Thank you PM Lee Hsien Loong

20 years as Singapore’s Prime Minister: 2004-2024

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's interview with Singapore media ahead of the leadership transition

‘Singapore will be in good hands under the 4G team’: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, after chairing final Cabinet meeting
By Ang Qing, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

After 20 years of weekly Cabinet meetings that soldiered on even during the Covid-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has led his last meeting.

Commemorating the moment in a Facebook post on May 9, PM Lee thanked his colleagues for their steadfast support during the meetings, which had continued through the pandemic via teleconferencing.

PM Lee said: “It has been my privilege to lead my Cabinet team for the past 20 years.

“In Cabinet, the prime minister is primus inter pares – not the boss with his subordinates, but the first among equals, all deliberating together to find the best solutions for Singapore.”

PM Lee said: “From next week, PM Lawrence Wong will take charge in Cabinet meetings, but I will continue to contribute as senior minister.

“Singapore will be in good hands under the 4G team, and I am ready to support the new team in their work for Singapore’s success.”

In a separate Facebook post the same day, DPM Wong expressed gratitude for Mr Lee’s service and leadership.

DPM Wong said: “As I prepare to take over the baton, I am also grateful for the support of my colleagues. I will work closely with them, to harness fully the strengths of the team, and to take Singapore forward. I will share more details about the new Cabinet line-up next week.”

Earlier, on May 8, Mr Lee was gifted a personalised cake by the female People’s Action Party MPs to mark his final sitting in Parliament as Singapore’s third prime minister.

The cake, designed with pastry chef Herve Potus from Shangri-La Singapore, honoured PM Lee’s two decades helming Singapore by reflecting an assortment of his favourite items. These included a variety of Nonya kueh, a bowl of mee siam, a Peranakan table runner, and books on mathematics, coding, technology and politics.

DPM Wong, who entered politics 13 years ago, will be sworn in at 8pm at the Istana as Singapore’s fourth prime minister.

PM Lee presented with ‘mee siam’ cake on his last day of Parliament as Prime Minister
By Chin Hui Shan, The Straits Times, 8 May 2024

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was presented with a personalised 3D cake after Parliament adjourned on May 8, marking his final sitting in the house as prime minister.

In a Facebook post, West Coast GRC MP Rachel Ong said: “Today being PM Lee’s last Parliament sitting as PM, we invited all members of Parliament to a tea for PM. The PAP Women MPs got PM a cake to show our appreciation for all he has done.”

Designed together with pastry chef Herve Potus from Shangri-La Singapore to honour PM Lee’s two decades of leadership, the cake reflected a selection of PM Lee’s favourite items such as a variety of Nonya kueh, a bowl of mee siam, a Peranakan table runner, and an assortment of books on mathematics, coding, technology and politics.

The cake was also decorated with words “Kamsiah PM”, or “thank you PM” in Hokkien.

It also sported a “Table 72” tag – a nod to PM Lee’s age in 2024 – and a device displaying his post on his 12th anniversary of starting his social media journey with previously unreleased photos taken by him.

“Thank you, Prime Minister, for your exceptional leadership. We are grateful that you will continue to serve as Senior Minister,” Ms Ong added in her post.

In a Facebook post, PM Lee thanked the female People’s Action Party MPs for the “impressive” cake and said that it has been an eventful 40 years in Parliament, with 20 of them as prime minister, where he has overseen and participated in many substantial debates.

“I thank all MPs, NMPs and NCMPs, past and present, for your contributions to robust and serious debates in Parliament,” he said, adding that this is not the last time he will be in Parliament, and he will continue serving as an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC.

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong will assume the role of prime minister on May 15.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is always focused on doing what is best for Singapore: Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong go a long way back, when both served in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). They also worked together in Cabinet for 30 years, from when Mr Goh Chok Tong was prime minister.

As PM Lee prepares to hand over the reins to the fourth-generation leaders on May 15, SM Teo spoke in an interview on what it has been like working with him for more than 40 years.

Always looking to improve things

PM Lee has always been earnest and “a little bit nerdy”, and was always looking to improve things, said SM Teo.

Both men were SAF scholars in the 1970s, with PM Lee two years SM Teo’s senior.

When PM Lee was an artillery officer, he used a Hewlett-Packard HP-41 programmable handheld calculator to sort out, in a more convenient form, the ballistic tables for guns, recalled SM Teo.

Trusts his team to do their job

As a leader, PM Lee is one who leaves his ministers to do their job, said SM Teo. He added that in the ministries he ran, he hardly had to go back to PM Lee for decisions.

Shortly after the Little India riot in 2013 that was sparked by a fatal accident in Race Course Road, PM Lee had to go on a trip and left SM Teo, who was then deputy prime minister, to handle the situation.

During that time, SM Teo would provide a summary of the situation and actions to be taken. “And, of course, he was in the loop, and he just left it to me. So from that point of view, he is very good at letting his team members get on with the job, but he keeps in touch with what is going on,” said SM Teo.

“That is the way he likes to work with other ministers as well. That means, you know what your responsibilities are, and you get on with the job, but you also know when to ask and when to raise issues. And when to ask for a consultation,” added SM Teo.

Focused on what is best for Singapore

PM Lee was always very clear about his mission, which is to do what is best for the country, said SM Teo.

“That is what he is always very focused on; it is very clear that that is his responsibility, the best for the country, the best for improving the lives of Singaporeans, whether protecting their lives during Covid-19 or improving their lives, as in normal times,” he added.

Unlike in some other countries, political survival was not PM Lee’s principal consideration, said SM Teo.

After deciding on a policy, PM Lee would try to understand the politics and shape it in a way that is fair, then try to persuade Singaporeans to accept it, said SM Teo.

Listens to other views

PM Lee may have his own views on things, but will listen carefully to what others have to say, said SM Teo.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, he listened to not just what the ministers had to say, but also what the doctors, unions and others from the social sector, for instance, had to say.

“He has got strong views of his own... but he takes time to listen to others. And to take the views in before he decides,” added SM Teo.

It is not uncommon for PM Lee to get impatient when things are not moving as fast as he hopes, but he is very focused on solving the problem and typically moves on quickly from frustration to solutions, said SM Teo.

He added that over the years, PM Lee has become better at managing people and understanding human nature.

“I have seen him learn and grow in these two areas. He has become more patient. He listens more,” said SM Teo.

38 Oxley Road dispute among most painful moments

The passing of PM Lee’s father, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and the subsequent events that happened with their family home in Oxley Road were a difficult time for PM Lee, said SM Teo.

“It was very painful for him. Especially that very open disagreement over Oxley Road,” he added.

But PM Lee was able to separate the personal from his responsibilities as prime minister, and do what was right for the country by recusing himself from decisions on the house, said SM Teo.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling had accused PM Lee, their elder brother, of abusing his power over 38 Oxley Road. He later rebutted their allegations in a ministerial statement in Parliament.

PM Lee’s approach throughout was to be as open and transparent about the matter as possible, and that was why he went to Parliament, SM Teo said.

He added that PM Lee had been consistent in his behaviour throughout the episode, and dealt with the matter in the way in which he dealt with all other issues, added SM Teo.

“He separated his personal issues from issues which affect the state and the country. That was what he did. And he did it in a very proper way,” he said.

Mastery of detail

Another trait of PM Lee is that he has an enormous capacity for detail, and for the nitty-gritty of issues.

“He really doesn’t need and shouldn’t need to go into detail in everything. But if he wants to, he can, he has got a tremendous capacity,” said SM Teo.

To allow PM Lee to focus on the major issues, his ministers will typically try to sort out the details, SM Teo added.

When there are major trade-offs or differences of view, the ministers will have to identify very clearly what those are to discuss them with him, he said.

‘I am stepping down as Prime Minister but I am not stopping work!’: PM Lee
By Anjali Raguraman, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 May 2024

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that while he is stepping down from his role soon, he will continue to remain in the Government and serve as an MP.

Singapore will have a new prime minister from May 15, when Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong takes over the role.

Noting that several people had wished him a happy retirement, PM Lee clarified in a Facebook post on May 7 that he is not retiring.

PM Lee said that over the past few weeks, he had received messages of appreciation and encouragement, with many sharing stories of how their lives have “improved from various government policies, and the immense pride you feel as Singaporeans”.

He added: “Nation-building is not an easy task, and we would not have been able to achieve so much over the decades without your loyal support. I am very moved to hear how many of you are giving back to your community, and contributing to our society in your own ways.”

He said he also received messages from non-Singaporeans living or working here.

Addressing them, he said: “I am glad you have found this a safe, happy country to live in, where you can find good jobs, bring up your families safely, and contribute to our economy and society.”

In a valedictory speech at the May Day Rally on May 1, PM Lee said he felt “a sense of satisfaction and completeness” as he prepared to hand over Singapore in good order to his successor.

DPM Wong, who entered politics 13 years ago, will be Singapore’s fourth prime minister. He will be sworn in at 8pm on May 15 at the Istana.

Keeping Singapore special
By Sumiko Tan, Executive Editor, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2024

Mr Lee Hsien Loong struck all the right notes at his first major appearance as prime minister in 2004.

In his three-hour speech at the National Day Rally, he was by turns candid and convincing, self-deprecating and inspiring, as he rallied his audience to get behind his leadership.

He seemed to be aware that he had a reputation for being tough, for he said at one point: “I know that some Singaporeans worry that new PM, maybe very fierce and may push Singaporeans to run even faster.”

But his demeanour – eyes twinkling behind his glasses and a face that lit up easily with smiles – signalled that maybe he wasn’t going to be that stern a prime minister after all.

Observers who had expected a cautious maiden speech were surprised when he broached controversial topics like the proposal to have a casino, as he heralded a more open Singapore.

“This is not just a change of the PMs. It’s a generational change to the post-independence generation,” he declared.

He gamely poked fun at past policies. Recounting how he had seen young people outside the Esplanade drawing pictures on the pavements with chalk, he said, laughing: “I thought to myself – 15 years ago, we might have caned them, but today, we have… Mica (Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts). So, I think that we have changed.”

Mr Lee, 72, the elder son of Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, entered politics in 1984 when he was 32. He came with a reputation for being formidably clever, but also demanding and impatient.

Quickly, he rose to helm the tough ministries of Defence, Trade and Industry, and Finance, becoming deputy prime minister in 1990.

The story goes that civil servants devised a way to gauge his mood in his early years in government.

When a document that had been submitted to him returned with his response, officers would nervously run their fingers over the back of the paper where he had scribbled his notes.

If the indentations were deep, chances were he was unhappy. If light, well, all was good.

“In the early days, he could be rough on people, which didn’t endear him,” recalls a retired senior civil servant. “But he was also open and prepared to give you a second hearing and let you try again.”

From early on, Mr Lee had roles in making key decisions about the economy.

In 1985, he was assigned to chair the Economic Committee which helped steer Singapore out of the recession, including making the unpopular decision of cutting employer Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions from 25 per cent to 10 per cent to restore business competitiveness.

In 2001, he led the Economic Review Committee, tasked with restructuring the economy. Foreseeing how the country needed to become a knowledge-based economy, it called on Singapore to promote innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, and to deregulate and liberalise the economy.

These remained the lodestar even while the nation had to battle the impact of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, virus in 2003.

Unbeknown to the public at that time, he had also worked closely with then Law Minister S. Jayakumar on many major legal and constitutional issues, especially the White Papers on the elected president and safeguarding reserves, and the White Paper on proposed legislation on maintenance of religious harmony.

“Although he was not a lawyer, he could hold his own in any discussion on legal matters with officials from the Ministry of Law or Attorney-General’s Chambers,” says Professor Jayakumar.

“He has a sharp, analytical mind and a prodigious memory of events and things done, said, or written years back. He has the ability to grasp the big picture and yet has a penetrating eye for details. Furthermore, he is decisive – an important quality for any leader.”

By the time Mr Lee succeeded Mr Goh Chok Tong to become Singapore’s third prime minister, he was already 52, a young senior in today’s parlance, but full of vim and vigour. Time seemed to have smoothed out the sharp edges.

In that maiden rally speech in 2004, Mr Lee painted a vision of a Singapore brimming with promise and opportunity, and pledged to relook policies to get Singaporeans there. To begin, he announced several crowd-pleasing changes.

In education, where his Government would make heavy investments, nearly 3,000 more teachers would be added to schools, and the teaching of mother tongue languages would be adapted to take into account individual ability.

Paid maternity leave would be raised from eight to 12 weeks, and medical benefits for dependants in the civil service – then applicable only to the families of male civil servants – would be extended to female civil servants.

The change that drew the loudest applause was to move the civil service from a 5½-day working week to a five-day one.

In a report on his speech, a Straits Times columnist quoted a 26-year-old fellow journalist as saying: “Whether it’s sincere or he’s just more politically savvy on how to get buy-in from the younger generation, I haven’t felt this optimistic about this country in quite a while.”

On the possibility of a casino, Mr Lee said it would attract tourists and earn welcome revenue for Singapore that might otherwise go elsewhere. Ways would be found to protect Singaporeans from the ills of gambling, he promised.

“It’s not black and white,” he said. “It’s looking for an appropriate middle way where we can have our cake and also eat most of it.”

This far-sighted pragmatism was to be a hallmark of his 20-year premiership.

