Remnants of Singapore’s Lost Roads – Kuala Loyang Road

There are many Malay-named roads or places in Singapore that are named after the island’s natural landscapes, such as bukit (“hill” in Malay), sungei, (“river”) or tanjong (“cape”). But there are not many with the name kuala, which refers to “estuary” in Malay. The definition of an estuary is “the tidal mouth of a large river, where the tide meets the stream”. One of the best known names is, of course, Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.

There was, however, one road in Singapore that possessed the name kuala. It was the Kuala Loyang Road, formerly linked to Tampines Road and Upper Changi Road, and was extended to mouth of Sungei Loyang on its other end, where “the tide met the stream”. In the maps of the 1950s, the regions labelled Tampines and Changi are the Pasir Ris New Town and Loyang Industrial Estate today. The network of roads on the eastern side of Kuala Loyang Road, already well-developed six decades back, has become the restricted premises of Selarang Camp and Changi Air Base.

kuala loyang road 1955

Kuala Loyang Road was extended in the late sixties; the original road was stretched all the way to the coastline and was linked to a jetty located between Sungei Loyang and Sungei Selarang. At its midway, a new road, also called Kuala Loyang Road, was branched off to link to Calshot Road.

The seventies saw a series of changes made to the vicinity around Kuala Loyang Road. Private estates known as Bukit Loyang Estate North and South were planned along Tampines Road in the early seventies. In 1978, drainage projects were carried out to convert Sungei Selarang into a canal, while the parcel of land between the river and Kuala Loyang Road was designated as a future industrial estate.

kuala loyang road map 1984

By 1981, a long straight main road had been constructed, cutting through both Tampines Road and Kuala Loyang Road, resulting in an interesting scenario where two Kuala Loyang Roads existed, one kilometre away from each other. As the housing and industrial estates developed in the vicinity, the long main road would go on to become an important road in the northeastern side of Singapore. It was named Loyang Avenue.

Kampong (Sungei) Loyang and Yan Kit Village were the larger villages in the vicinity. The former was located near to the mouth of Sungei Loyang, and had existed until the late eighties before it was torn down. At its former site now stands Aloha Loyang Resort and the row of condominiums at Jalan Loyang Besar. Yan Kit Village, previously situated at the southern end of Kuala Loyang Road, was also demolished in the late eighties.

development of pasir ris and loyang 1980s

Near the junction of Kuala Loyang Road and Tampines Road used to exist a Tanah Merah Besar Malay School. It was also where the former Ministry of Culture organised free movies in the sixties for the residents living in the villages nearby.

A clinic was set up beside the school in the seventies, but by the early nineties, the school premises was converted into a camp site (later renamed as an adventure centre) for the Ministry of Education (MOE) after the school ceased its operation.

kuala loyang road

As for Kuala Loyang Road, it was reduced to a short secondary road as an access to the MOE adventure centre by the mid-nineties. The road was expunged after the premises closed down in mid-2000s. Its street signage had been removed, and it was no longer listed in the official maps.

kuala loyang road2

kuala loyang road4

kuala loyang road5

Published: 14 June 2015

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Traditional Provision Shops – Can They Stand the Test of Time?

Provision shops. Once a common sight in Singapore, having reached its peak in the mid-seventies with more than 2,000 of them scattered all around the country. As development gathered pace, and shopping of groceries made easier with the opening of modern supermarkets, mini-marts and convenience stores, many traditional provision shops are facing an uncertain future. Today, less than 150 provision shops are still in business. Many have been struggling with the stiffer competition and lack of successors. The iconic Tian Kee, located at Dakota Crescent for more than 50 years, had pulled down its shutters for the final time two years ago.

tian kee provision shop 2011

While many of the traditional provision shops are located among the HDB flats, there is a special one worth mentioning, one that is housed in an old-styled single-storey bungalow with a blue zinc roof at the junction of Rosyth and Sandilands Roads, off Yio Chu Kang Road. Named Tee Seng Store, it is one of the few landed properties in Singapore that also serves as a provision shop.

tee seng store at rosyth road1

Tee Seng Store was established in the fifties. The owner of the shop, Mr Ang, first worked there in 1955 after completing his primary education. He later took over the business from his former boss. And for almost half a century, he has been faithfully running his humble shop that doubles as his long-time home with his wife, where the 6,000 square feet property is partitioned into a shop, bedroom and kitchen. Now in his 70s, it is a matter of time before Mr Ang retires. With his three children not keen to continue the business, his vintage provision shop, like many others, will likely walk into the history.

