Mr Lee & Singapore

During a broadcast of the historic “Battle For Merger” series at Radio Singapore. Click here to listen to the radio talks.

A case for merger

Disagreement over the terms of merger caused a split in the PAP. The pro-communist faction was expelled from the party and formed the Barisan Socialis (Socialist Front). Mr Lee tabled a motion of confidence in the government on 20 July 1961. The PAP won the vote narrowly with only 26 out of 51 votes.

To win the hearts and minds of the people, Mr Lee broadcast a total of 36 radio talks between 13 September and 9 October 1961. Speaking in English, Mandarin and Malay, he recorded as many as nine talks a week.

Titled “Battle For Merger”, the talks attracted tens of thousands of listeners and helped turn the tide in the battle against the communists and pro-communists.

With Mdm Kwa at the Bridge of Sighs in St John’s College at Cambridge on (from top)
7 February 1948,
21 June 1974 and
7 October 2000.

A lifelong romance

Mr Lee met Miss Kwa Geok Choo while they were at Raffles College. She was an outstanding student who outdid him in several subjects. He struck up a friendship with Miss Kwa. It was the start of an extraordinary and touching love story that spanned more than half a century.

The couple had an emotional farewell when Mr Lee sailed for England in September 1946. But they were soon reunited after she was awarded the Queen’s Scholarship and joined him at Cambridge in 1947 to read law.

Mr Lee at an NTUC May Day rally in 1965, with other trade union leaders such as Mr Devan Nair (at the microphone).

A new era for labour

Trade unions, where he himself had his beginnings in politics, remained an abiding concern for Mr Lee. The unions he was convinced were key to giving every working person a sense of co-ownership in society.

Mr Lee also believed strongly that growth was meaningless unless workers could enjoy better homes and lives. He worked closely with Mr Devan Nair and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to modernise the trade union movement.

Together with NTUC, Mr Lee created the best possible investment climate by promoting industrial harmony and tripartism, and introduced key initiatives such as the Employment Act in 1968 and the National Wages Council in 1972.

(From top)
Mr and Mrs Lee taking a stroll with his good friend British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband Denis at Chequers, her country retreat, in 1990.
With French President Jacques Chirac during a visit to France in May 1990.
Meeting the late South African President Nelson Mandela during his visit to Singapore in March 1997.

A remarkable statesman

Mr Lee had an extraordinary grasp of the world’s political and economical trends. Many political and business leaders continued to seek his insights even after he stepped down as premier.

His sharpness of mind and candour, as well as the depth of his political experience, gained him an influence that was altogether disproportionate for a leader of such a small state as Singapore.

(Clockwise, from top left)
Mr Lee (second from left) with his ASEAN counterparts at the first ASEAN Summit held in Bali in February 1976.
Greeting the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (right) when she visited Singapore on 19 May 1968.
A grand welcome in Bahrain for Mr Lee during his visit in June 1978.
Ambassador of the Russian Federation Leonid Moiseev presenting the Order of Honour to Mr Lee on 6 January 2014 in recognition of his contributions to strengthening Singapore-Russia ties. Mr Lee had earlier been conferred the Russian Order of Friendship by President Dmitry Medvedev on 15 November 2009.

A remarkable statesman

Over the years, he developed close personal friendships and rapport with many world statesmen – including Henry Kissinger, Helmut Schmidt, George Schultz and George W Bush. This paved the way for succeeding generations of Singapore leaders to engage closely with world leaders.

Today, Singapore maintains diplomatic relations with more than 180 countries and has 49 overseas missions.

With his family outside their Norfolk Road home in 1936. Mr Lee stands between his parents and is accompanied by his younger siblings (first row, from left) Suan Yew, 3; Monica, 7; Freddy, 9; and Dennis, 11.

Early career in the Singapore public service

Mr Lee Kuan Yew fought for self-Government from our British colonial masters and later led Singapore into merger with Malaysia believing that this was the best option for Singapore’s future. When merger did not work out, he took Singapore out of MalayAsia and built a nation from nothing during our most difficult years.

