Lee Kuan Yew's legacies

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As Singapore's first prime minister, he shaped the country’s key policies and institutions. Petir looks at how they have influenced our lives.


My primary preoccupation was to give every citizen a stake in the country and its future.

In 1959, 250,000 people lived in slums and another 300,000 in poorly constructed flimsy structures. Providing homes, especially low-cost modern ones, was a top priority for the PAP government.

Lee Kuan Yew saw home ownership as an integral part of nation-building. He was convinced that "if every family owned its home, the country would be more stable". He believed that a "sense of ownership was vital for our new society which had no deep roots in a common historical experience".

Within five years after its establishment in 1960, the HDB built 55,000 units, more than double what its predecessor, the Singapore Improvement Trust or SIT, built in its entire 32-year history.

The public housing programme was a resounding success. To date, HDB has constructed more than a million homes complete with quality amenities. Over 80 per cent of the resident populationlive in HDB flats, with the vast majority owning their own homes.


If you need money to win seats, money to become a minister, or to be the president, then Singapore is done for.

When Singapore was still a British colony, corruption was widely prevalent. High on the PAP's agenda was the establishment of a clean and effective government.

In June 1959, when the new PAP cabinet took the oath of office at the ceremony in the City Council chamber, they wore white shirts and white slacks "to symbolise purity and honesty".

The following year, Lee Kuan Yew strengthened the laws and beefed up the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). To show that he meant business, the CPIB was placed directly under his charge, in the Prime Minister's Office.

Over the years, Singapore has established an effective anti-corruption framework based on the rule of law, independent judiciary and vigorous enforcement. It has yielded results. Today, Singapore is consistently ranked among the least corrupt countries in the world.


In government, I have never forgotten that it is in the interest of the workers and their unions that we must strive for growth and development. In other words, growth is meaningless unless it is shared by the workers, shared not only directly in wage increases but indirectly in better homes, better schools, better hospitals, better playing fields and, generally, a healthier environment for families to bring up their children.

In the 1950s, there was strife among employers, unions and workers. Strikes and work stoppages were common.

Lee Kuan Yew championed a strong spirit of tripartism, bringing labour, management and government together. He also forged a strong symbiotic relationship between the PAP and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), and encouraged NTUC to get MPs to work with the unions or serve as their advisers.

For the last 50 years, we have enjoyed industrial peace in Singapore. This has enabled Singapore to attract investments and create good jobs benefitting all workers.


If we did not create a society which is clean throughout the island, I believed then and I believe now, we have two classes of people: the upper class, upper middle and even middle class with gracious surroundings; and the lower middle and the working class in poor conditions. No society like that will thrive.

After independence, Lee Kuan Yew set out on a plan to "distinguish Singapore from other Third World countries" and decided on making the nation clean and green.

He believed that "well-kept trees and gardens were a subtle way of convincing potential investors in the early crucial years that Singapore was an efficient and effective place".

Mr Lee conceived the annual national tree-planting campaign, now a tradition that takes place during Clean and Green Week every November.

"When I planted my first tree at Holland Road Circus back in 1963, it was to make Singapore green," he said, years later.

Building on his original vision of a Garden City, Singapore today has evolved into a City in a Garden, with some 2 million trees planted island-wide and 360 km of park connectors linking up our entire island.


But if we were monolingual in our mother tongues, we would not make a living. Becoming monolingual in English would have been a setback. We would have lost our cultural identity, that quiet confidence about ourselves and our place in the world.

In 1959, the PAP inherited an education system that favoured the English-speaking from the colonial government.

Lee Kuan Yew was clear that he had to implement an education policy that served the needs of Singapore. He felt that the education system should not "produce citizens who can only communicate with those in their own language stream."

For a start, he introduced the teaching of Chinese, Malay and Tamil in English schools and conversely, the teaching of English in Chinese, Malay and Tamil schools.

Subsequently, after Singapore's independence in 1965, the bilingual policy was more rigorously implemented in both primary and secondary schools.

Over the past 50 years, Singapore's bilingual policy has undergone many refinements, but it remains a cornerstone of the nation's education system. Learning English as well as their mother tongues, be it Malay, Chinese or Tamil, has helped Singaporeans plug into the global economy and also preserve our sense of self, identity and values.


Here we make the model multi-racial society. This is not a country that belongs to any single community: it belongs to all of us.

One of the convictions which undergirded Lee Kuan Yew's leadership was his belief in a meritocratic, multi-racial, multireligious and multi-lingual society, where no one would be favoured or discriminated against. Indeed, PAP was the first multiracial party in Singapore.

He shunned race-based political parties and stressed the importance of racial and religious harmony.

For instance, the ethnic integration quota was introduced to promote racial integration and harmony in the HDB communities. "As part of our long-term plan to rebuild Singapore and re-house everybody, we decided to scatter and mix Malays, Chinese, Indians and all others alike and thus prevent them from congregating as they had been encouraged to do so by the British," said Mr Lee.

The Group Representation Constituency was also introduced to ensure minority representation in Parliament.

He focused his efforts on helping to uplift the Malay community by providing free education to the Malays.

He also handled issues involving race and religion with sensitivity. For instance, when it was time to remove the small, dilapidated mosques built on state land, he replaced these "suraus" with bigger and better mosques in every housing estate through voluntary contributions from the Malay-Muslim community.

Today, Singaporeans enjoy equal opportunities regardless of race, co-exist and live together peacefully, and there is a growing sense of nationhood and national identity.

This was first published in 'Thank You Comrade Lee Kuan Yew: A Special Tribute From the People's Action Party'

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