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Lee Kuan Yews Background

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Published: Tue, 25 Apr 2017

The end of World War II saw Singapore becoming a Crown Colony, but the rise of nationalism put Singapore on the path of self-government in 1959. Singapore formed a union with Malaya in 1963, but opted for independence and became an independent republic on August 9, 1965. In the 1950s, a rising star emerged in the local political scene – Lee Kuan Yew, who headed the socialist People’s Action Party (PAP). Lee, a shrewd politician, is a third-generation Straits-born Chinese with a law degree from Cambridge University. When the PAP won a majority of seats in the newly-formed Legislative Assembly in 1959, he became the first Singaporean to hold the title of prime minister.

He pushed for a merger with Malaysia but the integration proved to be too much for both sides and the then Malaysia Prime Minister decided that Singapore should be separated from the Union. This became the lowest point of Lee’s life and also the turning point for Singapore’s success. Although Lee was in anguish at that point, he never gave up the vision for Singapore and he brought it all the way from a 3rd world country to a first world metropolitan city today.

Singapore is one of the world’s success stories and Lee is the man behind this success. Although a lot of critics question his style of leadership, often being seen as autocratic and dictatorial, but no one will question the success of Singapore that he has brought.

Lee Kuan Yew was the first and longest serving Prime Minister of Singapore; and it was his leadership that brought Third World Singapore into a thriving metropolitan city in a stunning 3 decades. He is currently serving as Minister Mentor in the Singaporean government, advising the country’s leaders on national issues. To date, he still wields much influence in the region as an authority in nation building.

Lee Kuan Yew is seen as ‘the principal architect’ of Singapore and a leading figure of ‘both practical and theoretical efforts to reconcile undemocratic, illiberal elitism with the requirements of a prosperous capitalist economy operating within the global economic system’. His speeches and writings are in fact powerful rhetorical and discursive tools that form part of an arsenal of instruments, ranging from suasion to legal force and other sanctions, summoned to shape Singapore and move the country in certain directions. They have different effects on the multitudinous segments that comprise society, inescapably weakening or contradicting other goals even by their very success.

How can Lee Kuan Yew lead Singapore from a poor country with no natural resourse to become a member among world’s wealthy countries , to become a strong country in the world, to become a big office for almost multinational companies when they put their foot into the Asia-Pacific market ?

The assignment will try to explore Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership style which have really helped him to lead Singapore to develop and success. It will also help to find out a relationship between his perculiar characteristics with his visible susscess in leading the national in hopes that this will drive us to larger awareness about leadership and change management’s theory.

The assignment will also provide us a view on legacy which he lefts for the next generation of Singaporean. With a his long-term vision, many leaders in the world got his consultant now, Lee Kuan Yew not only leaft a prosperous Singapore but aslo a big change in Singaporean’s thinking and for the next generation to be effective leaders.



2.1 Childhood and upbringing:

Lee Kuan Yew was born in Singapore on 16 September 1923 in his parent’s large bugalow at 92 Kampong Java Road. He is the oldest son of Chua Jim Neo ( his mother’s name ) and Lee Chin Koon ( his father’s name). His parents had him when his father was 20-years-old and his mother 16. Both their families were wealthy families in Singapore and their marriage had been arranged. His mother had only finished seconary school. His father was educated in English at St. Joseph’s Institution and only completed his Junior School Certificate. His father did not have a profession so he could only get a job as a storekeeper at Shell Oil Company when the fortunes of both families were destroyed in the Great Depression. Perent hav

He grew up with his three brothers, one sister and seven cousins in the same house. In his childhood, he often played with his neighbourhood friends who were children of Chinese and Malay fishermen. They lived near kampong opposite his grandfather’s house. They played with anything they had and “went to war” with : kites, tops, marbles and even fish. In his memories, Lee said that ” These games nurtured a fighting spirit and the will to win. I do not know whether they prepared me for the fights I was to have later in politics ” ( Lee – page 32).

In his childhood, his family was not poor but he didn’t have a great abundance of toys and there was no television. So he had to be resourceful and use his imagination . He read a lot of books ( he specially liked to follow the adventures of the boys in Greyfriars–Harry Wharton and Billy Bunter and company) for young children, British magazines and pictorials so it was good for his literacy after that. When he was a boy, he bought books, managzines and pictorials from British boats. It was very expensive so he used his school’s library when he was a little older. He said that ” I read eclectically but preferred westerns to detective thrillers” ( Lee – page 32).

