Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore (2): A brief overview of the two-volume books on the Singapore man-made Miracle – Tola Adenle

July 28, 2013


“… ordinary calculations can be overturned by extraordinary personalities.  In the case of Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore’s emergence as a national state, the ancient argument whether circumstance or personality shapes events is settled in favor of the latter … 

“… By far the smallest country in Southeast Asia, Singapore seemed destined to become a client state of more powerful neighbors, if indeed it could preserve its independence at all …

“Lee Kuan Yew thought otherwise … [he] summoned his compatriots to a duty they had never previously perceived: first to clean up their city, then to dedicate it to overcome the initial hostility of their neighbors and their own ethnic divisions by superior performance.  The Singapore of today is his testament … “

Henry Kissinger in FOREWORD to From Third World to First, Singapore and the Asian Economy Boom by Lee Kuan Yew.

Books:  From Third World to First:  Singapore and the Asian Economic Boom;  2.  The Singapore Story:  Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew.

Author:   Lee Kuan Yew, Former & first Prime Minister of Singapore

Publishers:  HarperCollins And Singapore Press Holdings (Times Edition)

Prices:    US$18.00;  US$32.00

Two views of Singapore’s water-front, a century apart!


The Singapore’s Water-front, “about 1880” [Time Magazine, January 25, 1982]


The same water front [top photo], about a century later in 1982 [Time, January 25, 1982.]

This is the conclusion of the extraordinary transformation of a very poor, unwanted little Third World island populated by divergent ethnic groups.   It was told that it could not succeed but was turned into a mega – though still tiny First World nation by the vision, doggedness and sheer will of one of 20th Century’s top visionaries, aided by a few good men AND a citizenry that was determined it should listen to a man that appeared to be its messiah.

This write-up will just touch a few area that should be of interest to Nigerians and Africans in general about why these two books would be very useful read for political leaders and top civil servants in developing countries; Nigeria has several award-winning corruption medals.

The areas are:  forging a nation out of a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual groups of people, combating corruption, cleaning the environment and leading by example.  This is something that governors of Yorubaland can start as a joint project under the “Southwest Integration” plan.  The governors can get these books read by their top aides, political appointees AND top civil servants who, perhaps, most need an infrastructural change of mind-set.

If I am a rich person, I would buy hundreds of copies of the two books or, better still, get the rights to have Nigerian editions published and distribute them FREE.

This is, therefore, by no means, a regular literary review; I’d call it “lessons for any developing country serious about becoming a nation, mobilizing its citizens into one cohesive unit that believe in a common destiny and working assiduously to do away with profligacy, corruption and dirty environment.

In short, this is a sort of short Epistle to Nigerians in particular, especially those at the top who need the books not for themselves alone but for those close to them in governance.

Forging a Nation from a multi-ethnic & multi-lingual groups

The prosperous (sort of) homogenous Singapore of today was not always that way.  Despite its small size in case we start thinking Singapore’s small size aided its integration, Malays distrusted the more prosperous and huge Chinese community, there were Indians and Tamil – each group running its own language schools while the British overlords “provided a limited number of English Language schools to train people to be clerks, storekeepers … and such subordinate workers …” just as in all its former territories and the Chinese could not care less about the others.  As the different races were taught in their own languages, LKY saw “their emotional attachment to their mother tongue was deep”.

What to do?  He and his colleagues decided in 1959 that Malay, the native tongue, would best prepare them to merge with Malaya in a federation where they were later simply told to leave the union!  The Chinese community, to which he belonged as well as Indians and Tamils, were settler communities.

Four official languages – Malay, Chinese (Mandarin), Tamil and English which became the language of business – were in effect.

As in most things, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) who knew this “polyglot community” was not going to work, led by example:

She[his wife, Choo] saw the price I paid for not having mastered Mandarin when I was young. We decided to send all three children to Chinese kindergarten and schools.