tee seng store at rosyth road2

tee seng store at rosyth road3

Tee Seng Store serves mainly the landed houses around Rosyth Road, thus it is common to see domestic maids doing their grocery purchases every day. From their regular contacts, Mr Ang is able to pick up several languages over the years, including English, Bahasa Indonesian, Thai, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

tee seng store at rosyth road4

tee seng store at rosyth road5

tee seng store at rosyth road6

Like most traditional provision shops, Tee Seng Store sells a wide range of basic necessities from toiletries, detergents and washing powder to canned food, instant cup noodles, packet drinks and bags of rice. The goods are stacked neatly on the wooden shelves and cupboards that are virtually unchanged in the past few decades, except for some repairs due to wear and tear.

tee seng store at rosyth road8

tee seng store at rosyth road7

Little vintage gems can also be found inside the provision shop, as though they have been frozen in time. Old black power switches and sockets are attached to the wooden beams, same as those that were once commonly found in households many decades ago. A wooden weight, in the shape of a beer bottle, was once used to balance a Milo tin can that functioned as a “cashier box”. And not forgetting a pair of vintage metal trays printed with Coca Cola and F&N advertisements that Mr Ang displays proudly in his shop.

tee seng store at rosyth road9

Although provision shops are usually opened and owned by ethnic Singaporean Chinese, the Muslim and Indian provision shops have been fairly common in the past too. In the sixties and seventies when there were still many kampongs, provision shops became a vital amenity that provided much needed convenience to the villagers. To be able to open a provision shop with sufficient supply of goods required certain amount of capital. Therefore, the towkays of provision shops back then were viewed as doing considerably well.

a muslim provision shop at everton road 1980s

indian provision shop at jalan kayu 1970s

Some provision shops in the past also sold petrol and diesel. One example was Yong Seng, situated along Changi Road, that had pumps supplying Esso diesel to motorists. Such scenarios are no more today, as the oligopoly of the four oil giants rules the local retail petrol market in Singapore today, with each of them owning 30 or more petrol stations each. Provision shops were not restricted to mainland Singapore; outlying islands such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong also had provision shops to provide the daily necessities to the residents living on the island.

yong seng provision shop with diesel pumps at changi road

wing mow seng provision at pulau tekong 1979

Unlike supermarkets or convenience stores, provision shop owners built up good relationships with their customers, often by giving credits, a practice that some traditional provision shops still observe today, or home delivery services. There were other traditions too, one of which was the distribution of customary soft drinks to customers during Chinese New Years. In the late sixties and early seventies, each provision shop gave out some 700 cases of soft drinks every year. This tradition, however, stopped in 1973 when many provision shops were hit by the rising costs and overheads.

Traditional provision shops in Singapore had been facing challenges since the early eighties. Even the petrol service stations started offering groceries at discounted prices. With the mushrooming of competitors, more than 100 provision shops decided to remodel themselves in a bid to survive. They were renovated and converted into self-service mini-markets (mini-marts) with uniform logos, identical shop layouts and similar prices. Centralised bulk purchases, advertising and promotion campaigns were carried out to give the new shops the edge over others. By 1982, more than 50 provision shops had successfully converted to mini-marts.

chee kow provision shop at jalan kayu 1970s

Many decades have since gone by. Some had changed their business model. Others had opened and shut down. Those that have remained today are likely to struggle. Will the traditional provision shops officially walk into history one day? Or will they be able to stand the test of time? Perhaps next time when you walk past a traditional provision shop, show your support by buying some canned drinks or chocolate bars from them.

Published: 26 May 2015

Posted in Cultural | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Lakeview Estate, its Former Market and the “Shopping Centre”

It was a name that was inspired from the splendid panoramic view of the MacRitchie Reservoir. It was also previously well-known for its popular hawker centre and market that were situated opposite Thomson Community Centre in the eighties and nineties. But for the past decade, the name Lakeview has been gradually forgotten, apart from the three brown HUDC (Housing and Urban Development Company) flats and a couple of shops along Upper Thomson Road that still carry the name.

lakeview shopping centre1 1985

Today, it is an empty plot of land that is barely noticeable along the main road of Upper Thomson. But in the eighties and nineties, it was a small bustling estate with HDB flats, hawker centre, wet market and rows of shops that was collectively known as Lakeview Shopping Centre, a name that was commonly used to refer to such HDB-owned and -managed neighhourhood hubs. Similar concepts can also be found in other parts of Singapore; the Boon Lay Shopping Centre, Balestier Hill Shopping Centre and Keat Hong Shopping Centre are some of such neighbourhood hubs that survive till today.