“The Government is not ideological. We are pragmatic,” he said during the debate on the President’s Address in 2018.

“We will try anything which works. We will learn from our own experience, and the experience of others. But we must also be realistic. Spot what looks promising, but please also recognise what will not work.”

A pragmatic approach enabled Singapore to respond nimbly in a world that was becoming more complex.

Mr Lee led Singapore through the threat of terrorism, the emergence of social media, the hardening of rivalry between the US and China, and rising trade protectionism. The deepest crises were arguably the global financial crisis of 2008 and the Covid-19 pandemic that began in 2020.

The island of 730 sq km with a resident population of around four million had to work hard not to be engulfed by global events.

“Singapore will always be a small country in an uncertain and sometimes dangerous world,” Mr Lee said at the S. Rajaratnam Lecture in 2015.

It is surrounded by bigger neighbours and located in a diverse region where the interests of large powers intersect.

“We still have no natural resources, only our wits and the foreign reserves which we have laboriously built up to see us through difficult times. These truths are very unlikely to change for a very long time.”

Dynamic balance

Mr Lee once described his domestic policies as a “dynamic balance” between free-market economics and social security.

A vibrant economy is crucial for the Government to be able to fund programmes to improve lives. In turn, social policies that level up, such as skills upgrading and housing subsidies, support economic growth.

Like his two predecessors, Mr Lee was haunted by the precarious nature of Singapore’s success.

“We have been successful precisely because we have not taken success for granted,” he said in a speech to the Economic Society of Singapore in 2012.

“Our sense of vulnerability, and consciousness of the competition we face, are important parts of the Singapore psyche.”

Only by Singapore being a global city can Singaporeans enjoy a quality of life comparable to those in advanced countries, and a country where their children can look forward to better lives than they had.

“But being near the front also means we must have a successful, growing economy. There is no other way we can achieve this,” he argued.

“We cannot do it by spending what we have inherited from the older generation. We certainly cannot do it by pumping oil or gas from the ground. We can only do it if our economy is prospering and creating wealth that we can invest in our city and our people, to make life better for all of us.”

Changi Airport strives to be the best airport in the world – not the second-best, he pointed out.

“Singapore too must aim to be outstanding. If we are content to just be above average in the league of cities, we will fail. That is the greatest danger if we tell ourselves to slow down, enjoy life today and not worry about tomorrow.”

He acknowledged that some Singaporeans would prefer slower growth, even growth below the economy’s potential.

“They argue that we already have enough material success, and should give less weight to economic factors, and more to social considerations. And that we should spend more on ourselves, and put aside less for the future,” he said.

“I respect their views. I agree fully that material goals are not everything in life. But we are not going for growth at all costs, nor have we done so. Growth is not an end in itself, but a means to improve our lives and achieve our goals.”

In 2004, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was about US$27,600. By 2023, it had grown to about US$84,700. In 2004, median monthly income from employment was $2,326. By 2023, it had more than doubled to $5,197. Headline inflation has averaged 2.08 per cent since 2003.

Inclusive shift

Singapore’s social policies have evolved over time.

The priorities of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s government were to modernise the economy, build an army, provide basic housing and educate a young and largely impoverished population.

In the 1990s, Mr Goh’s government continued the emphasis on economic growth. But income inequality was growing and he introduced targeted schemes to narrow the gap, such as Edusave funds that could be used for education, CPF top-ups and a New Singapore Shares scheme.

By the time Mr Lee took on the top job, “the needle had moved”, says Professor Danny Quah, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“It had moved away from that traditional growth model to, what are we going to do about taking care of the weaker and vulnerable people in society, what are we going to do about income inequality, social mobility, the environment?” Prof Quah says.

“In the early years, social mobility was about bringing everybody up. By the time you came to Lee Hsien Loong, are people at the bottom rising appropriately even as the very rich get richer at the top, so that talent and resilience continue to strengthen across the board and everyone shares in the gains from economic progress? The question had changed.”

Mr Lee launched the ComCare Fund in 2005 to provide social assistance to low-income Singaporeans. “We must do all we can to help lower-income Singaporeans and their dependants break out of the poverty trap,” he said at its launch. “No needy family who is prepared to work hard towards self-reliance will be left hungry.”

In his 2007 National Day Rally speech, he spoke about the income gap and its impact on education, ageing and housing. It was a problem faced by other developed economies, he said, as wages at the bottom failed to keep up with those on top. Many of those left in the lurch were the elderly.

The first overall strategy was to grow the economy and generate the resources to tackle the problems of those in need, he said. “Without resources, you can talk, you can sympathise, you can feel the pain, you can’t solve the problem.”

At the lower end of the job ladder, training and skills upgrading, and job redesign could help low-income workers get better jobs that paid more.

At the top, taxes must be such that Singapore could continue to attract talent, and in the middle, policies must enable the vast majority of Singaporeans “to move ahead along many paths”, with home ownership the best form of social welfare.

The introduction of the Workfare Income Supplement scheme in 2007 is often seen as a milestone in social security. It tops up the salaries of lower-income workers to help them save for retirement.

Even then, Workfare kept in line with the Government’s hard-nosed emphasis on individual responsibility. You had to work before you got help.

“If you make the effort, we will help make your life better,” was how Mr Lee put it at the National Day Rally in 2007.

In the early 2010s, more schemes were rolled out to ensure people were not left behind.

In the 2012 Budget speech titled “An Inclusive Society, A Stronger Singapore”, then Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced, among other things, a permanent GST Voucher scheme for lower- and middle-income Singaporean households, and a Silver Housing Bonus to give seniors a cash bonus when they downsized to a smaller flat.

The Budget was a “major shift”, Mr Lee said at his rally that year.

“We are not just spending more, but we are setting a new strategic direction for Singapore and laying the basis for stronger social safety nets which will stand the test of the next couple of decades,” he said.

Investing in education was one such safety net. Among other things, pre-school education would be boosted. A Progressive Wage Model to systematically help workers in low-wage jobs earn more through better skills and higher productivity would also be rolled out.

He laid out the Government’s new way forward more clearly at his 2013 rally in a landmark speech.

The Government would “share the fruits of our progress with all Singaporeans and to level up the poor”, he said, as he acknowledged a strategic shift in the approach to nation-building.

Mr Lee said Singapore had been built on the efforts of the individual, community and state, with each playing complementary roles. The Government had created the conditions for a vibrant economy and for good jobs, investing heavily in Singaporeans through education, housing and healthcare “but keeping state welfare low and targeted, stringent”.

“Some people call this tough love, but it is tough love which has worked well,” he said.

But the world had changed.

“If we rely too heavily on the individual, their efforts alone will not be enough, especially among the vulnerable like the low-income families, like the elderly,” he said. “So we must shift the balance. The community and the Government will have to do more to support individuals.”

He gave three assurances to the country.

More would be done to give every citizen a fair share in the nation’s success and to raise the incomes and wealth of low-income Singaporeans. Social safety nets would be strengthened, especially in healthcare. More would also be done to keep the paths of progress upwards open for everyone.

Dr Gillian Koh, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, says that under Mr Lee, social support became more inclusive, uplifting and covered “the full life cycle” of Singaporeans. At the same time, people would share responsibility through co-payments.

“If we thought that Singapore was not a place of second chances in Lee Kuan Yew or Goh Chok Tong’s Singapore, then it certainly became one under Lee Hsien Loong,” she adds.

In the ensuing years, a slew of help schemes were rolled out, for education, healthcare, housing, and living expenses.

In education and childcare, the Government invested heavily in pre-schools. A KidStart programme offered childcare guidance to mothers, even before a baby was born.

Housing continued to be a big priority. To ensure affordability, all manner of targeted grants were conceived, including the Proximity Housing Grant that gave flat buyers up to $30,000 to live with or close to their parents.

The Government boasted that even among the bottom 10 per cent of the population, 84 per cent owned their own homes. At his rally in 2023, Mr Lee gave this assurance: “There will always be an HDB flat to meet every budget.”

In healthcare, MediShield, a basic health insurance plan, was replaced by MediShield Life in 2015. It covers people for life, regardless of their health conditions.

Three massive generational packages were unveiled to help meet the healthcare and retirement needs of an ageing population – the Pioneer Generation Package in 2013, the Merdeka Generation Package of 2019, and the Majulah Package in 2023.

In addition to Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model, there was the Silver Support Scheme to disburse more funds to low-wage workers, particularly seniors.

In Financial Year 2010, the Government’s social spending, which includes education and healthcare, amounted to $20 billion. It rose to $37 billion in FY2019 before the pandemic, and was $56 billion in FY2024.

Thank the reserves

In September 2000, the Government opened Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park, providing a space for free speech. After an early buzz, speakers and crowds at the downtown location near Chinatown thinned.

But on Oct 11, 2008, more than 1,000 people gathered at Speakers’ Corner, not to hear political speeches but to voice their anger at how financial products had wiped out their savings.

They accused the financial institutions that distributed products such as Lehman Minibonds and DBS High Notes 5 of having mis-sold these relatively high-risk instruments to investors who were elderly and less educated.

In all, about 10,000 retail investors in Singapore lost more than $500 million in structured investment products linked to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, an American investment bank. Ten financial institutions were ultimately penalised by the authorities and the industry became more tightly supervised.

Lehman’s bankruptcy in September 2008 accelerated the global financial crisis, which was primarily caused by the collapse of the housing market in the United States.

By the third quarter of 2008, its ripple effects had caused Singapore to go into a recession. Banks and companies cut or froze wages, stopped hiring, or resorted to shorter working hours and compulsory leave for their employees.

The crisis caused the Government to tap its past reserves for the first time, a move that needed the approval of President S R Nathan.

In 2008, up to $150 billion of past reserves was set aside to guarantee deposits in banks, finance companies and merchant banks licensed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. This was to give the banks in Singapore a level playing field with those in countries where the governments had introduced similar guarantees, although the money was not actually drawn.

In 2009, the Government also sought the President’s approval to draw down $4.9 billion from the past reserves to fund two one-off measures to boost the economy – the Jobs Credit Scheme and the Special Risk-Sharing Initiative.

The bulk of $4.5 billion went into the jobs scheme, which gave employers a cash grant to preserve jobs. The remaining amount was used to encourage banks to lend to companies.

The final amount drawn by the Government was $4 billion for the two schemes. The economy revived more quickly than expected, and the Government was to fully return the $4 billion by the end of its term.

In 2008, the Net Investment Returns framework was introduced to allow the Government to spend up to 50 per cent of the expected long-term real returns, including capital gains, on relevant assets.

Singapore’s reserves were to again provide a lifeline when it was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The Government sought the President’s approval to draw up to $69 billion from past reserves. In the end, it drew down about $40 billion.

“Our reserves were a tremendous advantage. It gave us confidence, and gave others confidence in us. We had the financial muscle to do everything we needed to do, without getting heavily into debt, unlike so many other countries,” Mr Lee told Parliament in 2024.

“Without the reserves, would we have dared to pre-order vaccines, even before they were tested and proven, and produced? Would we have been able to pay up to 75 per cent of salaries in the crisis, in the Jobs Support Scheme, to protect workers and to prevent companies from closing?”

Mr Lee was the voice of calm and reason during the dark years of Covid-19. At moments when Singaporeans felt especially overwhelmed, he stepped in to reassure them in a series of national broadcasts between 2020 and 2022.

As a result of the moves made to combat the pandemic and with the consent and cooperation of its people, by and large, Singapore was able to bounce back relatively quickly. As at December 2022, about 1,700 lives in Singapore had been lost to Covid-19.

A survey by American think-tank Pew in early 2022 found that 88 per cent of Singaporean respondents felt Singapore had dealt with the pandemic well. Seventy-five per cent said Singapore was more united than before the outbreak, and the same number said the country was effective in handling the virus, which showed the strengths of the political system.

Mr Lee’s management of the crisis demonstrated the strengths of his Government and his leadership.

Beyond the strong reserves built by generations of People’s Action Party (PAP) governments, Singaporeans trusted the Government enough to accept its decisions, from safe distancing to getting vaccinations.

Through the top talent inducted into public service, politicians and civil service leaders could be on the same page, and this brought a whole-of-government mindset to solving the crisis.

At the leadership level, Mr Lee allowed the new group of fourth-generation, or 4G, leaders to front the battle, while he and senior Cabinet leaders guided them from the back.

As someone who once had two former prime ministers in his Cabinet, he understood how this had to be managed carefully. Referring to his own situation, he said at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in 2023: “It is a very delicate thing to be overwatching but not overbearing, and to be able to give advice and a helpful nudge, and just the right, wise word, and not cramp the style of your successor.”

The pandemic also settled the question of who would succeed Mr Lee. Mr Lawrence Wong, who co-chaired the multi-ministerial task force to manage Covid-19, was ultimately chosen to lead the 4G.

By March 2022, Singapore had reopened its borders to all fully vaccinated travellers. The challenge was to rebuild the economy and generate new growth and jobs.

The economy, which shrank 3.9 per cent in 2020, expanded by 9.7 per cent in 2021, admittedly from a lower base, and 3.8 per cent in 2022. Growth in 2023 was 1.1 per cent due to a challenging external economic environment, and is expected to be between 1 per cent and 3 per cent in 2024.​

Tourism, which had plunged in 2020 to 2.7 million international visitors, jumped back up to 13.6 million arrivals in 2023.