She made sure they learned English and Malay well at home. Her nurturing has equipped them for life in a multi-lingual region. – Part of LKY’s eulogy at Mrs. Lee’s funeral;


“… We remedied this by having Choo speak to them in English while I spoke to them in Mandarin, to improve my Mandarin!” – Chapter 11: Many Tongues, One Language – From Third World to First.

LKY had the most opposition from his own community, the Chinese-Singaporeans who would want nothing but have Chinese take the number one position among the languages; after all, they were about 80% of the population.  LKY would have none of it, and confronted not only angry parents but “Chinese teachers’ unions, Chinese school management committees, Chinese newspaper owners, journalists, leaders of clan associations, and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.”  His strong anti-Communist stance that was unrelated to the language/culture issue was twisted to mean anti-Chinese and he knew to whom the “pseudo foreigners who forget their ancestors” the Chinese community put-down was directed at.

Not once did he go the route that most leaders in developing/Third World countries with multi-lingual and multi-ethnic groups – like Nigeria – would normally go:  exploit, whenever necessary, ethnocentricity for selfish political gains.  He kept his eyes firmly on the goal of forging a nation out of the various ethnic nationalities that made up his tiny country without succumbing to the Chinese pressure group despite their prosperity, power and largest number in the population.  Even when many of his colleagues thought government should give in, LKY saw the bigger picture of educational qualifications that were received in only Chinese language as being a sure path to un-employable university graduates of the future.  Lacking natural resources meant the country would have to chart a path, first to survival and, hopefully, prosperity through the service industry and manufacturing which would require a highly-educated work force.

The policy of “Many Tongues, One Language” is one of the main reasons why Singapore was able to have “many of the world’s multinational and over 200 of the world’s top banks in Singapore.”

In the end, LKY won – Singapore and Singaporeans won – and a nation was born.

Nigeria may have one official language but the distrust of other groups and the lopsided arrangement of the so-called “federal” system have never and WILL NEVER bring about a Nigerian Nation unless these contentious issues are ironed out by the people at a referendum following a National Conference – sovereign or otherwise – at which the kind of union desired will be spelt out and agreed upon.  The occasional “amendments” of Constitution by a body consisting of many who do not know why they are in the legislature, those who know but are ready to deal, and those who cannot grasp the implications of their voting make it impossible that Nigeria will not only forever fail the “nation” test but may eventually implode and disintegrate. 

A sense of belonging and of wanting the same things precede nation-building, and until that is first fostered and developed – it does not matter that we are a huge country – Nigeria will never become a nation, just a motley assembly of nationalities with each jostling for power to control the center where the spoils lie.

The man who led by example

A man who seemed to be running for a place in the History of his country  – and the world –  from Day One, LKY could never be faulted for any step he took because he did not do anything unless it was in Singapore’s interest.  His doing what he asks of others came in handy in the language brouhaha because while Chinese-Singaporeans at the head of the opposition sent their kids to English Language schools, the Lee’s three kids  attended Chinese Language elementary and high schools until they entered the university.  Parents saw through his honesty and earnestness, and eventually fell in line.

Anything he asked of others: being squeaky clean of corruption, working hard, not wasting funds and resources, he did more than others.

Lee led by example in getting Singapore clean

Cleaning up Singapore

In the top picture, LKY joins others as was his usual custom, to clean up Singapore.  He was unforgiving and unrelenting in doing everything and anything to keep his small city-state sparkling clean much to the chagrin of First World Press whose cities he had set as standards Singapore must attain but which saw his efforts as ridiculous, especially the chewing gum ban; LKY, they were all agreed, ran a “nanny state”!

No spitting in public, no littering, no cigarette-smoking in public and using himself as a role model, he stopped his 20-sticks-a-day habit, no gum-chewing, etcetera and about three decades ago, an American kid got caught committing what was a crime in Singapore!  It was not just the chewing but sticking the remnants everywhere in sight, including the doorways of the trains.  Even though Lee had then stepped down as Prime Minister, the man at the helm introduced a ban in 1992.  It was the time the American kid got caught and there was uproar in the West.