He built up a strong defence capability to protect our sovereignty, a vibrant economy which created good jobs, a sound education system and excellent infrastructure, housing and environment. He transformed Singapore from a Third World to First World country.

The way he went about his work also mattered – he was meticulous, persistent, with tremendous drive and spirit, never quitting. He also saw to the continued success of Singapore beyond him through leadership succession.

A volatile mix

Mr Lee came face to face with the Chinese-educated world when he was approached to represent Chinese middle school students who had rioted against the National Service Ordinance, on 13 May 1954.

The Chinese-educated were shunned by the colonial authorities who favoured the English-educated. They lacked economic opportunity and felt dispossessed. This turned Chinese schools into breeding grounds for the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and its affiliated open front organisations like the Anti-British League.

Impressed by their dedication and discipline, Mr Lee quickly recognised the potential of Chinese middle school students.

(From left) President Yusof Ishak, Mr Lee, Economic Development Board Chairman Hon Sui Sen and Public Services Commission Chairman Dr Phay Seng Whatt surveying the site of the upcoming Jurong Industrial Estate from the top of Reservoir Hill on 10 May 1964.

Adversity into opportunity

Many saw a bleak future for Singapore, a nation of immigrants with neither natural resources nor a hinterland to count on.

Unemployment was high at 10%. The British withdrawal from its bases in 1971 would mean the loss of another 40,000 jobs.

Mr Lee and his economic team -- Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr Lim Kim San and Mr Hon Sui Sen -- embarked on an export-oriented industrialisation strategy to create jobs. Unusual among newly-independent countries of that time, Singapore welcomed Multi-National Corporations (MNCs).

The various policies implemented in the immediate post-independence years resulted in massive economic and social progress for the people. By the end of the 1970s, unemployment had fallen to 3% and growth was averaging 10% per annum.

Working at his Laycock & Ong office on 13 May 1952.

Back from Cambridge

Back in Singapore in August 1950, Mr Lee was offered pupillage at law firm Laycock & Ong. Its senior partner, John Laycock, was a member of the pro-British Singapore Progressive Party. When Laycock asked Mr Lee to become his election agent in the 1951 Legislative Council campaign, he saw how detached colonial politics was from the lives of most people.

On 1 September 1955, he co-founded the law firm Lee & Lee with his wife, Choo, and brother Dennis.

At the Malaysian Federal Parliament (left) on 25 May 1965, two days before delivering the fateful speech attacking the inadequacies of race-based politics.

Calls for a Malaysian Malaysia

Relations soured further when the PAP contested the May 1964 Malaysian general elections, though it won only one of the nine seats it contested. A year later, in May 1965, the PAP joined several other multiracial parties to form the Malaysia Solidarity Convention, a political bloc to fight for a “Malaysian Malaysia”. Mr Lee’s open criticism of Kuala Lumpur sparked accusations that he was trying to usurp power for himself.

Things came to a head on 27 May 1965 when Mr Lee delivered a powerful speech in the Malaysian Parliament, an event that many later viewed as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. He spoke off the cuff in English as well as Malay about the inadequacies of race-based politics.

A month later, the PAP defeated the Barisan Socialis in a by-election in Hong Lim, though it had lost twice before in that constituency. The victory was a signal to Kuala Lumpur that Singaporeans were fully behind Mr Lee and the PAP.

Conferment Ceremony of the Public Service Star Awards

"If you who are growing up do not understand that you have to defend this, then in the end, we will lose. Other people will come, smack you down and take it over. And therefore we have decided, after very careful consideration – one-and-a-half years of careful consideration – that every boy and every girl will learn what it is necessary to defend this country.”


– At a Conferment Ceremony of the Public Service Star Awards at Toa Payoh Community Centre on 21 February 1967.


Mingling with national servicemen at a National Day appreciation dinner in 1970. Send-off dinners, gift packs and commemorative medallions were presented to enlistees in the early days of NS to thank them for their contributions.

Defending Singapore

To safeguard Singapore’s sovereignty, its defence forces had to be built up. This need grew more urgent when the British suddenly announced they were withdrawing their forces from Singapore by 1971.