Embracing all communities

One of the most delicate tasks Mr Lee’s Government had to handle was Section 377A of the Penal Code, which made sex between men a criminal offence.

The colonial era-law was retained by the Government when it reviewed the Penal Code in 2007. It explained then that Singapore was generally a conservative society, and the majority still found homosexual behaviour unacceptable.

Amid strong protests from gay rights supporters, Mr Lee weighed in during the two-day parliamentary debate on why the status quo would remain, despite the “legal untidiness and ambiguity”.

“It’s better to let the situation evolve gradually. We are a completely open society. We cannot be impervious to what’s happening elsewhere. As attitudes around the world change, this will influence the attitudes of Singaporeans.”

Several legal challenges mounted against the legislation over the years failed in the courts.

In 2018, India struck down a law banning gay sex. It set off a chain of events in Singapore, including seeking the views of a wide swathe of Singaporeans on the law.

At the National Day Rally in 2022, Mr Lee said that in many societies, including Singapore, gay people have become more accepted for who they are, instead of being shunned and stigmatised. Many countries that used to have laws against sex between men have since repealed them, including several Asian countries.

Section 377A, Mr Lee said, would be repealed. But for people who wanted to preserve the definition of marriage in society as “a union between a man and a woman”, the Government would amend the Constitution to enshrine it as law, and prevent it from being challenged constitutionally in the courts.

Mr Lee believed passionately in the commitment to a multiracial society and was prepared to protect it at a cost to his party.

One of the most controversial constitutional changes he oversaw was in 2016, when Parliament voted to reserve the elected presidency for candidates of a particular racial group if there had not been a president from the group for the five most recent presidential terms.

In 2017, former Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, a former Minister of State and PAP MP, became president in a walkover at the election, which was reserved for Malay candidates. She served till her term ended in 2023.

Mr Lee said he knew the change would be unpopular and would cost the ruling party votes, but said it was the right thing to do.

“If I do not know that these are sensitive matters, I cannot be in politics,” he told grassroots leaders at a dialogue in 2017. “But I did it, because I strongly believe, and still do, that this is the right thing to do.”

Ensuring that people from minorities are elected president from time to time will strengthen Singapore’s multiracial system, he said.

At the 2019 PAP convention, Mr Lee said that with the president elected by national vote, it would be harder for a non-Chinese candidate to be elected.

He was to be proven overly pessimistic. In 2023, Mr Tharman, the former finance and senior minister who resigned from the PAP to stand for the presidency, won a landslide victory with 70.4 per cent of the vote against two Chinese candidates, to become Singapore’s next elected president.

Remaking the city

Visionary long-term planning was a hallmark of Mr Lee’s Government, and this was seen in the country’s landscape.

The skyline was spectacularly transformed during his time by landmarks such as Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay and Jewel at Changi Airport.

New Housing Board estates such as Bidadari and Tengah took off, as well as housing projects in mature estates, and landscaped park connectors were used by thousands, including cyclists.

He used his National Day rallies to excite Singaporeans on major projects, clearly relishing the oohs and ahhs he got from the audience.

At his 2019 rally, for example, he gave an update on the mega Greater Southern Waterfront project, which he first spoke about back in 2013.

Spanning 30km, it will stretch from Gardens by the Bay East all the way to Pasir Panjang, an area six times the size of Marina Bay and double the size of Punggol. In that space will be public and private housing, offices and recreation facilities, and possibly a resort for workers on Pulau Brani.

“What we talk about, this Government, we will deliver,” he said.

“In the same way, we are realising our other ambitious plans. Punggol Digital District, Jurong Lake District, Changi Terminal 5, redevelopment of Paya Lebar Airbase, Tuas Port, and of course the Greater Southern Waterfront.”

He added: “All these will not be done in a decade, or even in one generation. There will be space for successive generations to fill with their hopes and dreams. Each new generation will leave their mark on our city, as their predecessors have done.”

Back in his 2005 National Day Rally speech, he gave a sneak peek of the proposed new Marina Bay, with gardens in the city centre, an integrated resort shooting up into the sky and a bustling commercial district at its feet.

“We will make our city really special,” he promised at the time. “We are embarking on the journey now. It will take many years to complete but in five to 10 years’ time, you can see it taking shape.”

He showed an image, complete with animated fireworks, of what the new Marina Bay might be like on Aug 9, 2015, Singapore’s Golden Jubilee.

That vision in 2005 indeed came to pass on the nation’s 50th birthday.

At the Prime Minister’s rally in 2015, Singaporean singer Kit Chan started the night with a performance of Home, the well-loved national song, dedicated to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who had died in March.

In his speech, Mr Lee said what made Singapore special was multiracialism, self-reliance and mutual support, and the faith kept between the people and the Government.

“These principles have made us special. They are not so easy to do. Easy to say, not so easy to do. Very few countries have got this right, but by and large, we have got it right,” he said.

“And Singapore has to stay special because if we are just a dull little spot on the map, a smudge, we are going to count for nothing. We have to be a shining red dot.”

No one can doubt that for all his adult life, that was what he had striven to do.

Natural born leader
By Sumiko Tan, Executive editor, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2024

Lee Hsien Loong had a ringside seat to the most turbulent period in Singapore politics.

He was seven when his father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, became prime minister following the 1959 General Election which gave Singapore internal self-governance, and which the People’s Action Party (PAP) won.

He was 11 when his father travelled around Singapore to campaign for the merger with Malaysia. He tagged along in the open-air Land Rover truck, getting a political education on how to win people to one’s side.

He was 13 when Singapore and Malaysia separated, and he witnessed how anxious his father was about the Separation Agreement. On Aug 9, 1965, he saw Singapore become independent.

It is reasonable to assume that politics was a part of his home life, so by the time Mr Lee joined the PAP to fight the 1984 General Election at the age of 32, he would have had a good understanding of that world.

But at the grassroots level, at least, he didn’t presume to know.

“He was very focused and hard-working,” recalls Mr S. Chandra Das, the former Member of Parliament for Chong Boon who was assigned to help Mr Lee and a few new PAP candidates learn the ropes.

“I had a programme of community events drawn up weeks in advance. I told them they could come to whichever ones they wanted. Without fail, he came to every one. Some of the rest would tell me, ‘oh, can’t make it, I’ve got tickets to the Festival of Arts’.”

The party placed Mr Lee, then known as “BG Lee” as he had been a brigadier-general in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), in Teck Ghee.

This was a newly formed constituency in the north-eastern Housing Board estate of Ang Mo Kio. Built in the 1970s, the smart new town boasted a large fountain that lit up at night. Residents shopped at Oriental Emporium, which housed a restaurant and a popular confectionery.

At his electoral debut in 1984, Mr Lee clinched 80.4 per cent of the votes against the United People’s Front.

Even accounting for how his rival was an unknown, it was an overwhelming endorsement. The victory was made the more notable as the PAP’s popular vote plunged by more than 12 percentage points to 62.9 per cent that year.

He went on to outperform the party by large margins in every one of the polls he contested, except for the 2006 election when his constituency – Teck Ghee had by then merged with other wards to become Ang Mo Kio GRC – scored just a shade below the PAP’s popular vote.

His popularity in Teck Ghee is unquestioned. Over 40 years, his residents have grown old with him, and know he has their welfare at heart.

Lawyer Gerald Singham, who chairs Teck Ghee’s Citizens’ Consultative Committee, recounts how residents in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 complained of a foul smell in 2023 that was traced to a choked waste system. Mr Lee was most concerned and wanted to get to the bottom of it.

“How many prime ministers in the world would be bothered by a chute problem affecting residents in just two blocks of flats? But his concern was that we can’t have residents living with the smell,” says Mr Singham.

“He was very interested in the details: What was getting choked? How was it choked? He can be on the world stage, but he still plays the role of MP.”

The four other MPs in Ang Mo Kio GRC help Mr Lee with Teck Ghee’s Meet-the-People sessions, but every year, he personally presents Edusave awards to about 1,000 pupils living there.

Mr Toh Kok Wee, 43, the director of a healthcare company, remembers receiving his Edusave award from Mr Lee over three to four years in secondary school. He went on to serve in Teck Ghee and is now the area’s Community Centre Management Committee chairman.

“Mr Lee is just a genuine person,” he says. At Chinese New Year, hundreds of grassroots leaders from the GRC look forward to visiting the Prime Minister’s home in Tanglin. “PM and his family are very welcoming,” says the grassroots leader.

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Darryl David recalls being nervous when told that he would be fielded in the GRC in 2015, but soon discovered how approachable Mr Lee was.

When he was thinking of a career switch in 2017, he sought Mr Lee’s advice. “I was hoping for 15 minutes of his time, but he said, ‘Let’s have lunch’.”

The MPs in Ang Mo Kio GRC, Kebun Baru and Yio Chu Kang – which together form the Ang Mo Kio Town Council – share a WhatsApp message group.

“We’re very comfortable texting PM Lee,” says Mr David. “He’s never made us feel we shouldn’t be doing it, and he responds very quickly.” That said, the MPs have another chat group without the PM – “we try not to bore him with too many details”.

Mr Lee’s personal popularity extends beyond Ang Mo Kio. At the 2015 General Election, his posters appeared across the island and not only in his GRC. It irked an opposition candidate, who said all they did was confuse voters.

Fighting elections

The PAP commanded full control of Parliament in the 1½ decades following independence, winning as much as 84.4 per cent of the popular vote in the 1968 General Election and 75.6 per cent in the 1980 polls.

Over time, the yearning for alternative voices grew. As the economy matured, so did unhappiness over rising costs, competition from foreigners and the widening income gap.

The first opposition seat was won by Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party (WP) in 1981, at a by-election for Anson. In the next five general elections – 1984, 1988, 1991, 1997, 2001 – the opposition captured between one and four seats each time.

Mr Lee inherited an electorate hungry for an opposition, though not a change of government.

At his first general election as PAP secretary-general in 2006, the party lost two seats but got 66.6 per cent of the popular vote. He thanked voters for the “strong mandate”.

The results fell short of the 75.3 per cent the PAP had won in the November 2001 polls. But that election was widely seen as an anomaly driven by anxiety after the Sept 11 attacks in the US.

Mr Lee waited about 20 months between becoming prime minister and going to the polls. It gave Singaporeans time to become familiar with him and his programmes. To lower the temperature at the hustings, divisive issues such as the Government’s decision to allow casinos to operate in Singapore were debated before polls were called.

Even so, a remark at a rally in which he said he would need to “spend all my time thinking what is the right way to fix” an opposition with too many seats in Parliament got him flak.

His press secretary explained Mr Lee meant “the Government and opposition would spend all their time and energies countering each other, and Singapore would be worse off for it”.

“He used direct language to get this important point across to a mass rally crowd. If the exact words he used offended, he is sorry,” the statement said.

Then came 2011, widely seen as a “watershed” election.

It took place against the backdrop of double-digit economic growth and full employment as Singapore made a rapid recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008/2009.

But growth over the years also meant high housing prices, overcrowded public transport and an unsettling influx of immigrants and foreigners in the workplace.

The opposition understood these simmering anxieties. The internet also meant people had access to campaign messages beyond traditional rallies and news reports.

For the first time, the PAP lost a GRC. Its popular vote share also slid to 60.1 per cent, its worst showing since independence.

The WP, led by Mr Low Thia Khiang, clinched the five-member Aljunied GRC with 54.7 per cent of the votes, beating a PAP slate that included then Foreign Minister George Yeo. WP also retained the seat of Hougang.

If there had been a fear of being stigmatised for joining an opposition party in the earlier years, that seemed to have lessened considerably by the 2011 General Election.

The opposition was able to attract a much improved slate, even against the new faces in the ruling party which included military generals Chan Chun Sing and Tan Chuan-Jin, and former civil servants Heng Swee Keat, Ong Ye Kung and Lawrence Wong. These men would in time become the PAP’s fourth generation of leaders.

Sensing the mood against the PAP, Mr Lee apologised for its failings.

“If we didn’t get it right, I’m sorry. But we will try better the next time,” he said at a lunchtime rally at UOB Plaza. “We’re sorry we didn’t get it exactly right, but I hope you will understand and bear with us because we are trying our best to fix the problems,” he said another time.

Most democracies would regard a 60 per cent vote share as a solid win, especially for a political party already in power for five decades. The opposition also gained just two more seats than the previous high of the four it won in 1991. But the PAP understood the change it meant in the electorate.

Former prime ministers Goh Chok Tong, then senior minister, and Lee Kuan Yew, then minister mentor, stepped down from the Cabinet to let the younger team of ministers take charge.

Over the next four years, Mr Lee addressed the concerns of voters. Among other things, he launched the Our Singapore Conversation to engage citizens on what they wanted for their future. His National Day Rally speech in 2013 spelt out in no uncertain terms that the Government would do more to strengthen social safety nets.

The efforts to listen to the people paid off at the next general election in 2015. The PAP won 69.9 per cent of the votes, buoyed in part by a wave of patriotism owing to the Golden Jubilee, and the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in March.

The WP retained Aljunied GRC narrowly, with a lower 51 per cent of the votes. It also kept Hougang, whose vote share also dipped.

If 2015 was a stellar year for the PAP, the July 2020 General Election saw a sharp correction, bringing its result closer to that of 2011.