lakeview upper thomson map 1988

Before its demolition in the late nineties, there was a total of 13 blocks of double-storey HDB (Housing & Development Board) flats and a hawker centre cum wet market at Lakeview. The rows of shops, that were dubbed Lakeview Shopping Centre, were located at Block 5 and 7. Today, the only remnant of the “shopping centre” is a flight of steps on the sloped ground that leads to the pedestrian pavement along Upper Thomson Road.

lakeview estate upper thomson

lakeview shopping centre2 1985

Block 9 housed the popular hawker centre and wet market, where residents from the nearby neighbourhoods came to make their daily purchases of vegetables, fresh fish and other groceries from the dozens of stalls. Others came to enjoy their breakfasts, or simply a glass of thick kopi to start the day. Every morning, it was a busy scene at the hawker centre and market, filled with bargaining, chit-chatting and, occasionally, bickering over trivial matters.

lakeview market 1980s

lakeview market 1990s

The hawker centre was also well-known for some of its delicious local delights too, such as the chye tow kueh (carrot cake), bak kut teh, Hokkien mee and char kway teow. When the hawker centre and market were demolished, some of the stallholders were relocated to the nearby Shunfu hawker centre.

lakeview hawker centre noodle stall 1980s

Before its development, Lakeview was formerly a Chinese cemetery known as Hylam Sua, literally means “Hainanese Hill”. Thomson Village was on the opposite side of the cemetery, scattered along Upper Thomson Road, Min Hock Road and Soon Hock Road. Both Min Hock and Soon Hock Roads were expunged in the early eighties, when Shunfu (named after Soon Hock Road) Estate was constructed.

thomson village chinese temple 1986

A street away from Hylam Sua was the Thomson Garden Estate, commonly known as gor ba keng (五百间, “five hundreds houses” in Hokkien). It was also where Heap Hoe Rubber Factory was previously situated.

Another prominent landmark near Lakeview was the Long House, which was closed in early 2014 after its owner sold the property for $45 million. In the early 1960s, the site was owned by oil giant Shell, which had operated a petrol station there. The premises switched hands in 1980, and was subsequently leased out by its new owner to the American fast food chain A&W (until the late eighties) and local food court operator Kopitiam Group. After 2000, it became better known as the Long House Food Centre.

lakeview hudc flats1

The HUDC (Housing and Urban Development Company) was introduced in 1974 to allow the sandwiched middle-class Singaporeans, deemed to be stuck in between affordable HDB flats and expensive private homes, to “have a stake in the country” by having the chance to own upscale public housings. Many of the HUDC estates were exclusively located, including the three tall blocks at Lakeview near the MacRitchie Reservoir. It was developed during the HUDC Phase I/II period, between 1974 and 1981.

The development of HUDC estates (Phase III/IV) was taken over by the HDB in 1982, but by the mid-eighties, the popularity of HUDC flats began to wane. In 1987, the scheme was halted. Overall, a total of eighteen HUDC estates with 7,731 units was constructed.

lakeview hudc flats2

lakeview hudc flats3

In 1995, the government allowed the privatisation of HUDC flats, if there was 75% consensus among the owners. The Gillman Heights, Pine Grove and Ivory Heights were the first HUDC estates to be privatised, between 1996 and 1998. Lakeview Estate was privatised in 2003. Braddell View was the last of the HUDC estates, in 2014, to undergo privatisation, symbolically spelling the end of the HUDC era.

The privatisation of the HUDC estates does have its advantage. Singapore’s last remaining sand-based adventure playground can be found at the compound of Lakeview Estate. Such children playgrounds were once a common sight in Singapore in the eighties and nineties, but most of them have been demolished and replaced by the new playgrounds.

lakeview former carpark

lakeview dentist

Published: 17 May 2015

Posted in Historic, Nostalgic | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Transit Road – A Transition from Retro Shops to New Condos

Many former National Servicemen who did their BMTs (Basic Military Trainings) at Nee Soon Camp would remember Transit Road, the short link between the army camp and the main Sembawang Road.