Mr Lee proposed conscription, with everyone playing a part to defend the country, as the best way to build up the Singapore Armed Forces. The National Service (NS) Bill was passed by Parliament on 14 March 1967. Shortly after, on 28 March 1967, the first batch of National Servicemen was called up. Together with Dr Goh Keng Swee, Singapore’s first Defence Minister, Mr Lee laid the foundations of today’s strong and credible SAF.

NS has since become an important part of in Singapore life. By forging bonds among young Singaporeans from diverse backgrounds, it plays an invaluable role in nation-building.

Engaging some of the recipients of the inaugural Prime Minister's Book Prize, on 29 May 1974, at a reception at the Regional English Language Centre Building. The Prize, which became an annual award for bilingualism, was instituted in 1973, after Mr Lee gave the Ministry of Education the lecture fees he received on an overseas tour.

Educating for the future

Mr Lee recognised the importance of education in improving the lives of all Singaporeans. He swiftly overhauled the education system that Singapore inherited from the British, and implemented progressive policies that would enable Singaporeans to seize opportunities in the global economy.

He made sure that all could enjoy basic education, and upheld the ideal of meritocracy. He promoted English as the first language so Singaporeans could plug themselves into the global economy. But he insisted on bilingualism too so they could be rooted in their respective cultures through their mother tongues.

Meritocracy and bilingualism are among the most enduring of Mr Lee’s legacies.

The first PAP central executive committee in November 1954, comprising (back row, from left) Tan Wee Keng, Devan Nair, S. Sockalingam, Lee, Ong Eng Guan, Fong Swee Suan, (front row, from left) Lee Gek Seng, Mofrandi bin Haji Mohd Noor, Toh Chin Chye, Ismail Rahim and Chan Chiaw Thor.

Enter the PAP

Mr Lee and a small group of friends – Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, S. Rajaratnam, Kenneth Byrne and later Devan Nair and Samad Ismail – started meeting on Saturday afternoons, in the basement dining room of Mr Lee’s home at 38 Oxley Road, to discuss the formation of a political party.

Mr Lee also approached pro-communist unionists lLim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan. They too agreed to join Mr Lee in forming the party.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) was formally launched on 21 November 1954 at Victoria Memorial Hall, with Mr Lee as its first Secretary-General. It won three seats in the April 1955 general elections, including Mr Lee’s in Tanjong Pagar. He became the de facto leader of the opposition to David Marshall's Labour Front-led coalition government.

The PAP was at that time an alliance between the pro-communist left led by Lim Chin Siong and the non-communist left led by Mr Lee. It was, however, an uneasy alliance, with both sides constantly tussling for the upper hand.

Being carried by supporters after election results were declared.

First internal government

The PAP won 43 out of the 51 seats it contested in the 1959 elections. Singapore's first fully-elected government was sworn into office at City Hall on 5 June 1959. Mr Lee became Singapore’s first Prime Minister, a position he would hold for 31 years until he stepped down in 1990.

With members of the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union, for whom he secured salary increases in May 1952.

First union work

Mr Lee’s political activism began in 1952, when he successfully represented the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union in its negotiations with the colonial government for a salary revision. His shrewd and moderate approach won praise from the press and earned him the respect of workers.

Within just two years, he became legal advisor to more than 100 different unions and associations.

By then, Mr Lee and his comrades such as Goh Keng Swee and Dr Toh Chin Chye were convinced that the unions were key in mobilising a mass base for the anti-colonial struggle.

On graduation day with William S. Thatcher, censor of Fitzwilliam House who offered Mr Lee a place at Cambridge

Graduation and marriage

Mr Lee and Miss Kwa graduated from Cambridge on 21 June 1949 with first-class honours, with Mr Lee receiving the only star for distinction in the final Law Tripos II honours list. They were both called to the Bar at Middle Temple on 21 June 1950.

Eager to start their new life together, the couple had tied the knot in secret at Stratford-upon-Avon on 23 December 1947.

They held a second public ceremony on 30 September 1950 after they returned to Singapore.