The party was returned to power with a margin of 61.2 per cent – an 8 percentage point drop. It lost a second GRC in Sengkang to a young, untested WP team. The losing PAP slate included the leader of the labour movement. The party also saw its votes fall below the 55 per cent mark in several other wards.

The election was held seven months into the Covid-19 pandemic, though it had to be called only by April 2021. Mr Lee said a nation deep in “the crisis of a generation” needed the leadership of a strong PAP.

The party had been expected to do better as the Government had committed close to $100 billion to protect lives, businesses and jobs.

It didn’t help that the electorate, already irritated by the timing of the election, was further annoyed when public health precautions on Polling Day led to long queues to vote.

All this fed into the unsettled mood, unhappiness about the way some Covid-19 measures had been handled, and the appetite for opposition. WP candidate Jamus Lim’s call to deny the ruling party not so much a mandate but “a blank cheque” resonated with voters.

Mr Lee said the results gave the PAP a clear mandate, but “the percentage of the popular vote is not as high as I had hoped for”.

The WP won 10 seats, giving Parliament its largest number of opposition MPs since independence. WP secretary-general Pritam Singh was accorded the official title Leader of the Opposition, an office in Parliament House, staff support and resources.

Two members of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) also made it to Parliament as Non-Constituency MPs after the 2020 poll. The PSP had been formed in 2019 by former long-time PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock, who said he was concerned that the processes of good governance had gone astray.

The political landscape during Mr Lee’s tenure saw several high-profile episodes concerning the opposition. Civil suits were taken against​ the MPs of the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council in relation to its payment process​. WP’s Sengkang MP Raeesah Khan was investigated by the Committee of Privileges for lying in Parliament. She later resigned from the party and as an MP.

Speaking for 40 minutes during the debate on the Committee of Privileges’ report on Ms Khan in 2022, Mr Lee said: “I know Singaporeans want to see more political contestation, and I accept that. I expect that this is the way Singapore will go, in the longer term. That is how every parliamentary democracy evolves.”

MPs must be people with integrity at their core, he said. “Our highest duty – our ultimate loyalty – is not to our party, but to Singapore. That is why when taking office, MPs swear ‘to bear true faith and allegiance to the Republic of Singapore’. In fact, this applies to everyone engaged in Singapore politics, MP or not.”

Political opponents

Unlike his father, who went for the jugular when it came to political rivals, Mr Lee took a more temperate approach.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said of his son: “Loong is a different personality from me. He’s more, how would I say, equable – less intense than my daughter, who takes after me.”

In an interview with The Straits Times in 2013, Mr Lee echoed this.

He was “temperamentally not like” his father, he said. “He’s a lot harder, more willing to come upfront in a very direct way. I have my preferences how I would like things to be done, but I don’t spoil for a fight. He often does.”

He was more than capable of being sharp, but one felt he would not go out of his way to wound a person’s feelings.

The Prime Minister said in the 2013 interview that those who came after Mr Lee Kuan Yew had a duty to safeguard and build on what he had achieved, and to take it to another level with a new generation of Singaporeans. A key task for his generation was to persuade people about what’s at stake, he said.

Indeed, persuasion was often the younger Mr Lee’s preferred tool when it came to political debate. His chosen weapons were facts and logic. In his speeches, he drew on history to explain the need for long-range thinking, and he often appealed to Singaporeans' sense of patriotism.

He was respectful of party elders and colleagues, and always had warm words for Mr Goh. When the latter retired from politics in 2020, Mr Lee said to him: “Ours was a fruitful comradeship that spanned the entirety of my years in politics and most of yours – a close relationship between two prime ministers that would be the envy of many countries.”

Former Cabinet minister S. Jayakumar recalls how Polling Day during the 2011 General Election clashed with the Asean Leaders’ Meeting held in Jakarta. Professor Jayakumar had stepped down from politics that year, and Mr Lee appointed him as his special envoy to attend the Jakarta meeting on his behalf.

“I was surprised, in the midst of the gala dinner in Jakarta, to receive a call from Hsien Loong at around 9pm. He said he wanted to keep me posted on what the voting trends were, based on the information he had then,” Prof Jayakumar remembers.

“In particular, he alerted me that we were in danger of losing Aljunied GRC. I was concerned, and so was he, because we could then lose George Yeo and a few other office-holders. Later, while the dinner was still ongoing, he called me again to let me know that we had lost Aljunied. He also briefed me on some other results. I was touched and amazed that despite the many preoccupations he obviously had, he was thoughtful and considerate to call me twice that busy evening.”

Mr Lee widened the political space for discourse, though critics would say the measures were too little or too late, or were implemented to benefit the PAP.

He loosened controls on political films and the use of the Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park.

In 2016, he said the Constitution would be amended to give Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) the same voting rights as MPs. The minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, was also raised from nine to 12 at the 2020 General Election. The scheme allows a certain number of highest-scoring losing opposition candidates into the House.

He also instructed the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee to reduce the average size of GRCs and create more single-member constituencies.

As to freedom of expression, he was asked by the BBC in 2015 how he would respond to those who said any trade deals with Singapore would have to talk about freedom of expression and the press in Singapore.

“I do not see you being restrained in asking me any questions,” Mr Lee replied.

He added: “We are completely open; we have one of the fastest internet accesses in the world; we have no great wall of the internet; you can get any site in the world. So where is the restriction?”

That said, in 2019, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act was passed to address the rise in fake news. Correction notices are issued to authors of alleged falsehoods. Failures to display the notice can result in fines and/or jail time or an order to block the article from users in Singapore.


Orderly leadership renewal has been a hallmark of the PAP. Succession is meticulously planned, with the leader chosen by his peers.

Mr Goh was selected by the second-generation, or 2G, ministers as their leader in 1984. He became deputy prime minister, and succeeded Mr Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister in 1990.

Mr Lee was appointed by Mr Goh as deputy prime minister in 1990. He performed so well that no one in the Cabinet – or the public – doubted he would captain the 3G. In 2004, his peers more formally named him their generation’s leader.

The search for Mr Lee’s successor was much bumpier and took nearly five years for a clear-cut answer to emerge.

In 2017, Mr Lee said he intended to hand over the reins by the time he was 70, which would be in February 2022.

In November 2018, the 4G chose then Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as their leader. Mr Heng became deputy prime minister in May 2019.

At the July 2020 General Election, Mr Heng was moved from Tampines GRC to contest East Coast GRC, where there was less support for the PAP. His team won, but with a relatively low margin of 53.4 per cent against the WP.

In April 2021, Mr Heng stepped aside, saying a younger person should lead the 4G. He would have turned 60 that year.

Finally, in April 2022, the 4G and PAP MPs endorsed Finance Minister Lawrence Wong as their choice, after Mr Lee asked former Cabinet minister Khaw Boon Wan to facilitate “a consultation process”.

Mr Wong, then 49, had not been seen to be in the running earlier, but the former civil servant had inspired trust through his co-chairmanship of the Covid-19 multi-ministerial task force.

Prof Jayakumar says that while there was no set pattern to the PAP’s three succession processes so far, what was important, both for the party and Singapore, was that they were not disruptive and they ensured continuity.

“There was no rancour or acrimony,” he says, though adding that this doesn’t mean it was always plain sailing either.

The situation is unlike other countries where there is bitter infighting, jockeying for position and uncertainty, he says. “Singapore needs such consensual, collegiately endorsed succession for stability and for a sense of continuity of core policies,” he adds.


Party succession might have been resolved by the middle of 2022, but other internal setbacks kept Mr Lee busy in the last years of his premiership.

Around May 2023, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan faced questions about their rental of state properties in the exclusive Ridout Road area.

This culminated in a nearly six-hour parliamentary debate in early July. Both ministers were cleared of any wrongdoing following an internal review and a separate investigation by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).

The real bombshell was dropped a week later by the CPIB: Transport Minister S. Iswaran was assisting with an investigation. Iswaran, who was then also an MP in West Coast GRC, will face trial over multiple offences including corruption, receiving valuables as a public servant and obstructing the course of justice.

Days after this, PAP MPs Tan Chuan-Jin, the Speaker of Parliament, and Cheng Li Hui resigned from Parliament and the party, when it came to light that they had persisted in their illicit affair after being warned to stop.

Not long afterwards, in July 2023, WP’s Aljunied GRC MP Leon Perera and WP member Nicole Seah also resigned after a video emerged of them behaving intimately, adding to a surreal week for Singaporeans.

In Parliament in August, Mr Lee said the PAP Government had always dealt with corruption and allegations of improper conduct thoroughly, transparently and by applying the full force of the law.

He stressed this at the PAP annual convention in November that year.

The party’s commitment to honesty and incorruptibility is “absolutely non-negotiable”, he said.

“We have maintained it for over 60 years now, rigorously enforcing discipline and keeping the party clean… We have made Singapore one of the cleanest, least corrupt countries, not just in Asia but in the world.”

The PAP must prove itself, especially when it is tested, by putting principles into action “regardless of any embarrassment or political cost”, he said.

The speech was to be his farewell to the party faithful as prime minister.

Standing in front of the men and women in white whom he had led for two decades, he fought back tears as he said: “It has been my great fortune and honour to have served the country, first in the SAF, and then in party and government, for all of my adult life.

“I have been PM for almost 20 years. Singapore and the PAP have been thoroughly transformed, shaped by our many trials and tribulations. But some things never change. We… remain dedicated to Singapore, and we still feel the call of duty to serve the people, we still have the duty to future generations to keep this island safe and secure.”

As the crowd applauded, he promised: “These things have not changed under my watch, and they will not change under the 4G team.”

Duty above all
Even when the cost was high, he would put duty over personal or family preference
The man behind the prime minister
By Chua Mui Hoong, Senior Columnist, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2024

At 20, Mr Lee Hsien Loong was invited by his Cambridge University tutor to pursue a PhD and embark on a career as a research mathematician. He said “no”, as he wanted to return to Singapore to make a difference in its affairs. He had to serve out his bond in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), which had given him a scholarship to study at the British university.

“It is absolutely necessary that I remain in Singapore, whatever I do, not only because in my special position if I ‘brain-drained’ overseas the effect on Singapore would be disastrously demoralising, but also because Singapore is where I belong and where I want to be,” he wrote to the tutor.

“I would prefer to be doing things and perhaps be cursed by other people than have to curse at someone else and not be able to do any more.” This was recounted in his father Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs, From Third World To First.

In balancing competing calls, he came out in favour of duty to country and returned to Singapore after graduating in 1974 to begin a career in the armed forces. It was the first of such decisions he would make throughout his long career in public service – between personal aspiration or duty. Not every balancing act would be so straightforward. One, especially, would cost him dearly.

He was always aware of his unique position in Singapore: As the eldest son of the founding prime minister, he would always be a role model and exemplar if things went well, or even a scapegoat if things did not. It came with the territory.

As far as is possible for someone from a pedigreed background who grew up playing at the Istana and went everywhere accompanied by security officers, he had a normal childhood.

At Nanyang Primary and later Catholic High, he had friends and played with them after school. Schoolmates once stole a cake from his lunch box. Another time, they made him stand beside school staff so he would tower over them, drawing chortles from the boys, according to the schoolmates of his whom I had interviewed for a profile on Mr Lee in 2004 just before he became prime minister. People who grew up with him said he was diligent and respectful and did not throw his weight around.

Former chief of defence force Winston Choo said in the 2004 profile that he recalled travelling with a young Mr Lee on a military trip. On their way back, the young officer stretched himself out across empty seats on the plane and slept. “He didn’t feel that he shouldn’t lie down in case someone recognised him. I would say he’s comfortable about who he is, and not overly conscious of himself,” said the retired lieutenant-general.

Being the prime minister’s son, and then prime minister himself, did not shield him from life’s tragedies.

He lost his first wife, Dr Wong Ming Yang, in 1982. She died of a heart attack, aged 31, shortly after giving birth to their second child.

While still unsettled after bereavement, he was asked by Mr Goh Chok Tong, then defence minister and assistant secretary-general of the People’s Action Party (PAP), to enter politics.

Once again, personal considerations came second to duty. Mr Lee said “yes”.

He contested and won Teck Ghee constituency in 1984 with 80.4 per cent of the vote. Voters there have returned him with resounding vote shares since, with the Ang Mo Kio GRC team winning 71.9 per cent of the votes at the 2020 General Election.

In 1992, he was diagnosed with intermediate-stage lymphoma. After a three-month course of intense chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission. He cut his workload by a third but worked through the treatment.

In an interview in 2003, shortly before he became prime minister, he cited the death of his first wife and his 1992 experience with cancer as among the darkest moments of his life. His cancer experience, however, taught him to be accepting of limits – his own and others’.

On those trials, he said: “The family helped to carry me through again. These things happen to everybody.” Having cancer gave him a sense of equanimity. He said: “You accept your limits better. You accept that there are some things you can’t predict or control that may happen to you. You accept it as it comes and carry on from there. And also you accept other people as they are.”

In 2015, he had his prostate gland removed because of cancer. After a one-week post-operation leave, he was back at work. A government statement said data showed patients with a similar medical profile and treatment have a cancer-specific survival rate of 99 per cent at 15 years.

All these personal life challenges were played out in public, as his leaves of absence had to be accounted for.

In 2016, he had a fainting spell on stage in the midst of delivering the National Day Rally speech and lost his balance, gripping the rostrum.

