Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore rose through the vision, tenacity & selflessness of a man who left nothing to chance – Tola Adenle

July 19, 2013

Arts & Culture, World

There are two books that make up “The Singapore Story”, and I believe they are best understood/appreciated if read as one.  I’ve come away with something close to being in the city-state and taking a comprehensive course in Maker of Singapore’s Civilization – and that’s not meant in any derogatory way. 

I plan to get this review in two installments though not of each book separately.  In fact, my write-up will just touch a few highlights because I am an untrained and unlettered reviewer who has always handled reviews fairly differently from what I read in the great literary supplements of good newspapers.  My non-style becomes more handy as I cannot do justice to the idea of reviewing two books of over 1300 pages total.  It will merely TOUCH what I believe anyone who reads the books would gain, and those unable to lay their hands on the books should also know a bit about the city state and the man who is truly Father of Modern Singapore that made it all possible.

Before starting my idea of a review, I must first get the following comments about Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) out of the way.

The books were written at the beginning of this century – 2000 – and having been head of a state that he successfully and admirably fashioned to move with the rest of the world – AND the times especially the so-called “civilized world” –  LKY shows a high degree of insensitivity when writing about various peoples of the world.  While his venom  or, at least, disdain seems reserved for Africans and people of African descent, he often lapses into forgetfulness – or maybe it’s deliberate – even when writing about other ethnic groups, including whites  on whose good side he worked understandably assiduously to be; he sees only Chinese everywhere as the perfect race, the perfect people.  For a very sensitive person that LKY appears to be when matters concern him or his Chinese ancestry group – forget that he could never really stand Mainland China because of communis – of necessity Malays with whom Singapore was once junior partner in a union always receives the velvet touch.  He, in his words, always “wanted to avoid unintentionally hurting Malay sensitivities …”.  

LKY’s inability to move away from old prejudices even at 77 years of age when he wrote the books is unconscionable and objectionable.

Now, before quoting LKY’s words that is a blight on his character, here’s a brief narration of my first experience of English people during my first trip to England in December 1971.  At a friend’s place, there was a wash-hand basin on the landing of the mid-rise building which surprised me until she explained it was where they and those in the units on the floor performed their morning rituals  My Significant Other and I were informed they had to go to a public bath when they needed to bathe!  I could not believe it but it brought home to me the reason for the pungent odor/smell in the subway coaches which were, of course, mostly filled with white people as it is their country. I guess LKY never used the subways and trains during those Cambridge days.

We could hardly wait to travel up to Oxford where a sibling was attending the university. Even though the bathroom of his nice little flat had no heat, at least we could dash in and out for a wash every morning.

I’ve never narrated the incredible experience to anyone, and my spouse and I seemed too stunned beyond words to ever bring it up beyond that day!

End of Aside, and below is the very offensive part of  Memoir which makes me wonder how LKY was able to travel those subway lines and the trains to Cambridge and beyond during those four years without dying of the pungent and “strange body odours” that supposedly filled the coaches and trains. Or they were not picked by his nose because the pungent odors/smells MY NOSE picked were the same that his had been used to back in Singapore!


[I found myself in the company of some 20 African and Caribbean students.  It was another shock.  I had never seen Africans before in real life, only in photographs.  I was unprepared tor their strange body odours, unlike those of the racial groups we had in Singapore.  I did not sleep well that night.

 THE SINGAPORE Story:  Memories of Lee Kuan Yew – Chapter: My Cambridge Days]



Now that we’ve gotten that little nasty business out of the way, please come with me for a brief insight into two very enjoyable and informative books that was a great pleasure to read.

VOLUME I:          The Singapore Story:  Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew

Publishers:           Singapore Press Holdings (Times Edition)

          Price:           U.S. $37.00

VOLUME II:        From Third World to First:  Singapore and the Asian Economic Boom by Lee Kuan Yew

  Publishers:         HarperCollins Books

            Price:         US $18.00


My interest in Singapore and LKY – actually, it’s the other way round as can be seen from the not-that objective title – dates from 1982 when TIME magazine, to which I had a subscription to the Atlantic Edition, had him on the cover, a copy I keep to this day because it  also contains a gripping human-angle story on another man that cannot and should never be forgotten:  the man who perished while gifting others with life after the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 on the 14th Street Bridge in Rosslyn, Virginia on Washington, D.C. outskirts to whom TIME devoted its weekly essay of January 25, 1982 – “The Man in the Water.”


“… Each time the ring was lowered, he grabbed it and passed it along to a comrade; when the helicopter finally returned to pick him up, he had disappeared beneath the ice.”  [Time Essay, Jan. 25, 1982.] SEE LINK AT ESSAY’S END.


When I edited my collection of magazines in 2002 so that I could throw out some, it happened to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the heroic action of “The Man in the Water”, and I wrote an essay, “The Man in the Water and the Man with the ladder” for The Comet on Sunday to contrast selflessness against selfishness, The “man with the ladder” who had purportedly removed a ladder he fashioned in an obstacle race after scaling a high wall on the way to prosperity so that others might not use it!