His childhood was not all simple pleasures. His father spent his money to gamble and lost it after that. His father was sometimes vilolent and demanded his mother’s jewelry which were from their wedding gift, in order to go back to the gambling-house and try his luck again. His mother was a courageous woman at that time. She determined to hang on to the jewelry, the wedding gifts from her parents and used it for her children’s education. She devoted her life to raise her children to be well-educated and independent professionals. She stood up to her husband to safeguard her children’s future. At his memories, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said that :” As I grew older, she began consulting me as the eldest son on all important family matters, so that while still in my teens, I became de facto head of the family. This taught me how to take decisions.” ( Lee – page 34).

When world war II occurred, the Janpanese army attacked Singapore by bombs, shells and planes. His father had no work and the school was closed. He started to work for the Japanese information or propaganda department called the Hodobu. His job was to run the cables of Allied news agencies as Reuters, UP, AP, Central News Agency of China and TASS. But at mid-1944, inflation was increasing. His family couldn’t live on his salary so he worked as a broker on the black market. In his memories He said that ” the key to survival was improvisation” ( Lee – page 34). In the black market, he found out that the market had a demand for gum, that there was little pre-war stock . So he started a small business to do and sell gum within seven months. The war was more badly so his family’s plan was to move to a safe place in Cameron Highland. He resigned from Hodobu and intended to move to Cameron Highland with his family. But he was followed by Janpanese so he couldn’t move. He had to stay in Singapore and he continued to operate on the black market with many kinds of jobs until the war was over in 1945.

In his memories, he said that “The three-and-a-half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life. They gave me vivid insights into the behavior of human beings and human societies. My appreciation of governments, my understanding of power as the vehicle for revolutionary change, would not have been gained without this experience. The Japanese demanded total obedience and got it from nearly all. They were hated by almost everyone, but everyone knew their power to do harm and so everyone adjusted ” ( Lee – page 74).

After the war, he continued his education. His family could pay for his law studies in Britain by his mother’s savings and jewelry and his earnings from the black market. Before he left Singapore for his law studies in Britain, he had a long commitment with Ms Choo, she would wait him for 3 years. He went to Britain for studies on 16 September 1946. Four years later, he came back to Singapore and practiced law. At 35-years old, he became Prime Minister of Singapore and started to lead Singapore. A summary of his background and his activities from 1923 to 1965 are as below:

Lee Kuan Yew: A Chronology, 1923-1965

September 16, 1923

Lee Kuan Yew was born in Singapore.


Student at Raffles Institution.


Comes in first in Singapore and Malaysia in Senior Cambridge exams, winning Anderson Scholarship to Raffles College.


Student at Raffles College.

15 February, 1942

Japanese occupation of Singapore begins.

February 18-22, 1942

Japanese massacre between 50,000 and 100,000 Chinese Singaporeans. He witnesses a brutality of Japanese army.


Works as English-language editor for Japanese “information or propaganda department called the Hobudu,”


Black market commodities broker; manufactures adhesives.


Student at London School of Economics

January 1947-1949

Student at Fitzwilliam House, Cambridge University.

December 1947

Secretly marries Kwa Geok Choo,

May-June 1949

Lee Kuan Yew and Kwa Geok Choo are both awarded first-class honours degrees in law.

February 1950

Assists campaign of David Widdicombe, a Cambridge friend, running as a Labour candidate for Parliament from Totness, Devon.

May 1950

Lee Kuan Yew and Kwa Geok Choo pass bar exams; both called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in June.

August 1950

Returns to Singapore.

September 1950

Marries Kwa Geok Choo again in Singapore.


Practices law; wins first trial as a barrister and becomes convinced of weakness of jury system; advisor for trade unions.

November 1954

PeopleHYPERLINK “http://www.postcolonialweb.org/singapore/government/lim1.html”‘HYPERLINK “http://www.postcolonialweb.org/singapore/government/lim1.html”s Action Party (PAP)founded.

April 1955

Elected to Legislative Assembly first time.

May 1956

Member first All-Party Constitutional Mission to London.

