From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000


Few gave tiny Singapore much chance of survival when it was granted independence in 1965. How is it, then, that today the former British colonial trading post is a thriving Asian metropolis with not only the world's number one airline, best airport, and busiest port of trade, but also the world's fourth–highest per capita real income?

The story of that transformation is told here by Singapore's charismatic, controversial founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. Rising from a legacy of ...

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Few gave tiny Singapore much chance of survival when it was granted independence in 1965. How is it, then, that today the former British colonial trading post is a thriving Asian metropolis with not only the world's number one airline, best airport, and busiest port of trade, but also the world's fourth–highest per capita real income?

The story of that transformation is told here by Singapore's charismatic, controversial founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. Rising from a legacy of divisive colonialism, the devastation of the Second World War, and general poverty and disorder following the withdrawal of foreign forces, Singapore now is hailed as a city of the future. This miraculous history is dramatically recounted by the man who not only lived through it all but who fearlessly forged ahead and brought about most of these changes.

Delving deep into his own meticulous notes, as well as previously unpublished government papers and official records, Lee details the extraordinary efforts it took for an island city–state in Southeast Asia to survive at that time.

Lee explains how he and his cabinet colleagues finished off the communist threat to the fledgling state's security and began the arduous process of nation building: forging basic infrastructural roads through a land that still consisted primarily of swamps, creating an army from a hitherto racially and ideologically divided population, stamping out the last vestiges of colonial–era corruption, providing mass public housing, and establishing a national airline and airport.

In this illuminating account, Lee writes frankly about his trenchant approach to political opponents and his often unorthodox views on human rights, democracy, and inherited intelligence, aiming always "to be correct, not politically correct." Nothing in Singapore escaped his watchful eye: whether choosing shrubs for the greening of the country, restoring the romance of the historic Raffles Hotel, or openly, unabashedly persuading young men to marry women as well educated as themselves. Today's safe, tidy Singapore bears Lee's unmistakable stamp, for which he is unapologetic: "If this is a nanny state, I am proud to have fostered one."

Though Lee's domestic canvas in Singapore was small, his vigor and talent assured him a larger place in world affairs. With inimitable style, he brings history to life with cogent analyses of some of the greatest strategic issues of recent times and reveals how, over the years, he navigated the shifting tides of relations among America, China, and Taiwan, acting as confidant, sounding board, and messenger for them. He also includes candid, sometimes acerbic pen portraits of his political peers, including the indomitable Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the poetry–spouting Jiang Zemin, and ideologues George Bush and Deng Xiaoping.

Lee also lifts the veil on his family life and writes tenderly of his wife and stalwart partner, Kwa Geok Choo, and of their pride in their three children –– particularly the eldest son, Hsien Loong, who is now Singapore's deputy prime minister.

For more than three decades, Lee Kuan Yew has been praised and vilified in equal measure, and he has established himself as a force impossible to ignore in Asian and international politics. From Third World to First offers readers a compelling glimpse into this visionary's heart, soul, and mind.

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Editorial Reviews

Bruce Nussbaum
With his intolerance, hypocrisy and stands as one of Asia's great modern leaders Lee Kuan Yew, founder and father of Singapore, makes a strong case in his fascinating and powerful memoir, From Third World to First
Nicholas Kristof
One can disagree with him, but intolerance and authoritarianism have never had so articulate or stimulating a spokesman. These are rich memoirs . . . [T]his book is like Lee himself: smart, thoughtful, blunt and provocative.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A political memoir—and a playbook for how to start an improbably successful, postage-stamp nation. In 1965, the island of Singapore, a strategically important British naval base with few resources of its own, gained unexpected independence when its Malay neighbors rejected union with Singapore's predominantly Chinese population (evidently expecting that it would become a client state of Malaysia or Indonesia). Enter Lee Kuan Yew, a British-trained attorney and politician who made Singapore into a powerful city-state whose every detail (from family planning to education to traffic flow) he micromanaged. Lee's authoritarian manner won him both admirers and detractors, as he himself relates in this memoir (which is organized not chronologically but thematically, with sections devoted, for instance, to"getting the basics right," dealing with China, and forging alliances with the West), but it appears to have had the desired results, inasmuch as the people of Singapore remain independent, comparatively prosperous, and untroubled by the strife that now troubles the region. (They are, however, evidently not well enough behaved for Lee, who writes that"it will take another generation before standards of civic behavior of our people will match the First World infrastructure they now take for granted.") Lee's narrative is refreshingly free of the self-congratulatory tone of so many political memoirs; instead, he focuses dispassionately on the hard facts of building a trade economy, fending off the unwanted attentions of rival superpowers, and keeping an eye on the bottom line. His language is unadulterated realpolitik (not for nothing does HenryKissingercontribute a foreword), and his view of such acts as China's suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 is relentlessly practical."But for [Deng Xiaoping]," he claims,"China would have collapsed as the Soviet Union did"—which might have robbed Singapore of a lucrative market, of course, and thus been catastrophic. Useful reading for those with an informed interest in geopolitics, or for anyone seeking to do business in Singapore.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060197766
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 752
  • Sales rank: 78,860
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 2.16 (d)

