By Jessica Cheam
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.
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.
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”. – Eco-Business
By Jessica Cheam