As he was helped offstage, his first thoughts were of the audience. He waved to the crowd, saying “I’m sorry, I’m okay”. He rested for an hour and came back on stage to resume his speech. Doctors later said the fainting spell was due to a drop in blood pressure from prolonged standing, dehydration and exhaustion. He took a week’s medical leave and then resumed work.

Mr Lee’s health became a matter of national security when his personal health data became the target of a major cyber attack in 2018. Hackers broke into the database of healthcare group SingHealth, stealing the personal information of 1.5 million patients, and outpatient medication data of 160,000 people.

Mr Lee wrote in a Facebook post: “I am personally affected, and not just incidentally. The attackers targeted my own medication data, specifically and repeatedly.

“I don’t know what the attackers were hoping to find. Perhaps they were hunting for some dark state secret, or at least something to embarrass me. If so, they would have been disappointed. My medication data is not something I would ordinarily tell people about, but there is nothing alarming in it.”

He went on to reveal that when SingHealth digitalised its health records, it had asked if he wanted to be included or if his medical records should be kept on hard copy for security reasons.

He asked to be included in the digitalisation, as this would enable doctors to treat him more effectively and in a timely manner. The way to deal with the risks was to tighten security, he said, adding: “We cannot go back to paper records and files. We have to go forward, to build a secure and smart nation.”

The young man who knew he, of all people, must not be part of the brain drain out of Singapore would not, decades later, countenance having an exception made for him to keep paper records when the nation must go digital.

Personal values, public persona

A man always in the public eye will struggle to find the personal space to develop into his own person. From all accounts, Mr Lee managed this with grace.

When he met the media as a PAP election candidate in September 1984, he said: “I feel quite ordinary, like everybody else. There are, of course, certain restraints which have to be observed.”

Schoolmates and people who have known him over the decades sing the same refrain – that he is warm and personable.

In 2001, when he was already deputy prime minister, Mr Lee went to a house-warming party at the home of Mr Joey Yeo, who had served with him in the army and gone on to become an architect. “I was sitting on the floor, managing a PowerPoint presentation. And Mr Lee just came and sat down beside me on the floor. He has absolutely no airs,” said Mr Yeo back then.

They kept in touch over the decades. Mr Yeo even served as a volunteer in Mr Lee’s Teck Ghee ward, giving advice as an architect on the community centre’s redevelopment plans, and helping to write letters for constituents at Mr Lee’s Meet-the-People sessions. “I once got a phone call from Mr Lee and he asked me for a favour. I was wondering, what favour would he need from me? Turns out his daughter wanted to interview an architect for a school project. She was then in Nanyang Primary. I run a small practice and any number of architects from the brand-name practices would be happy to do this. But for Mr Lee, the personal touch is important and he asked me. So I said ‘yes’.”

At a lunch with a small group of journalists before he became prime minister in August 2004, he confessed that he would find it odd to be addressed as “PM Lee” as the term was so associated with Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister from 1959 till 1990.

What should he be called then, we asked. “How about Mr Lee?” he said with his distinctive grin that lights up his face and crinkles his eyes.

Over many speeches and interviews in the intervening years, it was clear what kind of Singapore he would like to be prime minister of. An inclusive one which is also vibrant and robust. Inclusivity was his hallmark for years in speeches. “Vibrant” was another choice word, denoting a kind of economic dynamism he seemed to thrive in, and a certain robustness in the political realm that he was comfortable with, so long as it did not challenge outright the PAP’s dominance.

How does one suss out a man from his public persona? One uses public information and throws in a dose of intuition.

Mr Lee’s social media posts and photos, especially when he is overseas, show a softer side to him than the Prime Minister who has affairs of state constantly on his mind.

He uses the hashtag #jalanjalan (literally “walk-walk” in Malay) for many photos, showing his sojourns around Singapore. Many are taken on his own smartphone. Photography is a hobby, as are reading and listening to classical music. He has also appeared to keep up with computing, and in 2015, wrote code to solve a Sudoku puzzle in the C programming language.

At public events, he is at ease with people, whether they are tech bosses talking shop or elderly folk in coffee shops. Watching him these days, it’s not easy to match the affable Prime Minister with killer wefie-taking skills with the image of him as a “hardline minister” years ago.


Under Mr Lee’s premiership, Singapore grew economically while maintaining political stability. His family life, though, has been dramatic.

His own family appears happy and content. Mr Lee has a daughter and three sons, and three granddaughters. Xiuqi and Yipeng are the children from his first wife; they are 43 and 42, respectively, this year. He married Ms Ho Ching, an engineer, in 1985. He has two sons with her – Hongyi and Haoyi, who are 37 and 35, respectively, this year.

The four Lee children maintain a low public profile in Singapore, although Hongyi was in the news in 2018 for leading a team at GovTech – the Government Technology Agency – that developed, the location-based, digital payment parking app that did away with paper coupon parking.

Family matters to Mr Lee. In his Chinese New Year speech in 2024, he spoke of the joy in watching young ones learn, grow and reach milestones year by year.

"Our families give us unwavering strength and support, cheer for us in our triumphs and stand by us through adversity. They are a big part of our sense of identity, belonging and purpose. Through our families, we pass on our aspirations and values from generation to generation."

Mr Lee himself is the product of a very happy marriage between Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his intellectual companion and lifelong mate Kwa Geok Choo.

Hsien Loong was born in 1952, and from a young age, accompanied his father on the political trail. Younger sister Wei Ling was born in 1955 and became a paediatric neurosurgeon. She lived in the family home in Oxley Road for many years and is reportedly in frail health. Hsien Yang, the youngest sibling, was born in 1957 and built a career in the SAF and then Singtel, the telecommunications company. He now lives outside Singapore.

In 2017, Mr Lee and his siblings had a very public falling-out over what to do with the family home in Oxley Road – demolish it as their father had desired on many occasions, or conserve it, given its historic role as the home of the founding prime minister of Singapore and as a hotbed of political activity in the PAP’s early days.

The Government formed a ministerial committee to explore options on what to do with the house. Mr Lee recused himself from the committee and from government decision-making on the matter.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had wanted the house demolished after his death for two main reasons – he did not want strangers traipsing around the family home; and demolishing it would free up constraints on land lots in the vicinity, allowing them to be redeveloped. The house in question sits on valuable prime land, and would be worth millions if redeveloped into high-rise buildings.

The house was bequeathed to Hsien Loong after their father died in March 2015. He offered to sell it to his siblings at a nominal sum, provided they agreed that the proceeds from the eventual sale or redevelopment would be donated to charity. The negotiations went on till late 2015. Eventually, Hsien Loong transferred the house to his brother Hsien Yang at market value, although the sum was not disclosed. The two brothers then each donated half the value of the house to charity, to pre-empt any future controversy over compensation or redevelopment proceeds.

PM Lee has maintained that it would be untenable for any member of the Lee family to benefit from redevelopment of the Oxley Road house – it would be such a “humongous stink” it was “impossible”, he has said.

In a series of Facebook posts that began in June 2017, his siblings accused their elder brother of abusing his power as prime minister to influence the Government to conserve the house for political gains. They also accused him of using organs of state to intimidate them. More colourful allegations followed of PM Lee and his wife Ho Ching, accusing them of nepotism and ambitions of building a political dynasty.

The claims and counter-claims drew worldwide media attention. Singaporeans felt like they were watching a high-stakes political and family drama unfold before their very eyes. But underneath it all, among many Singaporeans, was a sense of sadness at how the Lee family was unravelling.

On the public, political front, Mr Lee recused himself, removing himself from the conflict. As prime minister, he also convened a parliamentary sitting to address the issues. It found that while there was a cloud of general accusations, there was no specific charge or evidence of wrongdoing.

At a personal level, though, the accusations from his own siblings that he was an unfilial son would have stung, as would the chatter online that he had failed in his duty as the eldest son to keep the family together.

Why did Mr Lee not use his own influence as prime minister to get the Government to agree to demolish the house as his siblings wanted, and as his father had said many times was his wish?

When you consider the arc of Lee Hsien Loong’s life, you begin to understand the thinking of the man.

For him, every decision in his adult life has had to be made through the lens of what is good for Singapore, not just what is good for him personally or for the family. In such a milieu, personal preferences become secondary.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself would have understood the importance of making sure due process is followed, to avoid any favouritism. The man who pushed for the Land Acquisition Act to empower the state to acquire private property would not have wanted the rules bent for his own house. If the state has designs on the house and wants it conserved, then let the state gazette it, lawfully, and lay claim to it, private interests be damned, even if they are interests of the Lee family.

Living a life that balances private life and public duty is not always easy. In the case of the family feud over Oxley Road, as a son, Mr Lee might want to carry out his father’s wishes. As the prime minister, he has a duty to Singaporeans, to think of what is in their best interests. Would tearing down the house mean Singaporeans losing an irretrievable part of their political history?

The personal or family preference can be set aside for public duty, even when the cost is high, even when one stands accused in the court of public opinion by one’s own siblings of being an unfilial son.

Mr Lee told Parliament in the debate on the Oxley Road dispute, choking back his emotions: “When I was about 13, my father had told me: ‘If anything happens to me, please take care of your mother, and your younger sister and brother.’ Singapore was then part of Malaysia. We were in a fierce fight with the central government and the communalists. My father did not tell me, but he knew his life was in danger. Fortunately, nothing happened to my father. He brought up the family and I thought we had a happy family.

“Little did I expect that after my parents died, these tensions would erupt, with such grievous consequences. I hope one day, these passions will subside, and we can begin to reconcile.”

Mr Yeo, the Prime Minister’s friend, recalls being at Mr Lee’s house one day, years ago. While chatting with Mr Lee in the living room overlooking the pool, he noticed Dr Lee Wei Ling emerging from the pool after a swim. She struggled to get onto her feet. In a flash, her elder brother was by her side. He bent over and picked her up and then carried her in his arms from the poolside back to the house.

Recounting the incident in April 2024, Mr Yeo said: “It was done with so much love and tenderness. It was like, ‘she ain’t heavy, she’s my sister’, you know. When the Oxley Road issue came up, I kept thinking of that incident and thinking it must be so painful for him to go through such conflict with his own siblings.”

As a friend, Mr Yeo has known Mr Lee for decades, through his dark years as a widower, and through his political career, health scares and family drama. He said: “Sometimes, I hear people criticise him, usually over some policy they are unhappy about. And I will say, politics and policies are one thing; what a person is, is another.

“And to me, he has a good heart. He always makes time for people, for me as a friend, for his constituents. I’ve seen him at close quarters over the years, and seen him interact with people. I’m not young, and I’m not easily smoked, you know, and I can see he’s genuine, he has empathy, he’s a good person. A good person.”

Navigating a trickier world
PM Lee made sure Singapore remained master of its own destiny in a period when China became more assertive, US-China rivalries deepened, and protectionism harmed global trade
By Sumiko Tan, Executive Editor, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2024

The Capella Singapore is a luxury hotel on Sentosa island where rooms start at about $1,000. Those with very deep pockets can opt to stay in a two-storey colonial bungalow for $19,000 – a night.

On June 12, 2018, two men in suits – one tall and broad, the other short and stocky – strolled companionably in the grounds of this exclusive holiday resort as the world’s TV cameras captured their every step.

Both had the power to literally blow up the planet with nuclear weapons. Both were known to be unpredictable.

But Mr Donald Trump and Mr Kim Jong Un were in a benign mood that day as they took a postprandial walk for one of history’s most unexpected photo ops.

Earlier, before lunch with the North Korean leader, the then President of the United States had purred to the camera crew: “Getting a good picture, everybody? So we look nice and handsome and thin? Perfect.”

It is fair to say Singapore has little sway in US-North Korean foreign policy. But being asked to play host to the historic Trump-Kim Summit said something about its place in the world.

“We are the Geneva of the East,” says Professor Tommy Koh, ambassador-at-large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a former Singapore ambassador to the US.

Singapore was picked as the meeting place because it is safe and secure, has diplomatic relations with both the US and North Korea, and is a neutral venue for meetings, he says. “Mr Trump also wanted Mr Kim to see Singapore as a possible future for North Korea,” he posits.

Three years before the Trump-Kim Summit, Singapore facilitated another high-stakes encounter.

On Nov 7, 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou met at the Shangri-La Hotel. It was the first meeting of leaders from both sides since China’s civil war ended in 1949.

For one full minute, they smiled and shook hands before proceeding to a closed-door meeting. They caught up again at dinner, where both sides split the bill.

“As an old friend of both mainland China and Taiwan, and a country which has firmly upheld a One China policy, Singapore is glad to have played a modest role providing the venue for the meeting,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Facebook after the visit.

Back in 1993, Singapore was also the venue for the first meeting of representatives from both sides since 1949. Two officials from semi-governmental bodies, Mr Wang Daohan of China and Mr Koo Chen-fu of Taiwan, held talks at the NOL Building in Alexandra Road. The discussions led to agreements to promote trade and people-to-people exchanges.

Hosting these high-stakes summits was, you could say, Singapore’s contribution to world peace.

“We are not participants in the Korean tensions,” Mr Lee said in an interview with CNN ahead of the Trump-Kim Summit.

“But if there are tensions in North-east Asia on the Korean peninsula, it is going to destabilise the region and South-east Asia is not going to be let off scot-free, nor the world,” he said.

