr Marshall resigned after failing to secure independence in 1956, handing over the Chief Minister's post to Mr Lim Yew Hock.

All the time, however, the underlying asymmetries remained between Mr Lee and the PAP's leftists, who had joined the party ranks along with Mr Lim and Mr Fong and were largely Chinese-educated unionists.

Mr Lee, while opposed to colonialism, preferred to work within the law, and participated in earnest in the 1956 and 1957 London talks on Singapore moving towards greater autonomy.

Mr Lim and Mr Fong, on the other hand, saw the talks as supplementary to their preferred means of bringing about change and gaining independence: demonstrations and strikes.

The Hock Lee bus strikes they led in 1955 spun out of control into riots, and four people died, much to Mr Lee's chagrin.

"I felt in my bones that to continue on the course Lim and Fong had embarked upon would end in political disaster," Mr Lee said.

His dilemma was that he could neither endorse his leftist comrades nor condemn them. Their movement, meanwhile, was fast gaining strength.

Taking power

THE PAP swept into power in the legislative assembly elections of 1959, winning 43 out of 51 seats. This was the first election in Singapore under full internal self-government, with the British relinquishing control over everything except defence and foreign affairs.

Mr Lee became Singapore's first Prime Minister - the new post that superseded the Chief Minister post, under a new constitutional framework.

The PAP had held together as Mr Lim Yew Hock's Labour Front government self-destructed by allowing rampant corruption.

PAP leaders Toh and Ong Pang Boon recalled that in the party vote to decide who should be Prime Minister, Mr Ong Eng Guan, a populist mayor, had tied with Mr Lee, and Dr Toh cast the deciding vote as party chairman. Mr Lee disputed that account when it first came to light five decades later.

Shortly after taking office, Mr Lee rolled out policies and institutions that would become part of the PAP's lasting accomplishments. The Housing Board was formed to tackle a severe housing shortage. The National Library and People's Association were set up. School intake was doubled and campaigns to clean up the streets launched.

Mr Lee was ambitious but not populist. Within three weeks, he cut civil service pay. He also overruled ministers Toh and Ong Eng Guan's attempts to "decolonialise" parts of the public service by forcing expatriates to leave. As he saw it, an inexperienced government could ill-afford to offload perfectly competent civil servants and teachers.

His socialist rhetoric was reflective of the times. Mr Lee declared a "social revolution by peaceful means". But he also told capitalists that the more shops and factories they opened, the happier Singapore would be, and the desire in Singapore to "increase the size of the national cake is as great, if not greater, than the desire to share the cake more equally".

Mr Lee's views on democracy were to endure. He said in 1962: "If I were in authority indefinitely, without having to ask those who are governed whether they like what is being done, then I have not the slightest doubt that I could govern much more effectively in their own interests."

Party rift

BUT his position, both as Prime Minister and PAP chief, came increasingly under threat because of the brewing intra-party trouble. His relationship with the PAP leftists was fast deteriorating, with uneasy caution evolving into downright mistrust.

Many of these leftists had been detained under the administration of Mr Lim Yew Hock, who took an iron-fisted approach to leftist activity. Those detained included Mr Lim, Mr Fong, Mr Devan Nair and Mr S. Woodhull.

Before taking office as PM, Mr Lee had demanded the release of the seven most prominent detainees, though he insisted that they would have to sign a declaration of support for the PAP agenda upon release. That condition in itself betrayed a certain superficiality about their comradeship. Mr Lee wrote later: "I was certain that whether cooperation between us lasted one, two, or three years, in the end we must break."

By his second year as PM, the continued detention of less prominent leftists had become a point of contention.

While Mr Lee's government cited Malayan opposition to their release - the Internal Security Council, or ISC, at the time consisted of three Singapore representatives, three British, and one Malayan - the leftists maintained for many years that Mr Lee himself had had a strong hand in their continued confinement.

Declassified British documents would later show that those suspicions were not far off the mark. In a cable to London in July 1961, Mr Philip Moore, then UK Commissioner in Singapore, wrote that the "left wing of the PAP are pressing for release of detainees and not even all members of Cabinet are aware that Singapore Government had not, since early 1960, proposed (it)".

He added: "Lee has put to us... that Singapore Government should order release of all detainees and that British and (Malayan) Federation Governments should thereafter countermand these instructions in the ISC."

Mr Lee's rivals would read his manoeuvring as disingenuousness. But his allies accepted it as necessary. "It's all politics. He had to do it in order to survive," said Mr Othman.

Eventually, the two factions parted ways on Mr Lee's proposal for Singapore to merge with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak. With opposition to his plan growing, he tabled a confidence motion to, he said, "sort out the goats from the sheep".

The leftists surfaced, cutting Mr Lee's majority to one seat. He was under intense pressure. A majority of PAP branches defected to the breakaway leftist party, Barisan Sosialis. Crisis-ridden, Mr Lee took leave from his ministerial duties to assess if the ground was being tugged from beneath his feet. It wasn't, he concluded.

From end-1962 to 1963, he went on a charm offensive, explaining the party split in 12 long radio broadcasts and touring all 51 wards to drum up support.

For two years, his government hung on as he fought battles in the assembly and outside it. The leftists worked feverishly to engineer party defections and stoke passions among workers.

Finally, voters delivered decisive wins to Mr Lee in the merger referendum of 1962 and the general election in the same year, when PAP won 37 seats, and Barisan, 13. The leftists never recovered.

The ultimate cause of their decline was an overwhelming desire for stability, said Mr James Fu, a left-leaning journalist who went on to become Mr Lee's press secretary from 1972 to 1993.

"Singaporeans were afraid that if we went on endlessly with the political turbulence - the strikes, the riots - we would eventually end up with nothing," he said.

More anguish

ONCE Singapore joined Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak, on Sept 16, 1963 - Mr Lee's 40th birthday - Mr Lee's travails might have been expected to end. In fact, more trouble lay ahead.

His difficult relationship with Malay nationalists, whom he bitterly labelled "Malay ultras", defined the brief but ill-fated merger. Some in Singapore, such as Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee and Mrs Lee, had warned that Singapore and the Malayan federation were too grossly incompatible. "But I had to give it a chance," Mr Lee would say years later.

The key disagreement was over race. Mr Lee wanted multiracialism rightaway, whereas his KL counterparts, even moderate ones, preferred a gentle passage towards it.

"The difference is that we want to create a united nation gradually and not by force," said then Malaysian Deputy PM Abdul Razak Hussein in an interview after Singapore's separation.

Mr Lee's abrasiveness did not help - he once called the Malaysian Chinese in Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman's ruling Alliance political eunuchs. Nor did the Tunku's turning a blind eye to Malay extremists who travelled south to engineer race riots in Singapore in 1964.

But the final nail in the coffin was suspicion that Mr Lee had ambitions to be Malaysia's Prime Minister and - worse - there was a chance that he could be. Several multiracial parties from other parts of Malaysia had joined the PAP-led Malaysia Solidarity Convention, which fought for a "Malaysian Malaysia".

Mr Lee fleshed out to the group the demographic argument - that non-Malays made up 60 per cent of the Malaysian population. "His ambitions knew no bounds," the Tunku would say later.

On Aug 9, 1965, Singapore was out of the Malaysian federation. The merger had lasted exactly one year, 10 months and 24 days.

Mr Lee wept when declaring the split, recognising that he now helmed a 582 sq km island of 1.87 million people with no armed forces and which was not self-sufficient in water.

"For me, it is a moment of anguish because all my life... you see, the whole of my adult life...

I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories," he said.