Singapore has had an annual Tree Planting Day since 1971 – that is over 40 years of non-stop waging a war against an aspect of environmental degradation.

I must mention that his encounter with a spittoon at China’s highest level made his historical cousins do away with such or, perhaps, restrict the behavior to their homes as none was in sight on a subsequent visit to the same leader.

LKY’s vision:  “…The physical infrastructure was easier to improve than the rough and ready ways of the people.  Many of them had moved from shanty huts with a hole in the ground or a bucket in an outhouse to highrise apartments with modern sanitation, but their behavior remained the same.  We had to work hard to be rid of littering, noise nuisance … get people to be considerate …”

“… Thousands would sell cooked food on the pavements and streets in total disregard of traffic, health, or other considerations.  The resulting litter and dirt, the stench of rotting food, and the clutter … turned many parts of the city into slums”! [Exclamation mine.]

In one instance, LKY’s government saw to it that “Five thousand street vendors of cooked food and market produce had to go into properly designed centers.  Accustomed to doing business on the road rent-free and easily accessible to customers, they resisted moving to centers where they would have to pay rent and water and electricity charges.  We gently but firmly moved them and subsidized their rentals … [Emphasis mine.]

And LKY cleaned up the whole place, relocating and giving the people a sense of pride in their surroundings. 

LKY is writing about Nigeria, biko/tabi/please, isn’t he?  It was late Tai Solarin who once said something to the effect that “every inch of the Nigerian soil has been defecated upon” and I can add, “every available five feet have become cooked food stalls with plastic sheeting as roof!  Before they were sent packing, the Government House Area, Ibadan was already hosting cow-tail hawkers, yam sellers who used to carry the stuff around on their heads but suddenly started Iso – spots of selling.  Now, government has had to expend money to make metal picket fences around the area before the pepper grinders and others move in!

Here in Nigeria – in most of the cases that I know – these street urban traders would be driven off without being offered alternative trading places.  Worse, the traders would be hounded for bribes as have become the lot of many Ibadan small traders who need the state governor to rein in the foot soldiers of his laudable urban renewal effort. 

There are instances when women I’ve gone to great pains to interview tell me that they are asked by government to rent shops at expensive shopping centers that they cannot afford.As we all can appreciate, it is a tough job but it has to be done. 

I’m one of those who want an end put to the terrorism of sorts waged on pedestrians by street traders who take over sidewalks AND portions of roads to display their wares.  Nowhere is sacred or out of bounds.  About two decades ago, a woman started frying akara near the junction of Osuntokun and the Bodija International School but it took some visits to send her packing! 

As government’s MAIN duty is to give service to people thereby making citizens’ lives a little easier and better, small markets – no matter how far removed from their original trading spots, as well as major ones, SHOULD BE made available by governments for dislocated traders so that the poverty of our people does not get worse.  

As LKY tells us about Singaporeans above, people’s old habits tend to die too slowly.  The infrastructure of the mind – so to say – is difficult to mend but every effort needs to be made not to allow over-zealous environmental workers become bullies who add to the people’s misery and basic problem of poverty. 

A Statesman who met just about all 20th Century’s top Statesmen

The Lees_0001

LKY and Chairman Mao, 1976 at Beijing and Choo, Lee’s wife who also attended Cambridge, greets Deng Xiaoping while LKY greets Deng’s wife in Singapore, 1978.


Fighting corruption:  LKY made Singapore walk the straight and narrow path – and won!

“Human ingenuity is infinite when translating power and discretion into personal gain.” – Lee, on “Keeping the Government clean.”

“Nobody can fight Nigeria’s corruption” a common sleazy saying goes around here but it can be fought if Nigeria gets a single individual with the will.

“The ancient argument whether circumstance or personality shapes events is settled in favor of the latter” says Kissinger in the foreword to LKY’s memoir As corruption seems embeded in the human brain EVERYWHERE and not just in Nigeria, let’s take a look at the system that LKY met as Singapore’s first PM and how he tackled it. 

