Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)


Lee Kuan Yew in 2002


Lee Kuan Yew passed last week and we celebrate his life and the enormous legacy he left to the world.


On 5 February 2015, Lee was hospitalized with “severe pneumonia“ and was put on a ventilator at the intensive care unit of Singapore General Hospital, although his condition was reported as “stable“. A 26 February update stated that he was again being given antibiotics, while being sedated and still under mechanical ventilation. From 17 to 22 March, Lee continued weakening as he suffered an infection while on life support, and he was described as “critically ill“. On 23 March 2015, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced his father’s death at the age of 91.


Lee, the founding father of modern Singapore and its prime minister from 1959 to 1990, single-handedly was responsible for transforming Singapore into a Western-style economic success. He offers a unique perspective on the geopolitics of East and West. American Presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama have welcomed him to the White House; British prime ministers, Australian, Japanese, Indonesian, Philippine: Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Kevin Rudd, Junichiro Koizumi, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to name a few, recognized his wisdom. Business leaders from Rupert Murdoch to Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, and all the pharmaceutical companies located in Singapore, have praised his accomplishments.


As Lee Kuan Yew’s health deteriorated over the last month, thousands of Singaporeans visited his hospital and a community center to leave flowers, gifts and emotional messages of support.


At this time of questionable political leaders with their lack of vision and experience, we must acknowledge the passing of a towering giant. Although he ran only a city-state, Lee Kuan Yew, along with late Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping, ranks among Asia’s most pivotal figures of the past 50 years. These two men – a tall, aristocratic scion of a Hakka trading family and the diminutive Chinese revolutionary – came from very different perspectives, but shared a pragmatic streak, and ultimately strategies that came to be widely copied. You can see their legacy today across the continent, in rapid urbanization and growing economic power. But it was Lee who first formulated the essentials of the new Asian economic approach, blending capitalistic modernity with a state-directed economy and authoritarianism. Although repression of dissidents in both countries rightfully offends Westerners, it has not deterred foreign capital, technology and capital from seeking to cash in on Asia’s growth. American and British capital may have fueled global capitalism’s 20th century triumph, but Lee and Deng shaped its expansion in the 21st.


Lee’s great achievements as prime minister took place from 1959 to 1990, the longest of any leader in world history. The singularity and durability of his accomplishments reveal their greatness and that of his legacy. From Singapore’s independence to the present day, Lee helped fashion what is arguably the most successful and best run city in the world. In 1965, after Singapore’s acrimonious exit from Malaysia, its outlook was far from promising. Unemployment was high and the fledgling city-state was wracked by internal dissension between its ethnic mix of Chinese, Indians and Malays, and between conservatives and communists, who seemed in political ascendancy as elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The then rough-edged Asian metropolis, an important trading center, boasted a per capita GDP of $2,667 in 1990 dollars, more than double the average for East Asian countries and trailing only Japan in the region, but well behind European countries and North America. Faced with imminent disaster, Lee’s response was to create a new political system that blended a mildly socialist program with a development strategy aimed at attracting foreign capital and building up the manufacturing sector. Lee and his People’s Action Party (PAP) focused on developing a modern infrastructure – from the port and roads to education – that is second to none. Perhaps PAP’s most remarkable achievement was the creation of the Housing Development Board, which turned the vast majority of Singaporeans from slum-dwellers to owners of apartments that were small but clean and modern. As Asian real estate markets have heated up, HDB has helped keep Singaporean housing costs far more reasonable than in China’s primary cities, or Hong Kong or Tokyo.


Lee believed widespread homeownership would make Singapore more stable, but it was not enough to make it rich. Under his guidance, everything – from cleaning the streets to developing arguably the best primary education system in the world – was calculated to attract foreign companies and skilled individuals; this at a time when China, India and much of Southeast Asia was either closed to investment, embroiled in lethal civic conflict or primarily dominated by crony capitalists. And the world did come, making Singapore among the favored destinations for international corporations. In 1968 Texas Instruments TXN -1.05% established a chip-making plant there, the break Lee later credited with helping transform the city into a technology hotspot. A 2011 Roland Berger study named Singapore as the leading location for European companies to establish headquarters in the Asia-Pacific region. Companies with regional headquarters include Microsoft, Google, Exxon Mobil, and Kellogg. Singapore now has more than twice as many regional headquarters as far-larger Tokyo, not to mention Asia’s less affluent megacities.


