LKY Memoirs

I want to read LKY’s memoirs. I have a copy. I’m going to start reading, and share my notes as I go.

1. Suddenly, Independence

The book The Singapore Story is 680 pages long, with 43 chapters. The first chapter is “Suddenly, Independence.”

LKY chose to describe the separation as a divorce, talking about Malay-Muslim customs. “The three readings in the two chambers of parliament were the three talaks with which Malaysia divorced Singapore.”

August 9, 1965 began with announcements (at 10am) that Singapore was independent. Before the announcement was made, members of the diplomatic corps in Singapore were gathered and informed – Singapore requested recognition from their governments. LKY sent letters to the Indian PM and Egyptian President, seeking advisers to train an army and a coastal defence force respectively.

At noon was the press conference – a journalist asked “Could you outline for us the train of events that led to this morning’s proclamation”, and LKY gave the famous response which led to his tears.

In LKY’s words, “Among Chinese, it is unbecoming to exhibit such a lack of manliness. But I could not help myself.”

“I was weighed down by a heavy sense of guilt. I felt I had let down several million people in Malaysia: immigrant Chinese and Indians, Eurasians, and even some Malays. I had aroused their hopes and they had joined people in Singapore in resisting Malay hegemony, the root cause of our dispute. I was ashamed that I had left our allies and supporters to fend for themselves, including other party leaders from other states of Malaysia […]. I was also filled with remorse and guilt for having had to deceive the prime ministers of Britain, Australia and New Zealand. In the last three weeks, while they had been giving me and Singapore their quiet and powerful support for a peaceful solution to Malaysia’s communal problems, I had been secretly discussing this separation.” 

“The merchants in Singapore’s Chinatown were jubilant. They set off fire crackers to celebrate their liberation from communal rule by the Malays from Kuala Lumpur, carpeting the streets with red paper debris.”

LKY informed the police commissioner about the announcement – there were paramilitary squads (Police Reserve Units) deployed in case pro-UMNO Malay activists in Singapore went on a rampage to protest against separation. There had been two bloody Malay-Chinese riots the previous year, 1964. Many went home early to be safe.

LKY met with Viscount Head, the British high commissioner to KL. “He had tried his best to prevent this break. He had done his utmost to get the Tunku and the federal government to adopt policies that could build up unity within Malaysia. […] Separation was certainly not the solution he had worked so hard for.

But despite the presence of some 63,000 British servicemen, two aircraft carriers, 80 warships and 20 squadrons of aircraft in Southeast Asia to defend the Federation, he could not prevail against the force of Malay communalism. The Malay leaders, including the Tunku, feared that if ever they shared real political power with the non-Malays, they would be overwhelmed. That was the crux of the matter. Head did not understand this. Nor had I originally, but I came to do soe before he did because I had spent more time interacting with the Tunku, Razak and Ismail. And I spoke Malay, which head did not. I could also recall incidents of friction and rivalry between Malays and non-Malays from my past, especially during my student days at Raffles College in 1940 and 1941. I knew the Malays better.”

“Fearful of a deep split in the cabinet and among the MPs, I had wanted every minister to sign the Separation Agreement precisely because I knew that several would have opposed it tooth and nail.” (VV: Who?)

LKY spent most of his time that day with Goh Keng Swee. They put him in charge of home affairs and defence. Lim Kim San took over as finance minister. Rajaratnam took over foreign affairs.

“Now we were on our own, and the Malaysian government was out to teach us a lesson for being difficult, and for not complying with their norms and practices and fitting into their set-up. We could expect them to cut us off from our role as their traditional outlet for imports and exports […] Indeed, how were we to live? Even our water came from the neighbouring Malaysian state of Johor. I remember vividly how, in thearly February 1942, the Japanese army had captured our reservoirs there, demoralizing the British defenders by that act, even though there was still some water in the reservoirs in Singapore.”

“We were a Chinese island in a Malay sea. How could we survive in such a hostile environment? There was no doubt about the hostility. To add to our problems, the Indonesians had mounted their aggressive “Confrontation” against Malaysia […] acts of terrorism with commandos infiltrating Singapore to explode bombs. The Chinese in Malaya and Singapore knew the Indonesian government was against even its own three million ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.”

On British involvement in Singapore’s GDP:

“[…] our strategic value to Britain in holding the empire together was vanishing as the empire dissolved. Singapore’s economy would be hit hard by any sudden saling down of the British presence. British defense spending in Singapore accounted for about 20 per cent of our GDP; their military gave employment, directly to 30,000 workers, and indirectly to another 10,000 domestic help […] They created employment for more than 10 per cent of the work force at a time when a high population growth of 2.5 per cent per annum was putting enormous pressure on the government for jobs as well as education, health services and housing.