“The most effective change we made in 1960 was to allow the courts to treat proof that an accused was living beynd his or her means or had property his or her income could not explain as corroborating evidence that the accused had accepted or obtained a bribe.”  [Emphasis mine.]

The SignpostsIn 1963, summoned witnesses before the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) set up in 1952 by the British MUST appear.

In 1989, corruption fine was increased from Singapore $10,000 to S$100,000.

Giving false or misleading information to the CPIB became an offense subject to imprisonment or S$10,000.

In 1971, “the CPIB broke up a syndicate of over 250 mobile squad policemen who received payments … S$5.00 to S$10.00 per month from truck owners” with recognizable addresses on the trucks!

Customs officers would receive bribes to speed up the checking of vehicles smuggling in prohibited goods.

Also, bribes for:  hastening issue of permits; clerks of works allow short-piling; clearing refuse; principals and teachers for stationery supplies – all of these organized racked LKY says were “not too difficult to clean up.”

Se e ngbo?/ U na dey hear?/Are you listening!

The biggies:  “opportunistic acts”, Trade Union leader, ministers, etcetera were more difficult, e.g. bribes from airline manufacturer, but Singapore did it, and got rid of MOST corruption that by 1997, it ranked least corrupt in Asia ahead of Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan by World’s Competitiveness Yearbook 1997.  Transparency International ranked Singapore 7th internationally in 1998 for absence of corruption.

The percentage, kickback, baksheesh, slush … is a way of life in Asia:  people openly accept it as a part of their culture … The higher they are, the bigger their homes and more numerous their wives, concubines or mistresses, all bedecked in jewelry appropriate to the power and position of their men.  Singaporeans who do business in these countries have to take care not to bring home such practices.” LKY on Keeping the Government Clean”.

A Singaporean Minister – like most Asians – committed suicide on being found out about a bribe “to allow a development company retain part of its land which had been earmarked for compulsory government acquisition, and in the second to assist a developer in the purchase of land for private development…”

The honor point?  Teh Chean Wan’s widow told LKY when he went to visit her and view the body:  “She asked if it as possible not to have a coroner’s inquiry … Inevitably there was a coroner’s inquiry that found he had taken his life with a massive overdose of sodium amytal …”

After a commission of inquiry demanded by the opposition was accompanied by more painful publicity for the widow and daughter, they soon left Singapore and never returned.

There was a time in old Nigeria when honor was important, at least in the environment and time where I grew up. It is the basis of Ko b’omo je – something like if an action you’ve performed or something you’ve done would destroy your family’s name, you take the hemlock because people cared about their honor. 

I knew of a well-placed Yoruba man several years ago whose death was rumored to be suicide because he got caught in a most-untoward incident and his inner circle told him he must die by his own hands! I also read a newspaper interview a few years ago in which one of the Enahoros told his interviewer how a man in his Lagos neighborhood was so despondent when a health inspector of old cited him to appear in court.  Mr. Enahoro said the man was almost reduced to tears because he said “nobody in my family ever did anything to necessitate a court appearance!”

Today?  First of all, the wolewole health inspector – would demand money to cancel the citation and even if he had to appear in court, it would mean nothing as going to jail no longer carries any stigma in Nigeria.  After all, former governor, Mr. Alamisiegha who skipped detention in the  UK dressed in drag where he had been awaiting trial for money laundering, was later tried and convicted in Nigeria for corruption.   When the press and society cried out about his continued closeness to Aso Rock, Nigeria’s Presidential Villa drew a so-what kind of reaction from the president.

The will to fight corruption seems totally lacking and missing in Nigeria.

