Lee Kuan Yew the Lawyer

DSC00786 (5)

On 4 June 2013, the National University of Singapore conferred an honorary degree of doctor of laws on Singapore’s founding prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I was asked to serve as the public orator, describing some of Mr Lee’s achievements in support of the award.

But what was there to say about Lee Kuan Yew that had not already been said?

I knew that I would join a list of many who had acknowledged his contributions to Singapore, its region, and the world.

The late Baroness Thatcher, for example, once wrote that Mr Lee “had a way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our times and the way to tackle them.” Welcoming him into the White House a few years earlier, US President Barack Obama had called Mr Lee “one of the legendary figures of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries”, crediting him with significant responsibility for the Asian economic miracle. And China’s President, Xi Jinping, referred to him as “our senior who has our respect.”

Books have been written — and many more will be — about Mr Lee as a leader, as a politician, and as a strategic thinker.

The degree was an honorary doctor of laws, however, and I had been asked to speak in my capacity as Dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. So I decided to speak about Mr Lee Kuan Yew as a lawyer, and the role that law played in his vision for Singapore.

* * *

The basic facts are well known.

In the course of an education disrupted by the Second World War, Mr Lee graduated in 1949 with a starred first class honours in Law from Cambridge.

Along the way, through the influence of lecturers such as Harold Laski at the London School of Economics and his experience with the British Fabians, the seeds of a pragmatic approach to governance were sown. So was the vision of independence from colonial rule.

Yet Mr Lee later recounted that it was his experiences of life in Japanese-occupied Singapore — and the dysfunctional British Military Administration that followed — that left an indelible mark. In particular, they convinced him that law and order were essential for stability and development.

Mr Lee might have pursued a career at the English bar, but he returned to Singapore in 1950 to practise law. His early clients were often trade unions and associations, meaning that he earned considerably less than he could have as a lawyer. When the cause was worthy and the clients needy, he waived his fees entirely.


Straits Times file photo

In 1955, he set up a law firm, Lee & Lee, together with his brother and his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo. The firm is now one of Singapore’s leading practices.

But politics was Mr Lee’s true calling. So he left the firm to pursue politics full-time, soon joined by his partner and fellow Cambridge graduate E.W. Barker, who later served as Singapore’s Minister for Law for a quarter century.

The rest, of course, is history.

Mr Lee led the People’s Action Party to victory in the 1959 general elections. It was the first of eight such victories that saw him serve as Prime Minister of Singapore until he stepped down in November 1990 — at the time making him the longest-serving prime minister in the world.

For some years, he remained actively engaged as Senior Minister and later Minister Mentor. He also wrote and spoke extensively about the lessons he learned during his years in office, and the “hard truths” that he believed Singaporeans have to confront if the stability and prosperity they now enjoy are to be maintained.

* * *

Though he did not practise law as such after leaving Lee & Lee, Singapore’s subsequent transition “from third world to first” owes much to his embrace of the rule of law. The foundations of Singapore’s role as a financial centre, he later wrote, were the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and a government that was competent, stable, and honest.

As Prime Minister for a generation he oversaw Singapore’s traumatic birth and extraordinary rise.

Singapore’s gross domestic product is frequently cited as evidence of this growth, moving from $400 per capita to around $60,000 today. But Singapore is also distinguished by its greenery, and by the life expectancy and literacy of its population, which are among the highest in the world.

Underpinning all of this is the order and security that makes such prosperity possible. To pick just one measure, in the most recent World Justice Project report on the rule of law, Singapore was ranked first in the world for order and security, and first in Asia for civil and criminal justice.

None of this was foreseeable when Mr Lee took the uncertain reins of leadership in 1959; still less when Singapore abruptly became independent in 1965.

Just a month after that independence, he gave a speech at the Sree Narayana Mission: “Over 100 years ago,” he said, “this was a mud-flat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.”

“Never fear.” Bold words at a time of considerable fear. Yet Mr Lee had an unshakeable belief that Singapore could thrive and prosper, that it would be safe and green, with a population that was multi-racial and multi-lingual.

* * *

Today, Singapore stands not only as a testament to what can be built through vision and industry. It is also testimony to the importance of law in creating the conditions for such a vision to be realised.

This is most obvious domestically, but the rule of law also served Singapore well internationally.

As Mr Lee noted when receiving another honorary degree — his first, I think, from the Royal University of Cambodia in 1967 — the project of converting international morality into international law has enjoyed mixed success.

Yet bilateral and multilateral agreements helped ensure Singapore’s security and its links to the global economy. Mr Lee’s role in the creation of ASEAN normalised relations with Singapore’s neighbours, in particular Indonesia; it also fostered increasingly strong economic and political ties across Southeast Asia.

Law also offered a means of resolving disputes peacefully. In a book on Pedra Branca, the subject of a territorial dispute with Malaysia that was adjudicated by the International Court of Justice, Mr Lee wrote that “Singapore must remain committed to upholding the rule of law in the relations between States. If a dispute cannot be resolved by negotiations, it is better to refer it to a third party dispute settlement mechanism, than to allow it to fester and sour bilateral relations.”

* * *

Few people are so closely identified with the entire history of a country, as Mr Lee Kuan Yew is with Singapore.

Few people have had such an impact not only on a nation’s development but also on its character.

That impact stretches far beyond Singapore, as the testimonials mentioned earlier — and countless more — demonstrate.

Lee Kuan Yew made Singapore his life’s work. His success launched a country, inspired a continent, and earned admiration from around the world.

The ceremony and the degree acknowledged these achievements as a leader, a politician, a strategic thinker — and as a lawyer.


Straits Times


A version of this article was published as “The Lawyer and His Vision for Singapore” in the Straits Times on 5 June 2013.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away on 23 March 2015.