With his family outside their Norfolk Road home in 1936. Mr Lee stands between his parents and is accompanied by his younger siblings (first row, from left) Suan Yew, 3; Monica, 7; Freddy, 9; and Dennis, 11.

Historic press conference

"For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life... You see, the whole of my adult life... I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories. You know, it's a people, connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship... Would you mind if we stop for a while?”


– At the historic press conference on 9 August 1965. He stopped the interview at this point to regain his composure.


Visiting house-proud residents at the unveiling of Everton Park housing estate on 8 November 1965.

Housing the nation

In the 1950s and 1960s, Singapore faced an acute housing shortage. The majority of Singaporeans lived in crowded, racially-segregated squatter settlements or slums, with poor sanitation.

Mr Lee appointed Mr Lim Kim San as the first Chairman of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in 1960. Mr Lim laid the foundations for a world-class public housing system in Singapore.

Mr Lee championed public home ownership so as to give every Singaporean a stake in the country. He also believed home ownership would give Singaporean families an asset and a means of wealth accumulation. HDB estates, or the “heartlands”, brought together people of different backgrounds and created a sense of community.

Today, the country has one of the highest home ownership rates in the world, with 90% of Singaporeans owning their homes, the vast majority of them HDB flats.

Embarking on the first Merdeka Talks for independence on 15 April 1956 with a multi-party delegation that included (from left) Seah Peng Chuan from the Labour Front. Lim Choon Meng from the Liberal Socialist Party and Lim Chin Siong from the PAP.

Internal running of affairs

Constitutional talks with Britain on Singapore’s future began in April 1955. Among the All-Party delegates at the talks was Mr Lee.

The British agreed to grant Singapore internal self-government in 1959. A local head of state (Yang di-Pertuan Negara) would replace the British Governor; a 51-member Legislative Assembly would be chosen entirely by popular vote; and a Prime Minister would lead the government.

Though the British would remain in control of foreign affairs and defence, Mr Lee saw self-government as a step towards merger and Merdeka, or independence.

The date for the election of Singapore’s first internal government was set for 30 May 1959.

Interview with The Straits Times

"This is my country. This is my life. This is my people... We dug our toes in, we built a nation.“

– Interview with The Straits Times, 21 Aug 1989.

Top photo: Mr Lee at Marina Barrage’s Groundbreaking Ceremony in March 2005.

Bottom photo: Presenting the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize to Canadian researcher Andrew Benedek in June 2008. The prestigious international award was established to honour outstanding contributions to solving the world’s water problems. It was named after Mr Lee in recognition of his leadership in attaining water sustainability for Singapore.

Keeping our taps running

Singapore’s dependence on Malaysia for water was a profound existential matter.

Mr Lee secured two long-term water treaties with Malaysia in 1961 and 1962. To ensure they were upheld, the treaties were guaranteed in Singapore’s Separation Agreement with Malaysia, and enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution. Just before relinquishing his Prime Ministership, Mr Lee also oversaw the signing of a new supplementary water agreement with Malaysia on 24 November 1990.

Knowing the risks of the taps being turned off, Mr Lee was determined to diversify Singapore’s water sources. The result was a “Four Taps” strategy. Singapore now obtains its water from desalination, recycling, a vastly expanded local catchment system, as well as from Malaysia.

Mr Lee also drove efforts to clean up Singapore’s waterways and rivers, including the once-badly polluted Singapore River.

Because of his ingenuity and foresight, Singapore has been able to turn a strategic weakness – its lack of water -- into a source of strength, innovation and competitive advantage.

Launch of the National Orchid Garden

"Even in the sixties, when the Government had to grapple with grave problems of unemployment, lack of housing, health and education, I pushed for the planting of trees and shrubs. I have always believed that a blighted urban jungle of concrete destroys the human spirit. We need the greenery of nature to lift up our spirits.”


– At the launch of the National Orchid Garden, 20 October 1995


Lee Kuan Yew, 1923 - 2015

Mr Lee Kuan Yew fought for self-Government from our British colonial masters and later led Singapore into merger with Malaysia believing that this was the best option for Singapore’s future. When merger did not work out, he took Singapore out of Malaysia and built a nation from nothing during our most difficult years.

