Lee Hsien Loong: The man who transformed Singapore in the new millennium


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will be stepping down after 20 years at the helm. Here at petir.sg, we look at some of his most enduring legacies that have transformed Singapore into one of the most prosperous and liveable cities in the world.

For many, politics is a calling. But for outgoing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, he practically lives and breathes it. After all, it is not every day that one spends their formative years under the watchful gaze of Singapore’s founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The elder Lee was an inspirational statesman, a skilful orator and a revered figure. And in more ways than one, these qualities have rubbed off the younger Mr Lee as he established himself as an astute politician in his own right.

Persuaded to enter politics by then-Deputy Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong, Mr Lee was elected as an MP in the 1984 elections. The rest, as one would say, is history. Driven by duty and love for Singapore, Mr Lee would spend the next 40 years in public service. Twenty of which was in the most challenging job – leading a nation as its Prime Minister.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong was sworn in as Singapore’s third Prime Minister on August 12, 2004. Unlike his predecessors – Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong, Mr Lee inherited a very different Singapore. No longer a backwater nobody had heard of, the young Republic is now a modern city-state with a thriving economy that is plugged into the rest of the world. Mr Lee had the difficult task of taking Singapore to new heights. 

Taking Singapore to new heights

By the time Mr Lee took over, Singapore had become a textbook example of a success story of how a past-colonial nation had managed to succeed and stand on its feet. His predecessor, Mr Goh Chok Tong, has further transformed the economy into a service and financial hub, and spread Singapore’s wings abroad.

At the risk of over-simplifying Singapore’s progress, we could think of our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew bringing Singapore from Third World to First World, and his successor Mr Goh Chok Tong bringing Singapore to the world and building a modern cosmopolitan city.

Yet these successes meant that it would be more difficult to take Singapore to the next level. As a mature economy, the heydays of double-digit growth are over. Moreover, other countries were fast developing and playing catch-up, armed with an abundance of natural resources that would eventually dwarf Singapore. A less imaginative leader would have done nothing, passing on the problem to the next government, but that was not Mr Lee. Instead, he tackled the issue head-on, with a blend of cautious far-sightedness and broad-mindedness that would ensure that Singapore stays ahead of the curve.

A period of intense activity followed. Under Mr Lee’s leadership, Singapore went through another economic metamorphosis. The city that began life as a trading port has already moved higher up the manufacturing value chain. Mr Lee saw innovation and entrepreneurship as catalysts for growth. As a result, Singapore established itself as a petri dish of start-ups and cutting-edge technology. For what we lack in size, we made up for it in human ingenuity. And the Republic was prepared to break away from tradition and took big risks with mega projects.

An example was the tourism sector. Besides expanding Changi Airport and Jewel, Singapore played host to world class events such as the inaugural Formula One night race and developed two integrated resorts. The addition of Marina Bay Sands to our skyline has also made it an iconic backdrop that is recognised by the rest of the world.

In the end, if history has taught us how anything, it is that prosperous cities can easily fall into oblivion. And so, Mr Lee did what any visionary leader would. He kickstarted a culture of innovation and change, ushering in an era of economic renaissance for Singapore. Against all odds, Singapore continued to overcome its constraints. Even as protectionist policies reared their ugly head worldwide, the little red dot continued to thrive and draw in foreign investments. In fact, if success is measured by numbers, no one could doubt Mr Lee’s economic acumen. Under his watch, Singapore’s GDP grew more than three-fold from S$194 billion in 2004 to over S$600 billion last year.

With courage and conviction, Mr Lee raised Singapore’s international stature and brought the rest of the world to Singapore. But for many, it was his efforts at building a progressive and inclusive society that had the greatest impact on Singaporeans

Building a progressive society

Swearing in as Prime Minister, Mr Lee famously declared, “As we prosper, all communities will progress, and no one will be left behind. We will look after the less educated and the elderly who have helped build Singapore. And we must also have a place in our hearts and our lives for the disabled, who are our brothers and sisters too”.  

It was an important promise to a country at a crossroads. Even though economic success has lifted millions of Singaporeans from poverty, it also sharpened the differences between the haves and haves-nots, creating new fault lines centred along income and wealth.