March 1957

Member second All-Party Constitutional Mission to London.

August 31, 1957

Federation of Malaysia achieves independence.

May 1958

Member third All-Party Constitutional Mission to London.

June 5, 1959

Sworn in, at age 35, as Prime Minister of Singapore.

February 1960

Housing and Development Board (HDB) established which begins massive public-housing campaign.

July 1960

Formed People’s Association to mobilize grassroots support against communists.

September 1961

Lee’s radio talks urge merger with Malaysia.

September 1962

Singapore referendum approves merger with Malaysia.

August 31, 1963

Singapore declares independence, ahead of formation of Malaysia.

September 16, 1963

Malaysia, which includes Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah, formed.

21 July 1964

Ja’afar Albar’s “racist agitation”causes riots in Singapore.

September 1964

Second outbreakof “communal violence.”

May 1965

PAP promotes a Malaysian — i.e., not simply Malay — Malaysia.

August 9, 1965

Singapore separates from Malaysia.


2.2 Education

In January 1930, he joined Telok Kurau English School at the age of six. In his final year, 1935, he became the first student of Telok Kurau school to win a place in Raffles Institution, which took in only top students. He enjoyed his years in Raffles Institution with a great number of prizes. As almost all other teenagers, he aslo did not pay attention in class and broke the school rules. He had three strokes of cane because he was late three times during a term. His parents were serious about his mistakes at school. They pointed out of some their friends who were doing well because they had become lawyers or doctors. So he set a plan to study law in London.

In 1940, he got the Anderson scholarship to study at Raffles College. As a scholar he had to stay in a boarding of school. At Raffles College, he had more competition than at Raffles Institution to get the Queen’s Scholarship.The competition was not only about people’s performance, but aslo about race and religion. He had to compete with Malaysian, Indian, Chinese and Singaporean students to win a scholarship. He said that ” There was a strong sense of solidarity among the Malays, which I was to learn to grow from a feeling of being threatened, a fear of being overwhelmed by more energetic and hardworking Chinese and Indian immigrants” ( Lee – page 41). Many of his friends at Raffles College were to become close political colleagues.

In 1941, the war became awful. He had no school during the war. After the war finished in 1946, he went to Britain for his law studies. In London, he was suffering from culture shock. There were many differences such as the climate, the clothes, the food, the people, the habits, the manners, etc. He had to pay a big amount of money for his room and food. As a person who had stopped earning, it was expensive so he tried to cook by himself. The big problem was he had to spend a lot of his time to move from his room to his school. So he decided to transfer to Cambridge with a lot of his effort. On January 1947, he started studing law at Cambridge University. He had better living condition than before.

On August 1947, Ms Choo got Queen’s scholarship and went to Britian for her law studies. In Britian, Ms Choo helped him recognize that he became deeply anti-British. He saw the British’s life in their own country and he compared it with what had happen in during the Japanese capture of Singapore in 1942. He questioned British’s ability to bring goods for Singaporeans. He encountered Harold Laski’s socialism – a professor of political science at London School of Economics. Harold Laski’s thoeries of socialism had a high impact on him and many colonial students. In his memories, He wrote :” It truck me as manifestly fair that everybody in this world should be given an equal chance in life, that in a just and well-orderd society there should not be a great disparity of wealth between persons because of their position or status, or that of their parents. I made no distinction between different races and peoples. We all wanted our independence so that we could keep our wealthy for ourselves” ( Lee – page 105). By the time he was in Britian he thought that wealth depended on the possession of natural resourses and territories. After he worked in Singapore and tried to check this by a number of ways he concluded that the people were the decisive factors. He think that knowledge and the possession of technology were vital for the creation of wealth.

In May 1949, both Mr Lee and Ms Choo got the first-prize at their final law examinations. In his memories, Mr Lee said that” It was a good cachet for the next stage of my life” ( Lee – page 117). In February 1950, both of them assisted David Widdicombe, a Cambridge friend, in his election campaign to look for a seat at Parliament from Totnes, Devon. Mr. Lee learnt how to campaign and made many of speeches. It was useful experience in his politics. In May 1950, Mr. Lee and Ms Choo passed bar exams and called to the Bar at the Middle Temple. In August 1950 they came back Singapore and started their career at Laycock & Ong firm.