He built up a strong defence capability to protect our sovereignty, a vibrant economy which created good jobs, a sound education system and excellent infrastructure, housing and environment. He transformed Singapore from a Third World to First World country.

The way he went about his work also mattered – he was meticulous, persistent, with tremendous drive and spirit, never quitting. He also saw to the continued success of Singapore beyond him through leadership succession.

Still a crowd favourite at the National Day Parade in 2012. His appearance at the annual celebration to mark Singapore’s independence always drew the loudest cheers from the sea of red and white.

Lee Kuan Yew, 1923 - 2015

Mr Lee’s legacy is modern Singapore. For millions within and without Singapore, his name is synonymous with the modern city republic.

“I have spent my life, so much of it,” he told journalists in 2011, “building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.”

With his family through the years. (Clockwise from top left) The Lee family relaxing at the veranda of their Oxley Road home in May 1965; three generations of Lees at a family gathering on 4 February 2000; posing happily for a photo with his wife on 14 February 2008 at Sentosa; and Grandpa and Grandma Lee with their grandchildren (from left) Haoyi, Shengwu, Huanwu and Hongyi.

Love everlasting

Mr Lee may have been the architect of modern Singapore, but he was also a loving and devoted husband, father, grandfather, brother and son.

Interviews with Mr Lee in his later years revealed softer dimensions of his personality.

When Mrs Lee passed away on 2 October 2010, Singaporeans caught a glimpse of the overwhelming love he felt for his wife and the profound grief he experienced on her passing. When she became bedridden after a series of strokes, he was her daily bedside companion, reading aloud her favourite poems or telling her about his day.

In his eulogy at his wife’s funeral, Mr Lee said that he had precious memories of their 63 years together. Without Choo, he said, he would have been a different man, with a different life.

Malaysian Federal Parliament


"If we delude people into believing that they are poor because there are no Malay rights or because opposition members oppose Malay rights, where are we going to end up?”


– At the Malaysian Federal Parliament, 25 May 1965


Opening his first

“Soon you will have to decide on your future. In the next few months we shall settle the constitutional arrangements for merger. In this series of broadcasts, I hope to tell you what merger means, why it is good for all of us, why it is coming, and why some people are deliberately creating trouble and difficulty over it to prevent it from taking place.”


– Opening his first “Battle For Merger” broadcast, 13 September 1961


Opening of ABC Waters

"We have met our people’s basic needs, we have to meet the rising aspirations of Singaporeans… Home ownership motivates Singaporeans to work hard and to aspire for a better future for their family, to upgrade to better and bigger flats. The HDB story reflects the social mobility of Singaporeans. ”


– At the launch of Tanjong Pagar Town Council’s Five-year Masterplan and opening of ABC Waters on 22 March 2011.


Ensuring a smooth transition: (top) Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and President Wee Kim Wee witnessing the swearing-in of Mr Lee as Senior Minister on 28 November 1990.
Mr Lee (sixth from left) attending his last Cabinet meeting at the Istana on May 19 2011.

Passing the baton

Mr Lee had once remarked that a leader’s toughest job was to ensure succession. He worked hard to ensure a smooth leadership transition to the next generation.

He handed over the reins of the prime ministership to Mr Goh Chok Tong on 28 November 1990, but continued to advise the government on important issues for another 21 years, first as Senior Minister under Mr Goh and then as Minister Mentor under Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

On 14 May 2011, a week after the General Elections of 2011, Mr Lee and Mr Goh announced their decision to quit the Cabinet so as to give Prime Minister Lee a “fresh, clean slate” with which to govern.

The 87-year-old noted that it was the "right thing to do" and would send a clear message of a "break from the past."

He continued to serve as the Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar, a constituency he had held, without a break, since 1955.

Proclamation of Malaysia

"Now I, Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, do hereby proclaim and declare, on behalf of the people of Singapore, that as from today, the 16th day of September, 1963, Singapore shall forever be a part of the sovereign and independent state of Malaysia, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and more equal society.”