Building upon the kinder and gentler Singapore Mr Goh had inspired, Mr Lee took on the task of tackling inequality with gumption. The now familiar Progressive Wage Model and the Workfare scheme were both the brainchild of Mr Lee, who introduced them to uplift lower-wage workers. Like his predecessors, Mr Lee saw education as an engine of opportunity. But unlike them, he recognised the limitations of a purely meritocratic system. As a result, Mr Lee spearheaded sweeping education reforms. For the first time in Singapore’s history, standardised testing is no longer the be-all and end-all. By expanding education pathways and encouraging lifelong learning, Mr Lee helped level the playing field, ensuring that every Singaporean has an equal opportunity to succeed at any stage of their lives.

Sensing the dangers of stalling social mobility, Mr Lee expanded and strengthened social safety nets to provide support for vulnerable Singaporeans. One of which is the various age-bound packages to support seniors in their healthcare and retirement needs. Finally, it was to Mr Lee’s credit that after decades of being put on the back burner, Singapore finally took concrete steps to improve the lives of people with disabilities (PwDs) with a series of Enabling Masterplans.

As Prime Minister, Mr Lee was in the business of empowering Singaporeans and bringing diverse communities together. But what’s impressive was how he managed to balance economic growth with social justice. As news agency Bloomberg noted, real estate prices have surged even as the country managed to narrow its wealth disparity during Mr Lee’s tenure. Mr Lee didn’t just raised standards of living for all, he narrowed the differences between top and the rest.

Today, the work towards building a progressive society continues in the face of deepening fault lines and culture wars. But by and large, Mr Lee has laid the foundation Singapore needs to forge a more caring and inclusive society. Most remarkably, he has done so within the confines of the principles that make up the Singaporean psyche. Uplifting the lives of many Singaporeans without sacrificing the values of self-reliance, individual effort and personal responsibility that we hold dear.

Steering the nation in times of crisis

Four years into his term as Prime Minister, the world was hit by the Great Recession.

It was to be Singapore’s worst recession and a test of Mr Lee’s leadership. During that period, Singaporeans witnessed a steadfast leader who was determined to safeguard livelihoods and avert a financial catastrophe. The decision to draw down the reserves achieved both – steadying the ship and supporting recovery.

The subsequent rapid economic recovery demonstrated this. Despite global economies shrinking rapidly, Singapore delivered one of the highest economic growth rates in years (a blistering 14.7 per cent expansion in 2010) when smart money found its way into a well-run and safe investment destination.

A little more than a decade later, Mr Lee displayed similar acuity during COVID-19, passing an unprecedented eight budgets to protect lives and livelihoods. Throughout the darkest days of the pandemic, he rallied the nation, guiding Singaporeans through a time of fear, flux and confusion.

Singapore survived both crises, not out of luck but good governance. To continue the latter, Mr Lee embodied accountability and transparency in his decision-making. Because like all responsible leaders, Mr Lee recognises the needs of the situation rather than his ego. Faced with a spat of political scandals last year, Mr Lee did not shy away from responsibility. Instead, he showed extraordinary humility and resolve to deal with the issues in an open manner. And in doing so, Mr Lee reinforced a culture that encourages good politics to flourish. 

Back in 1974, Mr Lee graduated from Cambridge as Senior Wrangler. It was the sort of accolade that would not make much of an impression outside the halls of Oxbridge but also a recognition of just how brilliant he is. “All the signs indicated that he would have been a world-class research mathematician,” said one of Mr Lee’s university tutors in an interview.

Perhaps in Mr Lee, the world has lost a great mathematician. But in return, Singapore gained an indefatigable Prime Minister who worked tirelessly to empower and improve the lives of Singaporeans. With vision and foresight, Mr Lee navigated Singapore through seismic societal changes and geopolitical turmoil. Meanwhile, his knowledge and interest in maths, science and technology helped transform the Singapore economy, putting us firmly on a trajectory to become a truly global and ‘smart’ city.

But more than technocratic wisdom, Mr Lee excelled as a leader because of his selfless dedication to Singapore and its people, following in the footsteps of his predecessors. Serving as Singapore’s third Prime Minister, he will be remembered as a leader who brought the world to Singapore and championed a more inclusive society.

As Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam sums it up last week,” I think what impresses most people about him, beyond all of this, is the profound sense that one gets after working with him for so many years. Something really very simple. He is above all, a very good man. A good man.”

Photo Source: PMO/ Lee Hsien Loong via Facebook/ The Strait Stimes© Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.