And one final thing I must mention here as a conclusion although it belongs in the category of “forging a nation …” is that nothing escapes LKY’s eagle eyes and very sharp mind.  Here is his opinion on Nigeria that strengthens my belief that has been stated often in my writings:  without Nigeria becoming a nation, it’s not going to make it.  Worse is the pessimism of this incurable optimist that Nigeria seems set never to attain nationhood but I would be glad to have those words thrown back at me before I cross to the other side of the Great Divide:

“I was not optimistic about Africa.  In less than 10 years after independence … Nigeria has had a coup and Ghana a failed coup … I thought their tribal loyalties were stronger than their sense of common nationhood.  This was especially so in Nigeria where there was a deep cleavage between the Muslim Hausa northerners and the Christian and pagan southerners.  As in Malaysia, the British had handed power, especially the army and police, to the Muslims.  In Ghana, without this north-south divide, the problem was less acute .

SUNDAY, JULY 28, 2013.  3: 05:02 p.m. [GMT]

, , ,


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

6 Comments on “Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore (2): A brief overview of the two-volume books on the Singapore man-made Miracle – Tola Adenle”


    its well with this nation Nigeria ! leadership and vision our problem as a nation state.



  2. emotan77 Says:

    From my tolaadenle@emotanafricana.com

    I can understand why Madam has high praise for Lee Kuan Yew, and why she is so ardently enthusiastic of Singapore success story as to urge Nigerian leaders (and ourselves too) to, at least, leaf through Lee’s memoirs, and then act accordingly. Take for example, Deng Xiaoping, the reformist leader of the Communist Party of China who, after Mao’s death led China towards a market economy, made his first and only visit to Singapore in 1978. What he saw on that visit, as reported in the Forbes (Jul 15, 2013, p. 1) changed the course of economic policy in China. Deng was so inspired that when he returned home, he decided to form four special economic zones, which he opened to foreign investment and world trade. These zones prospered, and more were subsequently opened and today China is better off for that singular visit. Although Lee’s new book, One Man’s View of the World, is yet to come to hand, having drilled down to Singapore global economic milestones, as highlighted below, I could see that Lee’s emphasis on “competent government” and “social cohesion” is very essential when it comes to governing a country to success. That, no matter the size of the country, honest and dedicated leaders can only produce honest and dedicated citizens and that, for such a country, the sky is the limit, no matter what the odds.

    Highlight of Singapore Global Economic Milestones:

    · One of the world’s top three oil export refining centres;
    · World’s 3rd largest oil and oil products trading hub;
    · World’s busiest transhipment port and 2nd busiest port in terms of total shipping tonnage;
    · Singapore accounts for 10% of the world’s wafer starts and 40% of the global hard disk media are manufactured there;
    · Singapore is the largest manufacturer of jack-up rigs, commanding 70% of the world market;
    · Singapore has 70% of the global market for the conversions of the floating production storage offloading units;
    · Singapore is recognised as a ‘Global Hydrohub’ with more than 70 companies in a vibrant water industry ecosystem;
    · Singapore is ranked by the World Bank as the No. 1 logistics hub amongst 155 countries globally in the 2012 Logistics Performance Index;
    · Leading aviation hub in Asia-Pacific, contributing more than 25% of the region’s maintenance, repair and overhaul output.

    AO Ajetunmobi



  3. Fatai Bakare Says:

    Well, do I call this reviewing the reviewer which in all honesty I may not be competent enough to do as I do not belong to the literary world! Having said this, the pieces you put together are enough to spur one to want to get the hard copies to read and keep in the library for future references. It could also be recommended to our today’s and future policy makers.

    Thanks for the opportunity.



    • emotan77 Says:

      Dear Fatai,

      Thanks for this. Far from good web access this whole week up till early next week.

      Great feedback, first of all. From Third World to First …” is actually a paperback edition though around 700 pages while Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography is a hardback and is also around 700 pages. I’m sure you can get the memoirs in the UK there as the one I ordered through AMAZON is a Times publication but you can get both through AMAZON.

      I agree; both books would be good for policy makers as well as politicians and top civil servants.

      Sincere regards, as always.



Leave comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.