I decided then in ’02 that I should not part with the copy, yet, and here it is!

This is a review of books on LKY but I’ve already warned that my idea of a review is that of an untrained person, just as a lover of books.


Cover of TIME magazine, January 25, 1982.


Now, even if you are not interested in geo-politics, geo-graphy, nation building, or the politics of a man and place far removed from your life, frequenting this blog or happening on it for the first time implies some love of reading, pardon my being the one blowing the horn of essays here; they are not all written by me, anyway!


LKY may have warned that From Third World to First … – Third to First – is not a how-to guide book, I believe though it not only meets that standard for building a successful country and merging the motley group of people at its birth to form a nation in which the interest is one and pursuing this common interest becomes a common goal, but it would be a good guide book to accompany a Dictionary, a Thesaurus, etcetera for students of English at secondary and tertiary levels, and I’m not kidding!  In essay-writing in Nigeria of the 60s, teachers always stressed the formation of sentences that contained good descriptions so that “readers could almost visualize persons, places or things” as a nun who taught me English Language and English Literature put it.


Lee is very quotable and while wishing I could quote many, here are just a few:


In line with how Singapore will become what it is today, he warned workers not long after Malaya ASKED an island state “without a hinterland” to leave the Federation: 


“The world does not owe us a living.  We cannot live by the begging bowl”; 


 In the Preface to Third to First, he announced to the world, “Our climb from a per capita GDP of US$400 in 1959 (when I took office as Prime Minister) to more than US12,200 in 1990 (when I stepped down) and US$22,000 in 1999 …   In material terms, we have left behind our Third World problems of poverty.


When former US VP Mondale asked of Phillipine’s Ferdinand Marcos: “You know Marcos.  Was he a hero or a crook …”? he writes:  “…


I answered that he might have started as a hero but ended up as a crook.” 


And of Suharto he told Mondale: “… His heroes were not Washington or Jefferson or Madison, but the sultans of Solo in central Java.  Suharto’s wife had been a minor princess … As the president of Indonesia, he was a megasultan … believed his children were entitled to be as privileged as the princes and princesses … did not feel any embarrassment at giving them these privileges, because it was his right as a megasultan.  He saw himself as a patriot.  I would not classify Suharto as a crook”


Big Indonesia would later go cap in hand to beg tiny Singapore for financial assistance to stabilize its economy that took a nose-dive and the IMF went calling.  I do not know how Suharto must have felt when LKY included among his suggestions for a revitalized economy the removal of concessions that saw his kids and cronies skimming off the system.


LKY’s descriptions could almost put the persons, places and things right before you, and as a one-time teacher, my copies of the 2-volume are already so marked that none would ever perhaps want to borrow them; I wouldn’t if they belong to somebody else! 


If I should land at Singapore’s Changi Airport, I believe I could almost take a rental car and drive into the city!  That’s how good his descriptions are.

Here is a description that a teacher of English would love: 


 “… The approach to the city from the east coast runs along a new 20 kilometer … expressway built on land reclaimed from the sea … beautiful glimpses of the sea on one side, and vistas of HDB estates … on the other.  The airport and the pleasant 20-minute drive into the city made an excellent introduction to Singapore, the best S1.5 billion investment we ever made …”


[A country like Nigeria where the heads of states and governors are always roaming the world “for investors”, I’ve often written, need no such wastage of scarce resources because, as in the movie – Field of Dreams – which is a take on a saying, “if you build it” – a just society that is as corruption-free as possible, “they will come”.]


How about a new Malaysia Prime Minister LKY described thus: 


“Razak … did not have the Tunku’s warm personality or his large and commanding presence.  By comparison he appeared less decisive … He was the son of a Pahang chieftain.  In their hierarchical society, he was much respected by the Malay students [when he and Razak were classmates] … Of medium build, with a fair, round face and hair slicked down, he looked a quiet, studious man … bright and hardworking … a good hockey player but ill at ease with people unless he knew them well …

You have a feeling LKY gave due regards to this new prime minister of neighboring Malaysia but he did not have much use for “hierarchical societies” nor think much of this old classmate whose demeanor way back at school was perhaps on the haughty side, and the descriptions tell you/make you wonder how a sportsman could be aloof; AND leaves you to reach your own conclusion about the feudal Prime Minister Razak!


Here are some very simple but effective ones:


“… He was frail but spoke with great firmness and determination. [‘frail’ and ‘firm’ are effective uses of opposites here.

“… butler at the Strand Hotel – an Indian in his late fifties, with greying hair and beard …”  who served LKY breakfast, British style … was leaving: 

 “He was right about my breakfast.  The next day, the tray was not as neat nor the toast as crisp.”


Three more and we’ll be done with LKY’s ability to study people – great and small – and describe them just perfectly.


Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus: 


“He wore silken robes with a tall black hat … Once on board, he removed his robes and hat and looked a totally different person, a smallish bald man with a moustache and a mass of beard.  … sat across from me, so I had a good view … watched, fascinated, as he dressed and tidied up when the plane taxied to the terminal … He diligently and carefully combed his white moustache and beard.  He stood up to put his black robes over his white clothes, then his gold chain with a big medallion, and then carefully placed his hat on his head.  An aide brushed him down to remove any white flecks from his flowing black robes and handed him his archbishop’s staff, only then was His Beatitude Archbishop … ready to descend the steps in proper style for the waiting cameras …”


The most picky-picky teachers of English Language anywhere in the world would fall over each other to award “A” Grade to an essay simply because of this paragraph!


OKAY, a place: 

“We were greeted … then whisked into Lagos.  It looked like a city under siege … the Federal Palace Hotel … barbed wire and troops surrounded it.  No leader left the hotel throughout the two-day conference.”


[Lagos, and most of the big Nigeria always seems as if under siege, Mr. Lee, policemen asking for vehicle’ docs current and extinct … ! Yes, just like this 1960s view.]


Chief Festus [Okotieboh]:


“… Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa … gave us a banquet … Raja and I were seated opposite a hefty Nigerian, Chief Festus, their finance minister.  The conversation is still fresh in my mind.  He was going to retire soon … he had done enough for his country and now had to look after his business, a shoe factory.  As finance minister, he had imposed a tax on imported shoes so that Nigeria could make shoes.  Raja [Lee’s deputy] and I were incredulous.  Chief Festus had a good appetite that showed in his rotund figure, elegantly camouflaged in colorful Nigerian robes with gold ornamentation and a splendid cap.  I went to bed that night convinced that they were a different people playing to a different set of rules.”


[A very accurate reading of what has always obtained in Nigeria as “public service.”]


“Prime Minister Abubakar … was a tall, lean, and dignified figure with a slow, measured delivery … looked every inch a chief, a figure of quiet authority, in the flowing robes of the Hausas from Northern Nigeria.” [Emphases blogger’s.]

Also VERY correct reading of Sir Abubakar; also reminds me of “Mr. Quodle was a tall lean man …” from Grieve’s Book I English for Form I back in the 50s! 


Next, we’ll get the highlights from these books by this remarkable statesman of the 20th Century who met and grew close to many of the major actors of the last century, gaining insights into how they fashion their systems and borrowing AND improving on such to create Singapore as a first world country from a Third World country in half a century.


FRIDAY, JULY 19, 2013. 11:52: 20 a.m. [GMT]


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4 Comments on “Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore rose through the vision, tenacity & selflessness of a man who left nothing to chance – Tola Adenle”

  1. Adenle S.A. Says:




    • emotan77 Says:

      Dear Mr. Adenle,

      Thanks for this. I know, he may not be illiterate in the real sense of the word but he sure was out of step with 20th Century world. He did well for and by his country and that is the subject of the review and has earned a name for himself among 20th Century statesmen.




      • Joseph Cheung Says:

        Hi Tola,

        Glad to see your review of the two books and your reply to Adenle. Yes, I agree that LKW is a man for respect asmanaging a small country without much resources was so challenging. He (LYW) had implemented a lot according to his vision of what a great city nation should be equipped, in order to stay competitive and always ahead of other nations. Of course, for those who do not appreciate the necessities of all these actions in shaping the nation’s infrastructure, education, IT, economy, productivity, finance etc., and being able to sustain benefits for the future generations, they simply will try to discount his contribution by various means.

        Just seeing how Singapore overcame the recession of 1985, Asian Financial Crisis 1997 and Global Financial Crisis 2007, I would say Singapore demonstrated its capabilities in tackling challenges. While GDP, GDP per capita and GDP Growth Rate are positively moving upwards, and students’ educational ability tops many countries, infrastructure projects are planned to move ahead every year, Singapore is making missions impossible to be possible.

        Singaporeans should be proud of their country, their government and their leaders. Of course, there are always things that can be improved, but the leaders are setting the right priority so far. In terms of housing arrangements, managing unemployment, enhancing the CPF scheme, many of these never happen in other nations and not even in the short future of next 10 to 20 years.

        A united nation needs harmony, mutual respect and support is the key. Or else, there is no tomorrow.



      • emotan77 Says:

        Dear Joseph,

        First, accept my thanks for being one of those who have swelled the stats and reaches of my simple blog. I hope you’ll stick around!

        I agree entirely with your comments, especially as you are a lucky direct beneficiary and one on the ground at a place where the system puts in place by your earliest leaders not only works but seems being sustainable.

        Many would see Singapore as being in its enviable position because it is a small nation but there must be many like it around the world, especially Africa – the land of my birth – where natural resources are plenty but where selfishness, greed and lack of vision have reduced their peoples to beggars. Resources-rich Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo, etcetera, readily come to mind.

        The greatest tribute young generations and many still unborn can erect to Lee and his fellow pioneers is to ensure that your country remains a shining example not only to her Asian neighbors but to the entire world.

        Sincere regards,


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