Cambridge-educated, and with the demeanor of a British aristocrat, Lee promoted English as the country’s primary language, a decision that made the city particularly attractive to foreign investors and workers. But in many ways he remained very Chinese. Lee’s People’s Action Party blended British parliamentary forms with a highly authoritarian, centrally directed system. When Deng visited the city-state in 1978, he saw it as an appealing model for his poor country: a top-down, mandarin-led system that could appeal to global capitalists. Deng, Lee would later recall, was most captivated by Singapore’s modern prosperity: “What he saw in Singapore in 1978,“ he recalled in his book Third World to First, “had become the point of reference as the minimum the Chinese people should achieve.“ Anyone visiting China today can see the results of Deng’s insight: gleaming cities, massive expansion of educational institutions, modern roads and transit systems, and most of a general prosperity that has lifted the mother country of most Singaporeans to almost unimagined heights. Although Singapore is generally less repressive than China, it did show the Chinese communists that being “free“ was not necessary for becoming rich. It’s a lesson that many developing countries around the world – in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America – have taken to heart. Urban innovation was great under Lee Kuan Yew. Urban farming with its superior technology, has taken hold, in order to supply its citizens with fresh produce. Another proposal would boost the city-state’s population from 5 million to roughly 7 million by 2030, largely through immigration. To help accommodate this growth, planners have suggested building a vast underground city with shopping malls, public spaces, pedestrian links and cycling lanes. Yet despite these problems, Lee Kwan Yew’s accomplishments are undeniable. He took a struggling, ununified city and left it an urban jewel. That history has moved on is inevitable, but one has to wonder, among all the current chiefs of state, whether any will leave behind anything approaching Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy.


Part of Yew’s great legacy was to give Singapore, legal and economic stability so that companies world-wide would open offices there. Pharmaceutical research and manufacturing. Is one of the industries that has Asian headquarter there. Singapore also brings together a well-developed infrastructure and logistics network, strong intellectual property (IP) laws, a record of safety, a good regulatory environment, and active government support of the biomedical industry. For drug companies looking for an Asian country in which to manufacture pharmaceuticals, expand R&D, or sell their products, Singapore is a good choice. Plus, Singapore has its own pharmaceutical and biotech companies.


The pharmaceutical market in Singapore is valued at almost $1 billion. Singapore has worked to create a solid foundation for the biomedical industry, with over 30 public-sector research institutes under the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). These include the Bioinformatics Institute, Genome Institute, Institute of Bioengineering & Nanotechnology, Bioprocessing Technology Institute, Institute of Medical Biology, Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences. Singapore has promoted public-private research institutes – such as with Bayer, Roche, Siena Biotech, Novartis, and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) – as well as supporting the development of clinical contract research organizations (CROs). The government spent $2 billion investing in biomedical capabilities and infrastructure over the previous decade and earmarked more than $3 billion to support biomedical enterprises and research from 2011-2015. There are a few domestic Singaporean pharmaceutical companies that are also successful in Singapore. For example, A. Menarini Asia-Pacific, formerly Invida, is a pharmaceutical company that was founded in 2005 in Singapore. In addition to its headquarters in Singapore, it has almost a dozen locations in other Asian countries, marketing branded pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and biotechnology to hospitals, pharmacies, and clinics. The company also has partnerships with a variety of multinational drug companies based in the U.S., EU and Japan. More than 30 of the top global biomedical sciences firms – including Novartis, Eli Lilly, Takeda and GSK – have a R&D presence in Singapore. Of the top 10 biopharmaceutical companies, seven manufacture some of their products in Singapore and 8 have regional headquarters in Singapore. GSK, Baxter and Roche all launched their first-in-Asia commercial production facilities in Singapore in 2009. Some companies, such as Merck, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis and Abbott, have chosen Singapore as their global manufacturing base. Within 5 years, Singapore will have eight biologics production facilities – worth $2 billion. Foreign biomedical companies spent approximately $500 million on R&D in Singapore last year, up from $40 million a decade ago. Nationally, public and private organizations spend almost $1.2 billion on biomedical R&D every year, with several thousand private- and public-sector researchers. In 2013, biomedical firms in Singapore manufactured products worth $25 billion, up from $5 billion in 2000. This year Novartis and Amgen will open Asian headquarters in Singapore.


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