Fun fact:  “I was determined to keep to my routine of daily exercise to remove my tensions. I spent more than an hour hitting 150 golf balls from the practice tee in front of Sri Temasek, my official residence in the grounds of the Istana (formerly Government House).”

2. Growing Up

Lee Kuan Yew was a naughty boy.

“My earliest and most vivid recollection is of being held by my ears over a well […] I was about 4 years old. I had been mischievous and had messed up an expensive jar of my father’s 4711 pale green scented brilliantine.

“I was given a double promotion from primary 1 to standard I, leap-frogging primary 2. In my final year, 1935, I made the extra effort. I came in first in school and won a place in Raffles Institution, which took in only the top students.”

“I was not very hardworking, but I was good at mathematics and the sciences and had a solid grounding in the English Language. […] I usually came in among the top three without much effort. I was still not very attentive in class, and tried to catch up by peeking into the notebook of the boy who sat next to me.”

“I enjoyed my years in Raffles Institution. I coped with the work comfortably, was active in the Scout movement, played cricket and some tennis, swam and took part in many debate. But I never became a prefect, let alone head prefect. There was a mischievous, playful streak in me. Too often, I was caught not paying attention in class, scribbling notes to fellow students, or mimicking some teacher’s strange mannerisms. In the case of a rather ponderous Indian science teacher, I was caught in the laboratory drawing the back of his head with its bald patch.”

“Once I was caned by the principal. D.W. McLeod was a fair but strict disciplinarian who enforced rules impartially, and one rule was that a boy who was late for school three times during one term would get three strokes of the cane. I was always a late riser, an owl more than a lark, and when I was late for school the third time in a term in 1938 […] I bent over a chair and was given three of the best with my trousers on. I did not think he lightened his strokes.”

“I had set my heart on distinguishing myself in the Senior Cambridge examinations, and I was happy when the results in early 1940 showed I had come first in school, and first among all the students in Singapore and Malaya.

“When I was a little older, I used the Raffles Library. […] I read eclectically but preferred westerns to detective thrillers.”

LKY’s family

LKY’s parents, Lee Chin Koon (20) and Chua Jim Neo (16) had an arranged marriage. “Both families must have thought it an excellent match, for they later married my father’s younger sister to my mother’s younger brother.”

  • Paternal great-grandfather: Lee Bok Boon, Hakka, born in 1846 in Tangxi, Dabu, Guangdong. Came to Singapore on a Chinese junk. Married shopkeeper’s daughter in 1870.  Returned to China alone, because his wife and kids didn’t want to leave SG. Remarried.
  • Paternal Grandfather, Lee Hoon Loong – adressed as Kung – born in 1871. Studied at RI up to standard V (lower secondary school). Worked as an unqualified pharmacist, then became a purser on board a steamer plying between SG and Dutch East Indies. Fleet belonged to Heap Eng Moh Shipping Line, owned by Chinese millionaire sugar king of Java, Oei Tiong Ham. Was appointed as Oei’s attorney to manage his affairs in Singapore. He was so trusted that in 1926, he donated $150,000 from Oei’s funds (on his own authority) towards the foundation of Raffles College.
    • Great Depression -> rubber prices fell from 80 cents per pound to 20 cents – Kung was badly hit.
    • Kung was very Westernized from his experience on board ships with British captains – rigid discipline, order, strength, efficiency. Table manners. Kung would wear a waistcoat in the tropics. Insisted on adding Christian names – Harry Lee Kuan Yew, Dennis Lee Kim Yew, Freddy Lee Thiam Yew. This was uncommon at the time, and LKY persuaded his parents not to give Suan Yew (the youngest) a Christian name.
    • Kung was a gourmet. His wife made a great steak seasoned with grated nutmeg and golden brown potato chips.
  • Maternal Grandfather, Chua Kim Teng – also invested in rubber and speculated on the rubber market, but also owned property – markets, shophouses. By 1929, LKY’s parents moved from Kung’s home to Chua’s.
    • No formal English schooling. No association withBritish sea captains and Chinese sugar millionaires. Born in Singapore in 1865 to a Hokkien Chinese family from Malacca. Married 3 times. First two wives died. Third was LKY’s grandmother. She was a young widow with 2 children. Had 7 children before dying in 1935. He died in 1944 during the Japanese occupation.

“My father had been brought up a rich man’s son. He used to boast to us that, when he was young, his father allowed him a limitless account at Robinsons and John Little […].” He was educated at SJI. He didn’t complete his formal education – so he could only get a job as a storekeeper with Shell when the fortunes of both families were destroyed in the Great Depression.

“Between my father and my grandfather, there was no question to whom I admired more. My grandfather loved and pampered me. My father, the disciplinarian in the family, was tough with me. My grandfather had acquired great wealth. My father was just a rich man’s son, with little to show for himself.

“She even brought with her, as part of her dowry, a little slave girl whose duty, among other things, was to help bathe her, wash her feet and put on and take off her shoes.” (LKY on his mom)

“Every now and again my father would come home in a foul mood after losing at blackjack and other card games at the Chinese Swimming Club in AMber Road, and demand some of my mother’s jewellery to pawn so that he could go back and try his luck again. There would be fearful quarrels, and he was sometimes violent.

“My mother was a courageous woman […] A strong character with great energy and resourcefulness, she had been married off too early. In her day, a woman was expected to be a good wife, bear many children, […] Had she been born one generation later and continued her education beyond secondary school, she could easily have become an effective business executive.”

Fun: “I read […] economics, because I believed it could teach me how to make money in business and on the stock market – I was naive!”

On hazing:

“I did not enjoy my first year in Raffles College as much as my first year in Raffles Institution. Ragging or hazing was then a part of the initiation […]. I had to sing. I had to crawl around the quadrangle pushing a marble forward on the ground with my nose. I had to walk […] wearing a ragged green tie and carrying a silly green flag. I thought it all stupid, but went through with it as part of the price to be paid for joining an institution that lacked maturity and was developing the wrong traditions. When my turn came in the second year, I turned my face against ragging and tried to discourage it, but was not successful. I strongly disapproved of those who took it out on freshmen for what they had endured when they themselves were “freshies”.

On race:

“It was only in retrospect that I realized Raffles College was my initiation into the politics of race and religion. […] There was a strong sense of solidarity among the Malays (VV: from Malaya), which I was to learn grew from a feeling of being threatened, a fear of being overwhelmed by the more energetic and hardworking Chinese and Indian immigrants. […] Because I had many Malay friends from childhood, my spoken Malay was fluent. But I soon discovered that their attitude towards non-Malays, especially Chinese, was totally different from that of Singapore Malays.

One student from Kedah told me in my second year, after we became friends, “You Chinese are too energetic and too clever for us. In Kedah, we have too many of you. We cannot stand the pressure.”

On “Malayism” at Raffles College:

One incident stands out in my memory. In my second year, there was much unhappiness over the arrangements for the annual Raffles College Students’ Union dinner at the old Seaview Hotel. The non-Malays were incensed at the sharp and cavalier responses of the honorary secretary, Ungu Aziz bin Abdul Hamid, to their complaints. A few students started a move for an extraordinary general meeting to censure him and deprive him of office. But he was a Malay. As the collection of signatures for an EGM gathered momentum, the Malay students rallied round him and made it clear that if he were removed, they would resign en masse from the union. This presented the non-Malays with a challenge. I was approached and asked to make the opening speech setting out their complaints against Ungu Aziz. I had not attended the dinner, and I had no personal quarrel with him. But since nobody wanted to take on this unpleasant job, I decided to do it. The meeting took place on a Saturday afternoon, and all the day students had left, probably because they wished to avoid the unpleasantness. Of those in halls of residence, the Malays turned up in force. The tension was high, and racial feelings strong.

It was my first experience of Malayism, a deep and intense pro-Malay, anti-immigrant sentiment. I made out the case in measured tones, firmly but, I hoped, not aggressively. Ungku Aziz spoke up to refute all the allegations of rude behavior. I could sense that the crowd of some 80 students felt most uncomfortable about the confrontation. When the votes were cast, the Malays carried the day for Ungku Aziz, and the break-up never came. […] This incident faded from my memory. It was only later, between 1963 and 1965, when we were in Malaysia and ran into similar problems with Malayism, that I was to recall it.

On networking with elites:

“Many of those I first met in Raffles College were to become close political colleagues.” (Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee). When I started my career as a lawyer in the 1950s, therefore, I already had a network of friends and acquaintances in important positions in government and the professions in Singapore. Even if one did not know someone personally, just sharing the same background made for easy accceptance, and the old school tie worked well in Singapore and Malaya, even between Chinese, Indians and Malays. Before the days ofa ctive politics, when power was still completely in the hands of the British, I did not feel any personal animosity or resentment from the upcountry Malays. I made friends with manay of them, including two Malay sessions judges before whom I later appeared. It was the easy old-boy network of an elite at the very top of the English-educated group nurtured by the British colonial education system.”

To be continued…


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