Meet the Author

Lee Kuan Yew was born in Singapore on September 16, 1923, a third-generation descendant of immigrants from China's Guangdong Province. He read law at Cambridge University, England. In 1954 he formed the People's Action Party, which won the first Singapore general election five years later. Lee became the country's first prime minister in 1959, at the age of thirty-five. In November 1990 he resigned the office to assume the post of senior minister in the Singapore cabinet.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Going It Alone

There are books to teach you how to build a house, how to repair engines, how to write a book. But I have not seen a book on how to build a nation out of a disparate collection of immigrants from China, British India, and the Dutch East Indies, or how to make a living for its people when its former economic role as the entrepot of the region is becoming defunct.

I never had expected that in 1965, at 42, 1 would be in charge of an independent Singapore, responsible for the lives of its 2 million people. From 1959, when I was 35, 1 was prime minister of a self-governing state of Singapore. We joined the Federation of Malaysia in September 1963. There were fundamental disagreements over policies between Singapore and the federal government. All of a sudden, on 9 August 1965, we were out on our own as an independent nation. We had been asked to leave Malaysia and go our own way with no signposts to our next destination.

We faced tremendous odds with an improbable chance of survival. Singapore was not a natural country but man-made, a trading post the British had developed into a nodal point in their worldwide maritime empire. We inherited the island without its hinterland, a heart without a body.

Foreign press comments immediately after independence, all predicting doom, added to my gloom. One writer compared Britain's withdrawal from its colonies to the decline of the Roman Empire when law and order collapsed as the Roman legions withdrew and barbarian hordes took over. Denis Warner wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald (10 August 196 5), "An independent Singapore was not regarded as viable three yearsago. Nothing in the current situation suggests that it is more viable today." In the London Sunday Times (22 August 1965), Richard Hughes wrote, "Singapore's economy would collapse if the British bases — costing more than 100 million pounds sterling-were closed." I shared these fears but did not express them: My duty was to give the people hope, not demoralize them.

Indeed one question uppermost in my mind was how long the British would or could keep their bases in Singapore. Would their stay be shortened because of the way separation had taken place? Harold Wilson was already facing opposition from his backbenchers. The "east of Suez" policy was costly and did not help the Labour government win votes. They needed the money for welfare and other vote-winning programs. The only guarantor of security and stability in East Asia, the United States, was deeply mired in a guerrilla war in Vietnam which was extremely unpopular with their European allies and with African and Asian governments. Anti-American propaganda by the Soviets and the People's Republic of China was most effective in the Third World. I felt it would be politically costly, if not impossible, for Singapore to have the Americans take over the role of the British. Australia and New Zealand on their own would not be credible guarantors.

I feared that slowly but inexorably British influence would decline, and American influence expand. For my generation born and bred in empire, it was not an easy change. I had to come to terms with American power without a British buffer. The British had enforced their will with a certain civility. The Americans were different, as I could see from the way they dealt with South Vietnamese leaders, and even with Thai and Filipino leaders who were not in as parlous a position as those in Saigon. America was a power on the ascendant, with bulging muscles and a habit of flexing them.

There was the personal burden of tighter security. It was irksome. Immediately after separation, the police officer in charge of my security had warned me that I had become the number one hate object in the Malaysian Malay-language newspapers and radio and television broadcasts then circulating and receivable in Singapore. He advised me to move from my home on Oxley Road until they had made certain alterations to the house. I had a thick layer of security men instead of just one officer. He also extended discreet security cover for my wife Choo and the children. The threat from racial fanatics was unpredictable, unlike that from the communists who were rational and calculating and would see no benefit in going for Choo or our children. For three to four months, Choo and I stayed at Changi Cottage, a government chalet by the sea, near the RAF Changi airfield and inside a "protected" area. During that time, I held cabinet meetings irregularly, for the drive to my office at City Hall caused traffic disruption with the unaccustomed motorcycle outriders and a security car. I took urgent decisions by telephone conference with the relevant ministers which gave me relief from interminable office meetings. My personal assistants and Wong Chooi Sen, my trusted cabinet secretary, came every day to the cottage from where I worked. Within walking distance was a nine-hole RAF golf course that provided a welcome break from the daily grind of papers and minutes. I would play nine holes, sometimes with a friend, at other times on my own, with Choo walking to keep me company.