– At the proclamation of Malaysia from the steps of City Hall, 16 September 1963


(Clockwise, from top left)
Mr Lee had the rare honour of addressing a joint session of the United States Senate and House of Representatives on 9 October 1985. Behind Mr Lee are (left) Vice-President George H. W. Bush and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill.
Mr Lee exchanging gifts with Chinese President Jiang Zemin during a visit to China on 8 June 2001.
Mr Lee exchanging a warm greeting with Indonesian President Suharto upon his arrival in Jakarta on 7 September 1982.
Mr and Mrs Lee with the late Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk and his wife during the monarch’s visit to Singapore in December 1962.

Putting Singapore on the world map

Mr Lee understood the vulnerability of small states such as Singapore, and believed that “a small country must seek a maximum number of friends, while maintaining the freedom to be itself as a sovereign and independent nation”.

Together with Mr S Rajaratnam, Singapore’s first Foreign Minister, Mr Lee moved quickly to boost the country’s standing on the international stage.

(Clockwise, from top left)
Mr Lee met with every single US President since 1967, including then-Vice-President H. W. Bush, pictured here at a dinner in October 1985 with (from left) Mrs Lee, Mrs Barbara Bush, Mrs Helena Schultz and then-Secretary of State, George Schultz.
Dr Henry Kissinger giving Mr Lee a hug just before Mr Lee received a lifetime achievement award from the US-ASEAN Business Council on 27 October 2009.
Former Chancellor of West Germany Helmut Schmidt travelled to Singapore to meet Mr Lee on 7 May 2012.
(From left) Mr Lee, Mr Schmidt and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in their prime, discussing world economic problems on Japanese television in 1983.

Putting Singapore on the world map

Between 1959 and 2012, Mr Lee made at least 304 official trips to 83 countries. A world-class strategic thinker whose insights were sought by world leaders, he was instrumental in forging a place for Singapore in the international arena.

Singapore was admitted to the United Nations on 21 September 1965. Less than two years later, on 8 August 1967, it became one of the five founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

"We have made our contributions to the development of Singapore. The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation.”


– Announcing his resignation from Cabinet in a joint statement with Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong on 14 May 2011.


S Rajaratnam Lecture

"Friendship, in international relations, is not a function of goodwill or personal affection. We must make ourselves relevant so that other countries have an interest in our continued survival and prosperity as a sovereign and independent nation.”


– At the S. Rajaratnam Lecture at Shangri-La Hotel, 9 April 2009.


Taking the oath of office as Prime Minister on 19 October 1963 at City Hall in the presence of Yusof bin Ishak, then the Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore.

Singapore as a Malaysian state

The public had shown its trust in Mr Lee and his team by voting overwhelmingly in favour of the PAP’s merger proposal in the September 1962 referendum.

On 16 September 1963, Singapore, together with Sabah and Sarawak, became part of the Federation of Malaysia. Just five days later, the PAP was re-elected as the government after winning 37 out of the 51 seats in the 1963 Singapore general elections. The PAP won Malay constituencies too, though the Tunku had personally campaigned on behalf of UMNO candidates in Singapore.

Planting a mempat tree at Farrer Circus on 16 June 1963 to launch the tree-planting campaign (top), and continuing the unbroken annual tradition on 16 June 2013 at Holland Village Park (bottom).

Singapore Chief Gardener

Singapore’s distinctive appearance as a “City in a Garden” is due to Mr Lee’s bold vision of greening Singapore.

He saw this as a means of distinguishing Singapore from other cities, especially in the region. A well-tended city would help convince potential investors that the place was well run, he thought.

But above all, Mr Lee wanted high-quality living conditions for all Singaporeans. Equal access to a clean and beautiful environment would help strengthen unity and national pride, he felt.

He had a keen eye for detail, and took a personal interest in everything connected to the greening of Singapore – including drainage systems and plant types.

Today, close to 10% of Singapore is set aside for parks. Lush greenery covers the island. Every road is lined with trees, shrubs or plants.

Meeting the media at Radio & Television Singapore on the morning of 9 August 1965 after the Proclamation of Singapore’s independence was issued.

Singapore is out

In the face of irreconcilable differences, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia on 9 August 1965.