“I think if this meeting can have a constructive outcome, and we can have contributed something to that, I think it is a duty we should do.”

Messy world

The Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait were not the only trouble spots that Mr Lee had to monitor in his 20 years as prime minister. Many other areas of conflict surfaced, including in the South China Sea, especially in the second half of his tenure.

In the official archives of his speeches, “foreign affairs” tops the list of topics he covered (followed by “economy”, “governance” and “families and communities”).

US-China relations, which set the tone for global affairs, worsened in the last decade and smaller nations had to take care not to be caught in the crossfire. Elsewhere, terrorism remained a perennial threat. Ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza continued to claim lives and divide opinions.

The rise of the internet offered new ways for bad actors to spread propaganda and divide society. On the economic front, free trade took a hit as countries turned inwards, hurting small, open, trading nations like Singapore.

At his first National Day Rally as prime minister in August 2004, Mr Lee made clear that Singapore’s approach to external relations would not change under his watch.

“We seek to be friends with all countries, and especially with our immediate neighbours and the major powers,” he said.

“We pursue win-win cooperation with all countries who are willing to cooperate with Singapore, but that doesn’t mean that we can always accommodate the views or the positions of other countries. When our vital interests are at stake, we must quietly stand our ground.”

This approach had earned Singapore respect internationally and a network of good relations with many countries around the world, he added.

In later years, facing a more turbulent world than when he started, Mr Lee elaborated on Singapore’s approach to these external dangers on various occasions.

Singapore has to stand firm on fundamental principles of international law, and this means speaking up at the United Nations. “Taking cover and keeping quiet will hurt us in the long term,” he said at the 2022 National Day Rally.

At home, the institution of national service must be taken seriously as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Home Team keep Singapore strong and credible. “If we do not defend ourselves, no one is going to defend us on our behalf,” he said at the rally.

He appealed to Singaporeans not to allow themselves to be divided, whether by race, religion, income, social differences or place of birth. “Stay alert against foreign actors who are looking out to exploit our vulnerabilities and to influence our people for their own interests,” he said.

In 2021, the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act was passed. The law was invoked for the first time in 2024 when a Hong Kong-born Singaporean businessman was officially designated a “politically significant” person.

While details were not revealed about the foreign entity involved, or the purpose of the businessman’s activities, he was known to have said it was the duty of overseas Chinese communities to “tell China’s story well”.

Singapore-China ties

Ironically, even though mainland China and Taiwan held two landmark meetings in Singapore, their troubled ties led to some of Mr Lee’s most trying diplomatic moments as prime minister.

Singapore and China established diplomatic relations in 1990, but ties dated back earlier, to when Mr Lee Kuan Yew first visited China in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping reciprocated in 1978.

Singapore has consistently maintained a “One China” policy. Singapore also has a close and longstanding friendship with Taiwan.

In July 2004, one month before Mr Lee Hsien Loong succeeded Mr Goh Chok Tong as prime minister, he made a private and unofficial visit to Taiwan to assess the developments there. The cross-strait situation was a potential flash point and a conflict there could have implications for regional stability and Singapore.

As a courtesy, Singapore informed China of the trip before Mr Lee’s departure. The Chinese asked that it be cancelled. Singapore gave this serious consideration but could not agree.

The Chinese government voiced “strong dissatisfaction” and “protest” over the trip and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said it would “damage China’s core interest and the political foundation for China-Singapore relations”.

After Mr Lee’s trip, he reiterated that Singapore had consistently maintained a “one China” policy and opposed independence for Taiwan. Singapore took this fundamental position even before it established diplomatic relations with China. “My private and unofficial visit does not change or contradict this policy,” he said.

Ties remained strained until November that year, when Mr Lee met then Chinese President Hu Jintao in Chile on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. They put the July visit behind them.

Twelve years later, China again remonstrated against Singapore’s ties with Taiwan.

On Nov 23, 2016 – just a year after the Xi-Ma Meeting in Singapore – nine SAF Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehciles were detained by Hong Kong Customs and impounded for two months.

The ship carrying the vehicles was making a transit stop in Hong Kong on its way back to Singapore after an SAF military exercise in Taiwan. Customs officers said it did not have the necessary permits for the vehicles.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “The Chinese government has always firmly opposed countries that have diplomatic ties with China to have any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, including military exchanges and cooperation. We asked that the Singapore Government strictly abide by the ‘one China’ principle.”

The hawkish Global Times said the Chinese were so angry that they wanted Singapore’s vehicles “melted down in a steel mill”.

Singaporeans saw red, but the Singapore Government kept a cool head.

The Terrex carriers were the property of the Singapore Government. Under the principle of sovereign immunity, which was well established in international law, property belonging to a country cannot be seized or forfeited.

Mr Lee wrote to then Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying for the immediate release of the Terrex vehicles. This finally happened on Jan 24, 2017, and the vehicles returned home a week later.

In September that year, Mr Lee made an official visit to China and met then Premier Li Keqiang as well as President Xi. The parties on both sides affirmed the close relations between their countries.

Observers say the crux of China’s passive-aggressive actions lay in its view of Singapore.

“Singapore’s relations with China are very good, substantive and comprehensive. It is, however, an asymmetrical relationship. It is a relationship between a superpower and a small state,” says Prof Koh, who was Singapore’s chief negotiator in 1990 when Singapore established diplomatic ties with China.

“China has a very hierarchical view of the world. They see us as a very small country, and they expect us to behave in a certain way. They have never met a small country like Singapore before… an economic powerhouse and a thought leader which enjoys very close relations with the US, Japan, India, the EU and others,” he says.

“From time to time, China will ‘punish’ us in order to remind us that they are a big country, and we are a small country. This happened in 2004, and it happened again in 2016/2017.”

The relationship is complicated by how multiracial Singapore has a 75 per cent majority of ethnic Chinese in its population.

Mr Lee has addressed this matter openly.

While relations with China are very good, “it is quite clear that we are Singapore, they are China, and we are different countries”, Mr Lee said in 2015 at the S. Rajaratnam Lecture, named after Singapore’s first foreign minister.

“A Singapore Chinese is different from a Chinese Chinese,” Mr Lee said. “The distinction is critical to us in a multiracial society.”

These diplomatic hiccups with China, though, should not overshadow how Singapore-China relations remained extensive and substantial under Mr Lee.

In April 2023, bilateral relations were officially upgraded to an “All-Round High-Quality Future-Oriented Partnership” when PM Lee met President Xi in Beijing. The 2009 China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement was upgraded in 2019 and in 2023 a protocol was reached to further upgrade the agreement.

New platforms for government-to-government cooperation have been created. Following the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park in 1994, the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City was mooted in 2007. The China-Singapore Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, launched in 2015, will improve connectivity between western China and South-east Asia.

“We have very good relations. They are broad and encompass many fields, and we have been working together for many years,” Mr Lee said in an interview with China’s CCTV-13 in March 2023. “There is trust and mutual understanding. We have our different perspectives on issues, but we work with one another, and we have been able to get very substantive projects going.”

Big powers

Singapore’s relations with the other big powers were smooth during Mr Lee’s tenure.

With the US, his term coincided with presidents George W. Bush (2001 to 2009), Barack Obama (2009 to 2017), Donald Trump (2017 to 2021) and Joe Biden, who came to power in 2021.

Defence ties continued to be strong. Since 1990, Singapore has hosted American air force and navy aircraft and ships on rotational deployments. The US also hosts more than 1,000 Singapore military personnel each year in training detachments.

In 2016, Mr Lee and his wife Ho Ching paid an official visit to the US, to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties.

The last time a Singapore prime minister was officially welcomed in the White House with ceremony was more than 30 years prior, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew visited in 1985.

At the state dinner given by Mr Obama and Mrs Obama, Mr Lee remembered the “dedication, the competence, and the warmth” he received from the Americans while he was a young military officer undergoing training.

Among the guests at the dinner were an American couple who were his military sponsors while he was at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas nearly 40 years earlier.

In 2017, Singapore’s Chinook helicopters and military personnel in Texas were deployed to help in Hurricane Harvey disaster relief operations in the state.

“We are glad to have been of some help to our very gracious hosts,” Mr Lee said at a press conference with then President Trump while on an official working visit to Washington that year.

They witnessed the signing of a deal where Singapore Airlines agreed to buy 39 Boeing aircraft worth US$13.8 billion.

“It is a win-win for both sides. It will further modernise SIA’s fleet and will also support many American jobs,” Mr Lee said.

On the trade front, Mr Lee appreciated Mr Obama’s rebalance to Asia and how he personally pushed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), conceived as a major trading group linking economies on both sides of the Pacific.

The US pulled out of TPP when Mr Trump came to power in 2017, a disappointing development for the partnership.

“This has put a dent in the degree to which people can be confident of America’s policies,” Mr Lee told the BBC at the time. “But it has happened, and we have to live with it.”

In 2018, the remaining 11 countries of the TPP, including Singapore, agreed to move ahead on a revised version of the pact, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

With India, Mr Lee maintained warm ties with prime ministers Manmohan Singh (2004 to 2014) and Narendra Modi (2014 to present).

Mr Lee signed the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement in 2005, which his predecessor, Mr Goh, had worked out with India.

India was by then one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and Singapore presented a gateway to the Asean market and East Asia, particularly China.

When Mr Modi visited Singapore in 2015, Mr Lee and Mrs Lee took the Indian leader to Komala Vilas in Little India for a vegetarian supper, delighting customers at the no-frills eatery.

“The food was good,” the restaurant’s operations director reported Mr Modi as saying.

In his 20 years as prime minister, Mr Lee clocked millions of miles to fly the Singapore flag.

His meetings included Group of Twenty (G-20) meetings. Although not a G-20 member, Singapore was invited to participate in the G-20 summits and their related processes from 2010 to 2011 and from 2013 to 2023.

At the S. Rajaratnam Lecture in 2015, Mr Lee described Singapore’s foreign policy as a balance between realism and idealism.

“We are determined to be masters of our own destiny,” he said. “We know we have to take the world as it is and not as we would wish it to be. But we believe that we can and must defend ourselves and advance our interests.”

From 2004 to 2024, a period that saw more than its fair share of global turmoil, he did just that.

Being good neighbours
PM Lee cleared the decks on outstanding issues with closest neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia
By Sumiko Tan, Executive Editor, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2024

Singapore’s closest neighbour, Malaysia, saw dramatic shifts in political alliances in recent years, and Mr Lee Hsien Loong worked with six different prime ministers: Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (2003 to 2009), Najib Razak (2009 to 2018), Mahathir Mohamad (2018 to 2020), Muhyiddin Yassin (2020 to 2021), Ismail Sabri Yaakob (2021 to 2022) and Anwar Ibrahim, who came to power in November 2022.

Save for the two years Dr Mahathir returned to power, following his long first tenure as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, bilateral relations could be characterised as positive, collegial and win-win.

The longstanding sovereignty dispute over Pedra Branca, an island in the Singapore Strait, was brought before the International Court of Justice in 2003.

The judgment in 2008 awarded sovereignty over Pedra Branca to Singapore. Sovereignty over Middle Rocks, comprising two clusters of rock south of the island, was awarded to Malaysia. The court ruled that South Ledge, a low-tide elevation feature, belonged to the state in whose territorial waters it is located.

Both countries agreed to abide by the ruling and set up a joint committee to resolve outstanding issues on the maritime boundaries, which remained unresolved. Attempts by Malaysia in 2017 to reopen the case were ultimately discontinued.

In 2010, Mr Lee and Mr Najib, who shared good personal chemistry, launched the first Malaysia-Singapore Leaders’ Retreat on the Malaysian island of Langkawi.

In the ground-breaking meeting, they broke a 20-year deadlock on outstanding issues concerning the Points of Agreement of 1990, which dealt with the future of railway land owned by the Malaysian government through Malayan Railway in Singapore.

Among other things, Mr Lee and Mr Najib agreed that the Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Timah railway stations would close on July 1, 2011. Swops would also be made between KTM land and plots in Marina South and Ophir Road, to be jointly developed by both countries.

After both sides could not agree on whether a development charge was payable on some land parcels, the matter was put to international arbitration. The Tribunal of Arbitration ruled against Singapore.

“Singapore fully accepts the tribunal’s decision. It allows us to put this matter behind us. I am happy that Singapore and Malaysia have been able to resolve this dispute in this impartial and amicable way,” Mr Lee said in a statement in 2014.

The leaders also agreed at their retreat that a Rapid Transit System link between Johor Bahru and Singapore be built. This is on track for completion by 2026.

The rail link will cement the increasingly integrated economies of Johor and Singapore, most keenly missed during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Causeway linking them was closed for two years.

A proposed Singapore-Malaysia High-Speed Rail (HSR) project, however, came to naught. The idea, raised by Mr Lee and Mr Najib in 2013, would have connected Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in 90 minutes via a 350km eight-station line.

A legally binding bilateral agreement on the HSR was signed in 2016. But in 2018, Dr Mahathir, whose Pakatan Harapan coalition came to power that year, first dropped the project, then said it was temporarily shelved.

It was eventually terminated on Jan 1, 2021, after both countries failed to reach an agreement on changes proposed by Malaysia, which paid compensation to Singapore for the costs it had already incurred. As of February 2024, some interest had surfaced in reviving the project, but funding remains an issue.

Issues over the southern Johor airspace, one of the world’s busiest, also surfaced in 2018, during Dr Mahathir’s two-year return to Putrajaya.

Malaysia demanded control back of the airspace, delegated to Singapore by international agreement since 1974, claiming that a new instrument landing system at Seletar Airport infringed on Malaysian airspace.

The dispute was resolved by the two countries in 2019. Singapore halted the use of the landing system at Seletar and Malaysia indefinitely suspended a restricted zone it had imposed on the airspace over Pasir Gudang.

Harking back to his complex relationship with Singapore in his early days as prime minister, Dr Mahathir also wanted to review the price of raw water under the 1962 Water Agreement. Singapore pointed out that the water pact was guaranteed by Singapore and Malaysia in the 1965 Separation Agreement. Any breach of it would call into question the agreement, which is the basis for Singapore’s existence as an independent sovereign state.

In 2019, both countries agreed to set up a working group to discuss maritime issues surrounding the overlapping Johor Bahru port limits off Tanjung Piai and Singapore port limits off Tuas.

At the 10th Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat with Datuk Seri Anwar in Singapore in October 2023, Mr Lee said there was “a full agenda of cooperation”. This covered new areas such as the digital and green economies, and a Johor-Singapore Special Economic Zone.

Outstanding bilateral issues, including maritime delimitation, reclamation at Pedra Branca, water, and airspace would all be considered “holistically and constructively, within the broader context of our overall relationship”, he said.

“Importantly,” Mr Lee added, “they will not be allowed to colour and affect this overall relationship, or detract from the many positive areas of cooperation between us.”


Mr Lee’s premiership overlapped with the tenures of Indonesian presidents Megawati Soekarnoputri (2001 to 2004), Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004 to 2014) and Joko Widodo, who came to power in 2014.

In 2022, Mr Lee cleared the decks for his successor, resolving sensitive issues with Indonesia that went back decades.

Together with Mr Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, he witnessed the signing of three bilateral agreements on airspace management, defence cooperation and extradition under an expanded framework, which came into force in March 2024.

Under the Flight Information Region (FIR) agreement, Singapore and Indonesia agreed to realign the boundary between the Singapore and Jakarta FIRs, largely taking into account Indonesia’s archipelagic and territorial baselines.

The Singapore FIR, which air traffic controllers in the Republic have managed since 1946, had previously covered the airspace over Indonesia’s Riau and Natuna islands. Under the agreement, this airspace is now part of the Jakarta FIR, but with portions delegated to Singapore to continue providing air navigation services for 25 years.

The new arrangement ensures that present and future traffic to Changi Airport and nearby Indonesian airports continues to be managed safely and efficiently.

The Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) clarifies arrangements for Singapore Armed Forces training in Indonesian waters and airspace, while respecting Indonesia’s sovereignty over its territory and preserving Singapore’s rights. The DCA will remain in force for 25 years.

The final piece, the Extradition treaty, grants extradition for a comprehensive list of offences, including corruption, money laundering and bribery, and can be retrospectively applied to crimes committed up to 18 years ago.

The Extradition treaty was something Indonesia had long wanted, but differences in the two legal systems had to be ironed out.

“If we had left these issues unresolved, they would have festered, and quite likely one day turned rancorous,” said Mr Lee. “This would have soured the entire relationship, which would have benefited neither side. I am very happy to have now settled these issues with President Jokowi.”

The expansion of social safety nets in 20 years of PM Lee’s leadership
The signature achievements are the broadening of state support and community risk pooling to help individuals when they fall on hard times.
By Chua Mui Hoong, Senior Columnist, The Straits Times, 10 May 2024

Living through an epoch sometimes means we are less aware of the changes taking place incrementally around us, until something makes us pause to take stock.

He hands over the premiership to his deputy Lawrence Wong on May 15, making this a good time to discern what has changed the most in the Republic under his leadership.

The dramatic visual changes are easy to spot: the new Marina Bay bayfront with its iconic buildings and sky park. Rejuvenated Housing Board precincts such as at Pinnacle@Duxton or brand-new towns like Punggol that add waterfront panache to subsidised public housing.

The economy has grown by leaps and bounds. Singapore’s gross domestic product per capita in 2004 was US$27,000 (S$37,000) in current dollars. By 2023, it had grown to about US$84,700.

Far less visible, but no less impactful, are the changes to policies that shape lives in Singapore. And it is here, in the realm of social policy, that PM Lee has made the most difference, in a quiet but persistent way.

The biggest shift is that the state has stepped up a lot more to share the risks of life with citizens.

Whether in periods of ill health, disability or old age, individuals and families have more resources to help them cope.

Government support has increased. Also, new social measures now encourage the community to share risks collectively via risk-pooled insurance schemes.

The changes can be summed up as one that transformed a mindset of individualistic competition to one that understands “we’re in it together”, encouraging solidarity and sharing of responsibilities and risks.

The state, too, is shifting in its approach from one that was frugal with its finances even when it came to citizens’ social needs, to one that is more willing to dip into state coffers judiciously to help citizens tide over difficult periods.

Together, the shifts in social policy helped ameliorate the effects of income inequality that rose on the back of Singapore becoming a more open, globalised economy.

Inclusive society, vibrant city

In his first National Day Rally (NDR) speech as prime minister in 2004, PM Lee used the word “inclusive” three times. In his next NDR speech in 2005, he held out the promise of building a vibrant global city – the word “vibrant” was used three times in his speech.

Making Singapore more inclusive and establishing it as a vibrant city were always key goals for PM Lee.

At the onset, inclusive changes were more symbolic in nature.

Restrictions for the Speakers’ Corner were gradually eased. In August 2008, Singaporeans were allowed to organise and participate in demonstrations without having to obtain a police permit. PM Lee moved the civil service to a five-day working week. He scrapped a long-defended gender-based rule that denied female civil servants’ dependants medical benefits.

These were specific, symbolic moves to herald a polity that would be more inclusive and welcoming of diversity, while upholding mainstream values.

After the 2011 General Election – in which the People’s Action Party lost six seats and got 60.1 per cent of votes, its lowest since independence – PM Lee and his government stepped up the pace, and changed the substance of social policy, addressing the issues that surfaced in that election, including rising costs of living, concerns over housing, and immigration.

PM Lee’s 2013 NDR speech seized the political initiative from critics, and was quite specific in setting out how his government’s policies would change to forge a new bond with Singaporeans. He summed up the Government’s new governing approach: “One, to level up people; two, to share the risks to make sure that whatever happens in life, you will not be alone. And three, to keep our system open, mobile, so that if you have talent, you can rise.”

Viewed through that lens, with the perfect vision that hindsight offers, many shifts in social policies introduced since make sense.

Years later, in 2021, Muslim nurses in the public healthcare sector were allowed to wear tudungs with their uniforms. The following year, Singapore would repeal a law that criminalised gay sex, while passing amendments to protect the definition of marriage.

“These were controversial and difficult issues, but they were tackled instead of being left to fester,” said PM Lee in his final major political speech as prime minister at the annual May Day rally on May 1.

Beyond those significant moves to address long-held concerns of different segments of society, there were also key changes to social policies.

In the last decade, Singapore’s social safety net has been widened and deepened considerably under the leadership of PM Lee and his Cabinet, with a refreshed approach that encouraged community self-help via collective risk pooling.

Sharing risks

Recent changes to health and long-term care insurance programmes – MediShield Life, CareShield Life, and the annuity CPF Life – are all designed to share risks.

Rather than leave individuals and families to fend for themselves in ill health, disability or old age, the changes extended community risk pooling, so that we all cover for each other.

Take the example of MediShield Life for catastrophic hospital fees. The programme was extended to cover everyone for life, scrapping the previous age limit that had left people out just when they most needed coverage. It would also cover pre-existing illnesses.

Even as MediShield Life was designed to cover everyone, for life, to reduce a major source of worry for Singaporeans, it also had to break even and be financially sustainable.

CareShield Life collects premiums from its target demographic group, and offers insurance coverage for long-term disability, while CPF Life offers a low-cost lifelong annuity scheme using workers’ savings accumulated from years of working.

From efficiency and cost recovery, the focus was shifted to improving people’s peace of mind.

This was an ideological Rubicon that needed crossing – to shift from a systems focus that aimed to protect social programmes from being abused by undeserving claimants, to a people focus – to look deeper into how policies affect people by extending coverage of programmes to help people in their hour of need.

Of course, a stronger financial position made such changes possible. By 2015, when MediShield Life was introduced, rising wages meant many Singapore workers could afford the premiums, and a healthy tax position meant the state could support such universal health coverage with premium subsidies.

Social policies are designed to provide social goods such as health, housing, education and improvements to welfare.

Most governments fund part of the costs of such services, while citizens pay the rest. So parents pay school fees and childcare fees, even in government-funded schools.

But some groups of people can’t afford to co-pay such fees and need extra help. They may not be able to work, or can’t attend mainstream schools and need specialised help.

How should a society organise its policies and help structure to support those people?

For decades, most people were left to fend for themselves with help from families.

Unlike European-style welfare states that had high tax rates and generous state help for such situations, Singapore had a minimalist approach to welfare, believing people and their families should help themselves, and that such self-reliance built a resilient society. Only the very old and permanently disabled received long-term help under the public assistance scheme. This made sense in the early decades, especially when Singapore was a poor country.

As Singapore became wealthier and as each generation’s expectations changed, improvements were made to the welfare system. Interim help was offered via the ComCare fund. Subsidies were increased for pre-school and healthcare.

Today, so much support is available to help families that there is a portal, SupportGoWhere, which features many social support schemes.

A risk-based approach to social policy will consider what public interventions are needed to help individuals and households cope with the risks of life, which include ill health, joblessness, disability, and poverty as a result of life circumstances including death, disease or incarceration of a breadwinner.

Social policy in the last 20 years has seen the state step up to shoulder a greater share of financial risks arising from hardship in life, while spreading risks across the community by encouraging a collective approach to funding such risks.

Loosening government purse strings

The other big social policy shift is the way the state has loosened its purse strings to help people cope with life’s ills.

It hasn’t become free-spending, but has been clever and creative in generating the revenue it needs to support an ageing society and increased social spending.

While continuing to depend on revenue from economic activities, PM Lee’s government tapped the country’s financial reserves to unlock a new income stream, using returns from the investment of these long-term reserves, in effect using it like an endowment fund.

Since 2008, the Net Investment Returns (NIR) framework has let the Government spend up to 50 per cent of the expected long-term real returns (including capital gains) from its relevant assets, which include foreign reserves managed by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC and the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and assets managed by Singapore’s investment company, Temasek.

The NIR contribution in 2023 was about $23.5 billion, or around 20 per cent of the Government’s Budget.

PM Lee’s government has not baulked at drawing down from past reserves: It drew down $4 billion from past reserves in 2009 during the global financial crisis, and from 2020 to 2022 it drew down $40 billion to protect lives and jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A slew of cohort-based financial packages have been introduced during PM Lee’s tenure, to support each generation of Singaporeans as they age.

There was a $9 billion Pioneer Generation package offering medical and other subsidies announced in 2013, and the subsequent $8 billion Merdeka Generation package unveiled in 2018. In 2023, PM Lee’s government announced the Majulah package, which will cost about $8.2 billion when paid out over this generation’s lifetime.

These packages offered healthcare costs support, including subsidies to help pay the increased premiums for expanded MediShield Life and CareShield Life programmes.

The Majulah package, for a younger generation that had higher savings, focused on retirement support by topping up Central Provident Fund accounts and help with employment.

The multibillion-dollar packages sent a strong signal that government coffers, built up over the decades, would be used to ease citizens’ financial struggles and help them age with greater peace of mind.

Not surprisingly, social spending rose. By 2023, annual social development spending rose more than three times to about $52.8 billion from $12.4 billion in 2004. Healthcare spending was 16.3 per cent of total expenditure in 2022, nearly three times the proportion in 2004.

The spending helped reduce income inequality and helped build social cohesion at a time of increased globalisation, which drove up wages at the top.

Measures to raise wages of the lower and middle income also reduced the wage gap.

To depict the fiscal approach in colloquial terms, Ah Gong’s money became increasingly seen as the people’s money, as it was willingly and carefully spent to help the Singapore family cope with a more challenging environment.

The emphasis on giving Singaporeans a leg-up via social spending came at the same time as the shift in social policies that reduced individual competitiveness, and encouraged a more communal attitude of solidarity.

Together, they may explain how Singapore is being reshaped, slowly but surely, into a more collaborative society, evident during the Covid-19 pandemic, where people increasingly see that “we’re all in it together”. More Singaporeans are realising that this Little Red Dot sinks or swims with the efforts of its six million citizens and residents.

And as PM Lee is wont to say, we may be a red dot, but we can be a shining one.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong one of the world’s top leaders of last two decades, says Harvard prof Graham Allison
By Bhagyashree Garekar, US Bureau Chief, The Straits Times, 13 May 2024

WASHINGTON – Professor Graham Allison has observed the world’s top leaders at close quarters and made the Harvard Kennedy School the world’s best known school of public policy and government.

There, he was the adviser to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when PM Lee was a student.

PM Lee’s soon-to-be successor Lawrence Wong has also studied at the school.

Prof Allison, the 84-year-old Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University, is the author of the landmark 2017 book – Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap – which examines the consequences of a rising power rivalling a ruling power.

