People & Power

Singapore: The House That Lee Built

We investigate Lee Kuan Yew’s complex legacy and the reasons behind a family dispute dividing Singapore’s ruling elite.

When the former British colony of Singapore became an independent nation in 1965, there were doubts about its survival. The tiny island state has no hinterland and few natural resources and few at the time thought it a candidate for any kind of success on the world stage.

But today, it’s one of Asia’s richest cities, a truly modern metropolis that’s frequently been described as an economic miracle. It’s safe, courteous, orderly, and business friendly, its people are educated and cared for to an extent many of its neighbours can only dream of emulating.

The principal architect of this remarkable achievement was Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who served three decades as prime minister and even longer as leader of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).


by ”Lee

always worried about having the family together. But he also worried about the persistence of Singapore’s institutions. Looking both at what’s happened to the family and what’s happened to Singapore’s institutions – I just don’t know what would have caused him more grief.”]

On his death in 2015, over a million Singaporean residents turned out to honour his memory, his infamously tough pragmatism and his many accomplishments – not the least of was the creation of an effective and largely incorrupt government and civil service, which proved a huge magnet to foreign investors .

But for many this respect was also undermined by disappointment that development was bought at the price of civil rights.

Throughout his time in power LKY – as he was known – was often accused of stifling freedom of speech and suppressing political opposition.

It is no accident, say critics, that he won election after election up until he stepped down as prime minister in 1990 (he continued as an MP to be an influential figure behind the scenes), because under his tenure his authoritarian government maintained such tight political control over every aspect of the city state that it became almost impossible for parties other than the PAP to gain a foothold.

Now, almost three years after his death, there are signs of some very modest relaxation in that control, but it’s by no means as much as some would like.

Singaporeans still do not enjoy many of the liberties citizens in most developed nations take for granted and it’s ranked 151st out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.

So inevitably, with economic pressures increasing amid a growing appetite for greater democracy, Lee Kuan Yews’s complex legacy is coming under more scrutiny.

As this film from Lynn Lee and James Leong explains, that scrutiny has been given an extra edge over the past few months because of a bitter (and embarrassingly public) family dispute among his offspring, about what should be done about the house in which Lee spent most of his life.