Our three children had to attend school, so they stayed at home and put up with the inconvenience of workers erecting a wall of bricks set in honeycomb pattern to screen off our front porch from the road. As a temporary measure, until bullet-proof glass could be obtained, they also blocked our windows with steel plates. This made the rooms feel like prisons, and the whole family felt a tremendous sense of relief when the glass windows were finally installed months later. When I returned to Oxley Road, Gurkha policemen (recruited by the British from Nepal) were posted as sentries. To have either Chinese policemen shooting Malays or Malay policemen shooting Chinese would have caused widespread repercussions. The Gurkhas, on the other hand, were neutral, besides having a reputation for total discipline and loyalty. All this heightened my sense of insecurity and underlined the urgency of building an army to protect our fragile independence...

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Table of Contents

Foreword ix
Preface xiii
Acknowledgments xvii
Part I Getting the Basics Right 1
1 Going It Alone 3
2 Building an Army from Scratch 11
3 Britain Pulls Out 31
4 Surviving Without a Hinterland 49
5 Creating a Financial Center 71
6 Winning Over the Unions 83
7 A Fair, Not Welfare, Society 95
8 The Communists Self-Destruct 109
9 Straddling, the Middle Ground 121
10 Nurturing and Attracting Talent 135
11 Many Tongues, One Language 145
12 Keeping the Government Clean 157
13 Greening Singapore 173
14 Managing the Media 185
15 Conductor of an Orchestra 199
Part II In Search of Space--Regional and International 225
16 Ups and Downs with Malaysia 227
17 Indonesia: From Foe to Friend 259
18 Building Ties with Thailand, the Philippines, and Brunei 293
19 Vietnam, Myanmar, and Cambodia: Coming to Terms with the Modern World 309
20 Asean--Unpromising Start, Promising Future 329
21 East Asia in Crisis 1997-1999 343
22 Inside the Commonwealth Club 351
23 New Bonds with Britain 373
24 Ties with Australia and New Zealand 385
25 South Asia's Legends and Leaders 403
26 Following Britain into Europe 423
27 The Soviet Union--An Empire Implodes 439
28 America: The Anticommunist Anchorman 449
29 Strategic Accord with the United States 471
30 America's New Agenda 487
31 Japan: Asia's First Miracle 501
32 Lessons from Japan 521
33 Korea: At the Crossroads 531
34 Hong Kong's Transition 543
35 Taiwan: The Other China 559
36 China: The Dragon with a Long Tail 573
37 Deng Xiaoping's China 595
38 China Beyond Beijing 617
39 Tiananmen 625
40 China: To Be Rich Is Glorious 645
Part III Winding Up 661
41 Passing the Baton 663
42 My Family 675
43 Epilogue 685
Index 693
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2002

    This book is GOOD!

    I knew I wanted to read this book (after all I bought it, didn't I?) but kept putting it off. I grimly suspected the writing was going to be 'heavy', with lots of foot notes and fine print. Boy, was I wrong! The writing is very user-friendly, and the narrative is the kind that keeps you up reading till 4am. One disillusioning part in this story is the role of Britian. As Hong Kong and other countries can tell you, (post WWII) Britian has not proven to be the firmest of friends. The same was true re: Singapore. It was strickly a case of the British declaring: 'Yes, sir, we're friends to the end...and this is the end, brother!' In closing, this is a GOOD book. Who need fiction when reality holds such drama?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2000

    Good, if biased

    Lee Kwan Yew was Singapore's Prime Minister from the 50s to the early 90s. In this book, he recounts the city-state's journey from Third World to First World status after its expulsion from Malaysia. <p> The book is organized thematically, not chronologically. The effect is initially disconcerting for those unfamiliar with Singapore's history. However, the format allows Lee to explain his motivations more clearly. The reader follows Lee's government as it attacks each problem over three decades: building up an armed forces, wooing foreign investors, cleaning up the city, and managing international relations against the backdrop of the Cold War. <p> The narrative is conspicuously one-sided. While generous with praise, particularly for his Old Guard colleagues, Lee is also happy to take credit where he can find it, almost to the point of boastfulness (though his achievements are real enough.) Some personalities, particularly his political enemies, receive his trademark scathing criticism. Lee also glosses over his more dubious actions in office, such as the ruthless treatment of many opposition politicians. <p> Despite these faults, the book is saved by its gripping subject matter. It is difficult not to marvel at Lee's tale of clean and effective government, a rarity in Asia. The second half of the book is devoted to his dealings with various international leaders, and likely of particular interest to non-Singaporean readers. <p> This is a good read, particularly for those interested in Singapore, Southeast Asia, and the Cold War in Asia.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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