He also wrote a 2013 bestseller about Singapore’s founding prime minister, titled Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights On China, The United States, And The World.

He is not shy about mixing perspicacious humour with the serious business of statecraft to illustrate a point.

Prof Allison shared his impressions of PM Lee in an interview with The Straits Times. He noted, half in jest, that in a referendum, Americans would vote for Mr Lee to run the US for a decade until it functions “more successfully”.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

On PM Lee’s leadership

Hard to believe that it’s been 20 years. If I were to write “profiles in leadership of nations”, I think I would start with the bottom line: Has any other leader in the world been more successful over the past two decades than Prime Minister Lee?

If we had a “report card” for assessing the performance of national leaders that would include the key items citizens care about – including their well-being, per capita income, health, longevity, educational opportunities, safety and security, and their freedoms – I suspect a serious study would find Lee a contender for top place.

For example, when he became PM, Singapore citizens were two-thirds as wealthy, per capita, as Americans. Today, they are wealthier than Americans.

I’ve quipped more than once that if... only he were willing to take a sub-contract from Americans to run the US for the next decade.

I think if we were to hold a referendum in which voters are given a choice between (1) Lee and his chosen successor Wong taking charge of and running Washington for the next decade; and (2) one of the candidates Americans will have to choose in November – if the proposition is that they would govern for a decade and then once it’s functioning more successfully, give our democracy back to Americans to try to run for ourselves, I suspect Americans would vote for the first.

This is half in jest.

On interactions with PM Lee

I’ve had the good fortune to know Hsien Loong for more than four decades, since he showed up as a student at the Kennedy School in 1979. I was a young dean of what was just emerging to become Harvard Kennedy School, but at the request of his father, had agreed to serve as his adviser.

I’ve had the opportunity to see many outstanding students at Harvard that have gone on to play significant roles in governments around the world, including the US. As a student, he was clearly one of the most promising and on a path in which he was likely to lead.

Even when students are the most promising, one can never tell how their career may turn out.

His father’s son

But after decades in which he served as Deputy Prime Minister and in various other key ministerial jobs in the Singaporean government, as well as two decades as the chief executive, his record now speaks for itself.

My memory of him, from the first encounters through many conversations while he was a student here, and continuing conversations every year or two since, has been of a powerful mind that has a very sharp analytic focus.

He asks the hardest questions. He is genuinely curious and inquiring, eager to consider evidence and analysis that challenge his own views.

And he is determined.

In a word, he is his father’s son.

But my second comment there would underline the difference in style. Of course, I only knew Mr Lee Kuan Yew after he and his two colleagues had begun building Singapore, and he took a short sabbatical here at Harvard where I was a graduate student and was assigned by Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s host to be his “walker” to escort him from his apartment to various meetings.

Hsien Loong is much quieter and softer in style – but no less purposive and focused in asking unflinchingly: what’s the best option for Singapore?

Moreover, like his father, he has had a relentless focus on performance, doing whatever was required to make Singapore everything it can be.

A break with policy on casinos

Having analysed Singapore’s economic strengths and weaknesses and the importance of the tourist industry – in particular, high rollers from China – Hsien Loong decided that Singapore should break with its previous policy and invited bids for two big casinos to build facilities and operate there. Privately, I remember clearly his father’s view that this was a terrible idea.

Rather than giving up, Hsien Loong continued to study the problem, trying to understand the risks as well as the potential rewards, and ultimately, designing a way to limit the risks by imposing an age limit for admission to the casinos and a substantial fee for those who entered.

2018 Trump-Kim summit

I suspect the press will have enough tales to tell about the Trump-Kim meeting that Prime Minister Lee hosted in Singapore (for then US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un).

The walk during which Kim and his sister saw what a real modern city looked like blew them away.

When the PM invited them to take the elevator to the roof garden of the (Marina Bay Sands) hotel, where they saw the infinity pool, Trump was reminded that he was not the only master of show.

PM Lee Hsien Loong: A view from up close
He has overcome personal crises and harsh challenges in a journey that has been remarkable.
By Irene Ng, Published The Straits Times, 12 May 2024

Mr Lee Hsien Loong was battling cancer when I met him at his office in February 1993. He was completely bald, the result of his gruelling rounds of chemotherapy for lymphoma.

He was then Deputy Prime Minister and Trade and Industry Minister. I was a journalist, there to find out how he was coping since his diagnosis in October 1992.

His office, on the 50th floor of the Treasury Building in Shenton Way, was said to give a commanding view of the harbour. Not that day. The curtains were partially drawn, casting the room in shadow. His treatment had made his skin more sensitive to the sun. Other side effects included a weakened immune system, damaged taste buds and nausea.

He had by this time completed five of the six cycles of his chemotherapy, with each cycle lasting three weeks. The drugs were fed through tubes inserted into his chest.

With engaging candour, he described how he adjusted his bathing routine to avoid getting the tubes wet. He obliged when I asked to see the tubes in question, which protruded from a dressing over his chest.

From that day, I saw him as a flesh-and-blood person rather than just a politician. There was vulnerability behind that reassuring smile. There was also courage. He approached these problems with an attitude that said: “I can handle this.”

He was relatively young, at 40. For a leader used to being in charge, this was, in a sense, the hardest part for him – dealing with the unknowns and not being able to exert any control over the outcome. “Such an experience is bound to leave a mark on a person,” he told me without any hint of self-pity. “But I think work goes on, and life goes on.”

He was no stranger to crises. In October 1982, his wife, Mrs Lee Ming Yang, 31, died from a heart attack shortly after giving birth to their second child. Mr Lee was left with a 19-month-old daughter, a three-week-old son, and a broken heart. He told me: “Such things happen. You can’t choose them and you wouldn’t wish them on anybody. You have to live through it.”

I came away from our interview with a lasting impression of a man who personifies the essence of grit and perseverance.

Up till our interview, Mr Lee had not publicly discussed his cancer journey. His first political instinct had been to shore up confidence in the government and to strengthen the leadership ranks. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who had publicly identified him as his successor, observed in November 1992: “To have Loong concerned over a national issue, after being hit by a personal catastrophe, shows a rare strength... He did not fret about himself.”

When Mr Lee was cleared of cancer cells in April 1993, he threw himself back into work. When the Asian financial crisis struck in 1997, he was out there leading the country to a rapid recovery.

The reality was that, while the effects of surviving cancer were profound, at his core, he is who he is – a man completely dedicated to Singapore. And cancer has not changed that. It is a dedication so bone-deep that it is a function not only of thinking, but also being. To understand him, one has to understand the fire from whence the mettle of his character was forged.

Everyone facing a crisis needs courage to get through it. But Mr Lee Hsien Loong the political figure has a form of courage that I believe is more demanding and more exhausting: the courage to bear the collective weight of the present and past, and to focus on the future, however uncertain.

In his political life, most, if not all, of his decisions were thrust upon him, by events beyond his control: financial panics, pandemics, terrorist plots, geopolitical shifts, political scandals involving errant MPs and contentious siblings, and so on. They rarely involved dealing with certainties but probabilities – probabilities of what would happen and what would work. And in the end, he had to deal with the cards he was dealt.

An extraordinary upbringing

Perhaps more than anyone in his cohort, he understood early the pitfalls that came with political service. He grew up in a house in Oxley Road where a group of men had converged to discuss forming a political party and fighting for the independence of Singapore. The range of experiences he was exposed to as a child as he followed his father, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, on his political outings was salutary.

The eldest of two boys and a girl, Mr Lee Hsien Loong was not spared the shocks of political battle. Once during a troubled period in Malaysia in 1965, his father had asked him to look after the family should anything untoward happen to him, the Singapore PM. Mr Lee Hsien Loong was then 13.

After Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, his parents moved out of their home on the advice of the Special Branch to the more secure Changi Cottage, where they stayed for about four months. Their children remained at their Oxley Road house because they had to go to school, which they did with security escort. They visited their parents on weekends. The young Lee’s early exposure to politics gave him a unique understanding of Singapore’s struggle for survival and the sacrifices involved.

The trajectory that delivered him to the Prime Minister’s Office was also unique in some ways.

Few people know that it was Mr S. Rajaratnam, then the Second Deputy Prime Minister, who had, on his own initiative, raised Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s name for consideration at a Cabinet meeting in early 1982 when the issue of political succession was discussed. Mr Goh told me this when I interviewed him for my biography on Mr Rajaratnam, Singapore’s founding foreign minister.

In Mr Goh’s account of that Cabinet meeting, PM Lee Kuan Yew had hesitated, saying that this was his son. No decision was taken on Mr Rajaratnam’s suggestion to approach Mr Lee Hsien Loong for politics. When Mr Goh, then Defence Minister, revisited the matter with the PM in late 1983, the senior Mr Lee said he did not think that his son would accept, given that he had just lost his wife and was trying to get his household in order. At Mr Goh’s persistence, Mr Lee Kuan Yew responded: “You try.” When Mr Goh did in early 1984, the young widower promised to think about it. He came back later and accepted the invitation.

The young Mr Lee, a brigadier-general in the Singapore Armed Forces, was then put through the rigorous selection process that applied to all PAP candidates. This involved being interviewed by two ministerial committees. Mr Rajaratnam stated: “It was I who took the initiative, with the knowledge of the Prime Minister, to request the two committees to consider Hsien Loong as a possible candidate.” He did this, he said, “because I have known him since childhood. His outstanding academic record, his strength of character and his brilliant military career are on record for all to see”.

The first interview was led by former minister Lim Kim San; the second by Mr Rajaratnam. PM Lee Kuan Yew, who had recused himself from the process, was not present at both interviews.

Mr Rajaratnam made the selection process public after Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s entry into politics sparked accusations of nepotism and the emergence of a Lee dynasty. “There is not a ghost of a chance of nepotism, even if it had been attempted, being able to assert itself through these formidable walls of selection procedure,” said Mr Rajaratnam. “Had Hsien Loong been found wanting, he would have been quietly dropped – Prime Minister’s son or not.” Ultimately, Mr Lee Hsien Loong would have to face the electorate and prove himself on the ground. That would be the real test, argued Mr Rajaratnam in the September 1984 issue of the PAP newsletter Petir.

The fact is: When the young Lee decided to join politics in 1984, it was not merely because of who his father was, but because of who he, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, was. In one of his earliest speeches as a politician, in September 1984, he gave a glimpse into his thinking.

Before a person enters politics, he said, he would have weighed the probabilities of success and failure of a political career. “If he succeeds, it may make a difference to thousands of people,” he said, adding: “If he fails, the penalty is a bruised ego and a painful awareness of his limits.” Tellingly, he invoked a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “But screw your courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail.”

True to his oath

As one who has observed his leadership closely for many years, I believe that what motivated him to dedicate his life to political service was an appreciation of how special his country was, and an obsession to keep it special, not only for his generation but for future generations.

When he was sworn in as PM in 2004, he took an oath to discharge his duties “to the best of my knowledge and ability, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will”. It is an oath that demands a commitment to meritocracy, democracy, the rule of law and good governance; an oath he took seriously.

Upon taking over the helm, Mr Lee was not popular with those who suspected him of being arrogant and hardline. Indeed, a major question on the minds of many then was whether he could bond with the people and carry them with him.

Today, he is one of the most popular politicians in the country. He is a powerful communicator, able to rally the masses and forge a broad national consensus. Of course, he has his critics. He made mistakes. No leader has left office with a perfect record of success.

Edge of endurance

PM Lee has steered the people through many a crisis, but the most demanding for him personally was perhaps when his father died in 2015. As PM, he bore the responsibility to lead the nation in mourning for its founding leader. Although he was raw with grief, he stood strong because that was what the nation needed.

It was sheer grit that got him through. And meditation. He had taken up meditation when Mrs Lee Ming Yang died. His practice improved with the help of a teacher when he had lymphoma. It was a reflection of his state of mind that, on the morning of March 29, 2015, before the ceremonies for Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s state funeral, he sat next to his father’s coffin lying in state at Parliament House – and meditated.

At times, he must have felt close to the edge of endurance. Such as when, following his father’s death, his siblings denigrated him and his office because he could not – as PM – go along with their desire to fulfil the patriarch’s wish to demolish the Oxley Road house. Mr Lee Kuan Yew would have been devastated had he known that, when he willed his house to Mr Lee Hsien Loong, while making his other two children the executors of his estate, it would lead to a bitter family feud that besmirched his reputation and that of his family, and became fodder for the country’s critics.

PM Lee Hsien Loong recused himself from all government decision-making processes concerning the house, which has historical significance to the country. He also sold the house to his brother, with each donating half its value to charity, thus giving up any personal interest in or influence over its ultimate fate. He had to straddle his positions as PM and a son of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and, again, he placed country over self and family.

At the recent May Day rally, his last as Prime Minister, he radiated the aura of a leader who has given his absolute all. He has, and it showed in his gaunt frame and moist eyes when the audience gave him a standing ovation.

When he bowed deep before them, trying to keep his emotions in check, I remembered that day in 1993 when I got an up-close glimpse of this man that so many today are hailing as an extraordinary leader. He is extraordinary, but it is his humanity that moved me. And moves me still.

Irene Ng is a former journalist who was a PAP Member of Parliament from 2001 to 2015. She is the authorised biographer of Mr S. Rajaratnam.


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