Participate in political power:

His first participate in political power was his role as election agent for John Laycock – his boss – under the banner of pro-brish Progressive Party in 195. Eventually, he recognized that the future of Progressive Party is bleak because it was not to have mass support from the Chinese – speaking working. This support was very important when the Rendel commission expanded the electoral rolls to all local-born as voters. Local Chinese-speaking is big enough to impact to result of election. His big chance came when he was engaged as a legal advisor to the trade and student unions which provided him with the link to the Chinese-speaking.

On November 1954, He formed the socialist People’s Action Party (PAP) together with a group of English-educated. Their common aims were to rouse for self-government and put an end to British colonial rule. A first conference was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall, packed with over 1,500 supporters and trade unionists. He became secretary-general, a position he held until 1992. In the 1955 elections, he contested and won the Tanjong Pagar seat in coalition government. He was one of PAP’s representatives to the two constitutional talks which held in London – the first being led by Marshall and the second by Lim Yew Hock. In this period, Lee had to contend with rivals from both within and outside of the PAP. He had to keep a safe distance from his pro-communists colleagues because they participated in mass and often violent actions to undermine the government’s authority. He also consistently maintained his opposition to the coalition and attacking their incompetent and corrupt. Lee’s position in his party was seriously under threat in 1957 when pro-communists took over the leadership posts. Lucky for him, Marshall’s successor, Lim Yew Hock done a mass arrest of the pro-communists and Lee was reinstated as secretary-general. After the communist scare, Lee sought and received a fresh and stronger task from his Tanjong Pagar constituents in the 1957 elections. The communist threat was temporarily removed when he prepared for the next elections – on May 1958.

On 31st, August 1957, Federation of Malaysia achieves independence. On June 1959, the PAP party won forty-three of the fifty-one seats in the legislative assembly. Singapore gained self-government with autonomy in all state matters except in defense and foreign affairs. On June 1959, he became the first prime minister of the state of Singapore and take over from Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock.

Lee faced many problems after gaining self-rule for Singapore from the British, including education, housing, and unemployment. To solve the housing problem, He established the Housing and Development Board (HDB) on February 1960. It begins a massive public-housing campaign.

On July 1960, he formed People’s Association which helps him to mobilize a foundation for supporting against communists. In 1961, after Malaya Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman proposed the formation of a federation which would include Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei, he began to campaign for a merger with Malaysia to end British colonial rule. His radio talks urge merger with Malaysia on September 1961. After that he held a referendum to get the people support to his proposals on September 1962. He had the result with 70% of the votes. During operation for merger with Malay, he crushed the pro-communist factions who were opposing the merger and who were allegedly involved in subversive activities. On August 31st, 1963, Singapore declares independence, ahead of formation of Malaysia. Singapore became part of the Federation of Malaysia on September 16 1963.

After there were a lot of crisis as: race riots between Chinese and Muslim on 21 July 1964, sHYPERLINK “http://www.postcolonialweb.org/singapore/government/leekuanyew/lky16.html”econd outbreak of “communal violence” on September 1964, conflicts between Lee’s ( when PAP promote Malaysian to oppose to the Malay race ) and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO),etch, the Malaysian Prime Minister – Tunku, Abdul Rahman- decided to expel Singapore from Malaysia. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had to sign a separation agreement on August 7 1965. Singapore had to separate relations with Malaysia and continue cooperation in areas such as trade and mutual defense.

The failure of the merger was a heavy blow to Lee, who believed that it was crucial for Singapore’s survival. On August 9 1965, in a televised press conference, he broke down his emotional as he announced the separation to the people and declared to build the Republic of Singapore: “For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I believed in merger and unity of the two territories. … Now, I, Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, do hereby proclaim and declare on behalf of the people and the Government of Singapore that as from today, the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five, Singapore shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of the people in a most and just equal society.” He now faced the formidable task of building the new nation which had no natural resources, an inadequate water supply and little indigenous defense.



3.1. Charisma

3.2. Value

3.3. Beliefs

3.4. Acumen

3.5. Bravery

3.6. Extroversion

3.7. Idiosyncrasies

3.8. Strengths and weaknesses

3.9. Leadership styles

(Sourse: The Singapore story: memoris of Lee Kuan Yew – page 32).


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