Lee Kuan Yew: The man who guided Singapore from slum to eco-city

The man largely credited for Singapore’s rise from slum to eco-city since its independence in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew, died on Monday morning aged 91.

Lee Kuan Yew
Singapore's founding father and first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died on Monday aged 91. Image: pmo.gov.sg

Singapore’s founding father and first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died on Monday morning, aged 91, triggering a nationwide outpouring of grief in the city-state and tributes from leaders all over the world.

He died at 3.18am at the Singapore General Hospital, said the Prime Minister’s Office in a statement. He had been admitted for severe pneumonia since Feb 5. 

Lee, born in 1923, is widely regarded as the central architect of Singapore’s success and transformation from a small, poor trading port with limited natural resources in the 1950s into a modern metropolis with one of the world’s highest per capita GDP today.

In an emotional address to the nation, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee’s elder son, said: “He pushed us hard to achieve what had seemed impossible… We won’t see another man like him.”

US President Barack Obama, in a statement issued by the White House, called Lee a “true giant of history” and a visionary who led Singapore to become “one of the most prosperous countries in the world today”.

The English-educated lawyer formed the People’s Action Party in Singapore in 1954 following his studies at Cambridge University in the UK and became the country’s first Prime Minister in 1959, when it gained self-governance from the British.

He negotiated a merger with the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, which ended in 1965 following bitter disagreements between the two country’s political leaders. Singapore was thrust into independence with “no signposts to our next destination”, as Lee described in his 2000 memoirs, and a “heart without a body” that had a population of 1.9 million unskilled people, a GDP per capita of a mere US$512 per year and unemployment rates of 10 to 12 per cent, putting the country on the verge of civil riots.

If without Malaysia Singapore had lost its body, in Lee the nation found a remarkable mind. 

The journey from slum to eco-city

Unlike many countries on a path of rapid progress, Singapore’s metamorphosis was relatively unmarked by the scourges of development such as pollution and environmental degradation.

Through the past five decades of economic development, of which Lee was at the helm for the first 31 years, Singapore carved a reputation in the global arena for being a clean and green city.

Together with Singapore’s other founding fathers - Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San, S Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye and Devan Nair, to name a few - Lee navigated Singapore through the critical early years of independence on a path of development that put a good living environment squarely at its heart.

Lee understood that it was both a competitive advantage and a prerequisite for the well-being of the city’s residents.

After independence, I searched for some dramatic way to distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries. I settled for a clean and green Singapore.

One arm of my strategy was to make Singapore into an oasis in Southeast Asia, for if we had First World standards then businessmen and tourists would make us a base for their business and tours of the region.

 Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000

In the country’s early years, two thirds of its population was living in inner city slums and squatter settlements with its pavements and streets strewn with litter, dirt and filled with the stench of rotting garbage.

To lift the country out of its squalor, Lee and his colleagues established key intuitions and implemented policies that systematically tackled every aspect of Singapore society from the economy to housing, healthcare and the environment. 

The Housing and Development Board was set up to relocate squatter colonies into high-rise housing in new towns even though it was initially an unpopular move among residents. Public agencies also went about building proper sewerage systems to replace the night soil bucket system.

Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan noted in a 2012 interview that Lee had “somehow appreciated instinctively that the environment had to be protected, had the political capital to do so and was prepared to make trade-offs”.

Balakrishnan added that the decision to power the country on natural gas rather than coal reflected this ethos.  

Lee also personally launched a tree planting campaign in 1963 and a 1968 ‘Keep Singapore Clean’ campaign to encourage “healthier and more wholesome social conditions in Singapore”.

Dr Tan Wee Kiat, former head of NParks, recalled how even though funds were short in those years, Lee prioritised nationwide efforts to green the city’s roads and vacant spaces. Lee’s successor, Goh Chok Tong, once remarked that Singapore was the only sovereign nation he knew of that read a gardening report in the Cabinet.

In a letter to some 141,000 public officers on Monday, Singapore’s head of civil service, Peter Ong, noted: “For Mr Lee, if something was worth doing for Singapore and Singaporeans, it was worth doing it very well.”

“We saw this, for example… in his personal attention to the greening of Singapore which he saw as a means of gifting to every Singaporean, no matter his station in life, a very conducive urban environment,” he said. 

Laying the foundation for sustainable development

Under Lee’s instruction, the Anti-Pollution Unit (APU) was set up under the Prime Minister’s Office in 1971 to tackle increasing water and air pollution caused by Singapore’s rapid industrialisation.

It was an idea that Lee brought home after a visit to Boston in the United States, which had mandatory inspections on the emissions of cars. The APU started its air-quality monitoring in residential and industrial areas; the Clean Air Act was passed and the Environment Ministry then went on to introduce laws to control pollution from motor vehicles to prevent smogs.

Lee is also credited as the architect of Singapore’s water story.

Water supply was a critical priority in 1965 when the country gained independence as it was heavily dependent on Malaysia for water. Singapore had signed two water agreements with Malaysia in 1961 and 1962 that gave it rights to obtain water from Johor, the Malaysian state closest to Singapore.

While Lee had ensured these agreements were made part of Malaysia’s constitution during the separation, he was informed that Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had told a British diplomat: “If Singapore doesn’t do what I want, I’ll switch off the water supply”. As Mr Lee later recalled: “Every other policy has to bend at the knees for our water survival”.

In 1971, he set up the Water Planning Unit to develop Singapore’s water resources and instilled a sense of urgency among public officers to make Singapore self-sufficient in water even as he regularly admonished citizens to be frugal with water use.

He also tasked the country’s public agencies with cleaning up the Singapore River – which up till the 1980s was infamous for its putrid stench of rotting rubbish, human and industrial waste. He even remarked that he would reward the officers in charge with a real solid gold medal; or if they failed, he would “add a special piece of lead… into their water supply”.

Apart from the Singapore River clean-up, Lee also envisioned in the 1980s that in two decades, there could be breakthroughs in technology that will enable Singapore to dam the city’s Marina Bay to create a freshwater lake.

Today, Singapore’s iconic cityscape around the Marina Bay area - outlined by the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort and the Central Business District - is the fruition of that vision.

Lee’s legacy

Lee’s leadership of Singapore was not without controversy – he was viewed by critics as an authoritarian who ruled the city with an iron grip and deployed draconian tactics to clamp down on dissent or on opposition he did not deem worthy.

While some of his policies - such as on media freedom and eugenics - have sharply divided Singapore society, the nation has been united in their mourning for a leader whose legacy is the unlikely success of their country. 

In penning a tribute on the Remembering Lee Kuan Yew site, Singaporean James Lim said: “Beyond the infrastructure and skyline, you left behind a legacy, values and beliefs that with hard work, discipline and a stroke of luck, miracles are possible.”

Another citizen named Abu Sufian bin Maroni wrote: “We may agree or disagree and debate on things, but this week is about giving our respect… to the man who shaped Singapore.”  

Meanwhile, thousands of people lined the streets of Singapore’s civic district on Wednesday morning to follow the procession bearing Lee’s casket to Parliament House. His body will lie in state there until Sunday, when his state funeral service will be held at the National University of Singapore’s University Cultural Centre.

People were seen waving, cheering or crying as the gun carriage carrying his casket, draped with the Singapore flag, made its way into Parliament along the pristine, tree-lined roads under a cloudy sky.

It was a fitting backdrop for one of Lee’s last journeys. In a speech in 1968, he told citizens: “No other hallmark of success will be more distinctive than that of achieving our position as the cleanest and greenest city in South Asia”. 

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →