Lee Kuan Yew made this little red dot shine bright across the world. Here’s how.


In the first half of the twentieth century, Singapore had a longstanding reputation as a rough-and-tumble port city which was ultimately loyal and useful to the British Crown. It was where the more adventurous European could seek his or her fortune amidst its dark, crowded alleys of streetwise Asian migrants and barely-controlled chaos.    

This reputation took some time to change.  

But change it did over the decades, because of how our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew developed this little red dot. He had a vision of us shining brightly amidst a big world. 

Connecting Singapore to the world

Mr Lee and his team set out to stamp our position with the building of airports and seaports that refreshed Singapore’s international connections.  

The redevelopment of Sembawang Naval Base into Sembawang Shipyard is a great example. It was for decades where the British docked their warships and housed their sailors. Their surprise January 1968 announcement of their earlier-than-expected military withdrawal meant 30,000 Singaporeans would be out of jobs quickly. 

Here, Mr Lee converted the military facility into a commercial enterprise which (along with the then-new Jurong Shipyard) made use of Singapore’s natural deep harbour for docking ships while retraining these Singaporeans to repair these ships at competitive rates. Today, it is part of a complex local port network which makes Singapore the busiest port in the world, as well as the best seaport in Asia for over 30 years. 

Source: National Archives of Singapore 

Together with Changi Airport — another magnum opus of Mr Lee and his team — these investments cement Singapore’s superb global connectivity and give us a reputation for professional skills which are disproportionate to our physical size and regional location. 

Free trade and welcoming foreign investments

This globally-connected infrastructure was supported by how Mr Lee repeatedly challenged the Economic Development Board (EDB) and the rest of the government to capture more economic opportunities for the nation.  

He deregulated trade, which meant foreign investment poured into our shores decade after decade. He would also personally meet foreign investors to further persuade them that Singapore would flourish with its stable and honest government — and, more importantly, that they could be part of this success. Today, Singapore is known as Asia’s top financial centre; we are only behind New York and London globally.

Source: shih-wei / Getty Images 

“The history of our financial centre is the story of how we built up credibility as a place of integrity, and developed the officers with the knowledge and skills to regulate and supervise the banks, security houses and other financial institutions so that the risk of systemic failure is minimised,” Mr Lee reflected years later, in From Third World to First.  

His strategy was daring. Developing countries did not welcome foreign investment in Mr Lee’s day; they feared economic colonisation from other countries. But these funds were highly appropriate for our circumstances: Singapore’s small size means that we have to look overseas for sufficient markets and investors to fuel our economic growth.   

A trusted advisor to the world

Singapore is also able to speak with credibility and clarity on the international stage today, unlike when we did not even have a voice during the Crown Colony years. Every Government position is principled and considered.  

As a statesman, Mr Lee laid the foundations for this independence. He chose non-alignment in a world where it would be easy to pair up with great powers like China or the United States. Our national interest must always come first. 

Source: National Archives of Singapore 

The result was that Singapore could do business as well as be a trusted third-party advisor to these powers. Mr Lee and Singapore could forge key understandings of Asia for the West even while speaking truth to the West about its own limitations. This while being able to aid and advise China on its affairs as well.   

Much closer to home, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) today unites countries in the region economically. Mr Lee’s patient diplomatic efforts with the leaders of these countries helped set up ASEAN’s stability even when other post-World War 2 regional organisations sputtered out across the globe. 

There will be more discussion of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s policies at the PPF | Insights dialogue Shining Red Dot: Singapore on the World Stage this Saturday (Dec 2). This is the final part of an initiative by the PAP Policy Forum (PPF) to engage Singaporeans in lively dialogues on the social and political issues affecting our lives.