A year has gone by since Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, and the time for mourning for many has run its course. Meaning it’s now time to take a less sentimental look, and pragmatically take stock of what we gained under his leadership.
Interestingly, the legacy of Singapore’s leader probably would have been very different, if Mr. Lee had had his way in the beginning with merger. As part of Malaysia, Singapore would have certainly had less space to chart its own course. And in the end as we know, being forced to separate from Malaysia was the catalyst for Mr. Lee’s future policies and pragmatism.
Mr. Lee had a profound influence on our language. He chose English over Chinese as the national language of the country, thereby connecting races without favouring any. This move simultaneously plugged Singapore into the worlds of science and trade, which are predominantly English-speaking. At the same time, he ensured Singaporeans kept their cultural identity through MOE’s mother tongue policy – giving us the best of both worlds.
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The Bukit Ho Swee squatter fire of 1961 showed that safe, well-planned housing is vital for any country. Say what you like about housing costs today, but thanks to Mr. Lee’s vision, 90% of Singaporeans now own their own homes, as he made public housing affordable. As these homes have since grown immensely in value over time, so has the relative wealth of their owners. The fact that many are able to upgrade to better housing as their property appreciates is a further indication of how the housing market owes a lot to Mr. Lee’s ultimate vision of putting public housing within reach of almost everyone.
Mr. Lee also pushed our Little Red Dot onto the world stage by aggressively courting foreign investment and forging ties with world powers like the US and China. Through the healthy relations he built, today a disproportionately huge amount of foreign trade flows through Singapore, acting as the foundation for a vast array of complementary industries (and employment). By comparison, if one is needed – like Ireland and Jamaica – Singapore started as a small island state, and a former English-speaking British colony with a population of just 2 million, although in Singapore’s case with even less natural resources. Now, Singapore leads them in virtually every area of opportunity – investment, employment, education, healthcare, buying power, home ownership, and most obviously in GDP, showing the difference one exceptional individual can make.
Obviously, Lee Kuan Yew was not infallible, but he was dealt a hand of cards at independence, played the best game he could, and influenced millions as he made Singapore a First World country. On the anniversary of his passing as you drink your latte or eat your sushi, or walk home in safety to your own flat, that’s something none of us should forget.