Feeling that Separation had let down the millions in Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak who had responded to his call for a “Malaysian Malaysia”, an emotional Mr Lee broke down during a televised press conference announcing the split.

Mr Lee and his team now faced the daunting task of ensuring the young nation’s survival against overwhelming odds.

At a dinner with Mdm Kwa (seated, second from left) and fellow students of Cambridge University in 1949. These students from Malaya and Singapore included E. W. Barker (top row, fourth from left), who would become a Cabinet Minister, and Yong Pung How (seated, second from right), who would become Singapore’s Chief Justice from 1990 to 2006.

Sparks of nationalism

While in England, Mr Lee joined the Malayan Forum, an anti-colonial student body that was started by Goh Keng Swee and others. He also cut his teeth campaigning, delivering speeches in support of his friend David Widdicombe, a British Labour Party candidate in the 1950 British general election.

Mr Lee left England believing firmly that Singaporeans and Malayans should govern themselves.


“We in Malaya are now seeing British domination after over a hundred years enter its last phase. Colonial imperialism in Southeast Asia is dead except in Malaya, and our generation will see it out.”


– Speech at Malayan Hall, 28 January 1950


Visiting residents at Geylang Serai following the deadly July 1964 communal riots.

Tensions mount

That Malays in Singapore voted for the PAP in the 1963 general elections was viewed as a “betrayal” by UMNO. It was an ominous start to merger, marking the beginning of a serious rift between the central government in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The Malay ground was inflamed by the UMNO-controlled Malay media, especially the Utusan Melayu. The PAP was accused of racial discrimination and Mr Lee became the object of incessant attacks.

Singapore exploded in communal riots in July and September 1964. Curfews had to be imposed to restore order.

Drawing a capacity crowd on 28 August 1962 as he spoke about the upcoming referendum during one of his well-known lunchtime rallies at Fullerton Square.

Tunku’s merger announcement

Mr Lee spent little time celebrating. His new government faced many problems, including high unemployment. The most pressing was the challenge posed by the pro-communists, including those ensconced in the PAP.

In May 1961, Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman announced that he was considering a merger with Singapore as well as the territories of North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei. He was worried about the possibility of a communist-controlled Singapore at the tip of the Malayan Peninsula.

A public referendum was to be held on 1 September 1962 to “enable the people of Singapore to express their choice on the mode and manner of the inevitable reunification” of Singapore and Malaya in a new Federation of Malaysia.

Victory rally at the Padang


“Once in a long while in the history of a people, there comes a moment of great change. Tonight is such a moment in our lives… We begin a new chapter in the history of Singapore.”


– Victory rally at the Padang, 3 June 1959


Vision for Singapore

“But I say to you: here we make the model multi-racial society. This is not a country that belongs to any single community: it belongs to all of us. You helped built it; your fathers, your grandfathers helped build this… Over 100 years ago, this was a mud-flat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.”


– Sharing his vision for Singapore at the Sree Narayana Mission on 12 September 1965.


Sharing a garland with the Tunku after arriving at Kuala Lumpur airport from a successful round of merger talks in London, 9 August 1962.

Winning the ground

The run-up to merger with Malaysia was a bitter period. The PAP and the Barisan Socialis waged a fierce struggle for the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. This struggle led to the Trades Union Congress also splitting into the Barisan-affiliated Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) and the PAP-affiliated National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

Mr Lee and his team worked tirelessly. To rally support, Mr Lee visited all 51 constituencies in Singapore within a span of 10 months between 1962 and 1963. Many years later, Dr Goh Keng Swee was to say that Singapore owed much to Mr Lee’s “superb political generalship” during this period.

A formidable orator, Mr Lee is seen here campaigning at City Hall during the hustings for the May 1959 elections.

Fighting to win

Believing that Singapore was economically dependent on Malaya, Mr Lee pushed for merger with Malaya.

Singapore was also vulnerable to a Communist threat from within, as manifested in the attempted pro-communist takeover of the PAP’s leadership in 1957.

The PAP campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, symbolised by the Party’s uniform of white-on-white.