08 April 2015

The Credit For Singapore's Success

During the past fortnight, many accolades were heaped on the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister, who died on 23 March.

Many of the accolades ignored the contributions of others who contributed to the Singapore success story.

Who were some of these people?

Mr Lee's fellow cabinet ministers in the 1960s and 1970s such as Dr Goh Keng Swee, Dr Toh Chin Chye, Mr Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, Mr Hon Sui Sen and Mr Lim Kim San. Unlike Mr Lee who remained at the centre of political power, these men stopped participating in legislative duties and have dropped out of public view, and possibly public consciousness, for more than a quarter of a century. Mr Lee said:

"I'm not a one-man show. You see my picture everywhere; it make it easier for you to symbolise it with one man. Don't believe it is a one-man show. It cannot be done."[1]

Dr Albert Winsemius, the United Nations economist who was seconded to Singapore as its economic adviser for 25 years from 1960. He was instrumental in transforming the industrial landscape. Mr Lee said of him:

"It was Singapore's good fortune that he took a deep and personal interest in Singapore's development. Singapore, and I personally, are indebted to him for the time, energy and devotion he gave to Singapore."[2]

Dr Lee Siew Choh and his Barisan Sosialis colleagues who made the disastrous mistake of boycotting Parliament and gifted Mr Lee's People's Action Party government a Parliament without an opposition voice without check and balance for many years.

The public servants, who were instrumental in fleshing out and implementing Government policies, especially the Economic Development Board officers who brought in investments by foreign multinational companies and created vital jobs, the Housing and Development Board architects and engineers who oversaw the construction of tens of thousands of HDB flats, the teachers in our schools, the medical practitioners who raised our standards of health, and many others.

The national servicemen, who provided the newly independent nation with its defence.

The unsung ordinary citizens, whose collective efforts produced the results.

Mr Lee and his cabinet ministers were brilliant visionaries and strategists. Mr Lee rallied and motivated the people during the dark days following Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia. But neither vision nor plans are worth much if the people did not do their part. As Mr Lee himself said:

"If a group of human beings do not want to together constitute a nation, nothing can make them other than superior force."[3]

"A whole generation has striven since the [1950s] to make Singapore what it is today."[4]

"People wrote us off in 1965.… [But] the people had the guts and the gumption."[5]

"Because the people supported us, therefore we succeeded. It just wasn't guts on our part; it was guts on the part of the total population — a total population refused to be cowed. We gave them the courage, we drummed up the music, but the people stiffened their backs."[6]

"The Government can give you that framework, can give expression to the will of the people but the people must have the will. If you don't have it, there is nothing a government can do."[7]

Lee Kuan Yew was an exceptional leader, but Singapore would not be what it is today without his team and all of us, especially those who toiled in the 1950s — before Mr Lee's time — the 1960s and the 1970s under challenging circumstances. We are indebted to all of them.

Two other groups also helped.

Firstly, the British government, which delayed the pullout of their military presence from Singapore until 1971. This gave the Singapore government the opportunity to start building up Singapore's defence capabilities, and develop new areas of economic activity and create alternative employment opportunities for the tens of thousands of people working at the British military bases in Singapore.

Secondly, the Malaysian government under prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, which ejected Singapore from Malaysia. This freed Singapore from the racial and religious politics of Malaysia that still bedevil Malaysia today, and allowed Singapore to chart its own future.

For the record, Mr Lee did not consider himself to be the founder of modern Singapore  Sir Stamford Raffles was.[8]


1. LEE KUAN YEW election rally speech 19 Sep 1963.

2. Lee Kuan Yew's tribute to Dr Albert Winsemius in "Singapore Is Indebted To Winsemius: SM" The Straits Times 10 Dec 1996.

3. LEE KUAN YEW National Day Rally Speech 16 Aug 1967.

4. LEE KUAN YEW National Day Rally Speech 15 Aug 1976.

5. LEE KUAN YEW National Day Rally Speech 19 Aug 1979.

6. LEE KUAN YEW National Day Rally Speech 14 Aug 1988.

7. LEE KUAN YEW National Day Rally Speech 26 Aug 1990.

8. Lee Kuan Yew's tribute to Dr Albert Winsemius in "Singapore Is Indebted To Winsemius: SM" The Straits Times 10 Dec 1996.

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