Despite the limited space, Transit Road used to house a row of shops that sold a wide variety of products from military apparels to electronic appliances. It used to served Nee Soon Village too, which was located a stone’s throw away at the junction of Mandai and Sembawang Roads, until the late eighties.

transit road shophouses1

Records show that shops had been plying their trades at Transit Road since 1945. After the war, many locals opened shops at Transit Road to provide delivery and courier services for the British servicemen stationed at Nee Soon Camp, who would send food and gift parcels back to their families at Britain, often on a weekly basis.

Brands and names of shops that had operated at Transit Road in the past six decades might ring a bell to some, including Nee Soon Bar, Yong Lee Provision Shop and Lucky Store to Paris Silk Store, Hock Gift Shop, Rambo Gift Shop and Danny Tattoo, the last batch of shops before the premises were demolished.

transit road shophouses2

transit road shophouses6

Fire Hazards

Clusters of attap and wooden huts used to exist behind the shophouses in the seventies, where they housed many families. The vicinity was prone to fire hazards, and were hit by several fire accidents that affected the livelihoods of many residents and shopkeepers in the seventies and eighties.

A large fire broke out on an early morning in June 1977, sweeping through the shops and huts rapidly. The fire engines only arrived 30 minutes later. More than $1 million worth of goods and properties were destroyed, and at least 12 families were rendered homeless. In mid-1985, another fire burned down a bookshop and two tailor shops at Transit Road. $30,000 worth of goods had gone up in flames; the old bookshop, operating since the sixties, never did recover after the incident.

transit road arson 1986

A Case Within a Case

In 1986, Transit Road again appeared in the headlines when six shops were consumed by a raging fire that cost damages of almost $1 million. Two men died in the fire; the case was classified by the police as arson-murder.

Forensic tests and police investigations were conducted; the results showed that the two victims might be the ones committing the arson, but they themselves were trapped and killed by the engulfing flames. It was later discovered that the owners of London Bazaar, an electronic shop at Transit Road, had hired the two men to burn down their shop in order to cheat the insurance company for $330,000. The owners were eventually sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in 1988.

transit road shops 1989

Mini Orchard Road

In the late eighties, perhaps thanks to marketing, Transit Road was dubbed by the media as a mini Orchard Road. The dozen shops received roaring businesses from many New Zealanders and Australians who were the former servicemen at Singapore’s military bases. The competitive prices offered for goods such as electronics, luggage, toys and sport gears also lured the tourists to Transit Road, which had its shophouses refurbished after the disastrous fire in 1986.

Comparing to the “official” shopping belt at Orchard, the shops at Transit Road offered prices of their products at 20% or more cheaper. In addition, the vicinity had hassle-free parking and low pressure “country-style selling”. Besides the tourists, the SAF (Singapore Army Forces) soldiers from the nearby Nee Soon and Kahtib Camps, and residents from neighbouring estates such as Seletar Hills also provided sufficient crowds to keep the shops busy seven days a week.

transit road shophouses3

transit road shophouses4

Decline and Demolition

The hype soon faded in the nineties, but the shops still enjoyed businesses from the NSFs who served their BMTs at Nee Soon Camp. This changed in the late nineties, when the new SAF BMTC (Basic Military Training Centre) was opened at Pulau Tekong. All newly enlisted recruits were no longer trained at Nee Soon Camp; the crowds passing through Transit Road became considerably reduced.

Like the Beach Road Army Market, the gift shops at Transit Road, selling mostly military supplies and apparels, saw their businesses declined since SAF introduced the concept of eMarts and their credit system in 1997. The electrical appliance-selling Lucky Store was the oldest shop in the vicinity, having operating at Transit Road since 1948. Danny Tattoo Art, another old name, was in the business since the seventies.

transit road shophouses5

The former kopitiam, located at the end of the row of shops, had already been demolished and replaced in 2004 by the Forest Hills Condominium. A decade later, at the end of April 2015, the Transit Road shops will face the exact fate. It has been the same story for many old places elsewhere in Singapore, where they were torn down for private residential projects. This has become an increasing and worrying trend especially in the recent years.

transit road shophouses7

transit road shophouses8

Published: 27 April 2015

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Remnants of Singapore’s Lost Roads – Lorong Bistari

map of choa chu kang 1988

Lorong Bistari was one of the numerous roads that were expunged in the late eighties and early nineties due to the development of Choa Chu Kang New Town (Choa Chu Kang North, or Yew Tee today) and the expansion of the Kranji army camps.

The remaining 50m stretch of Lorong Bistari, off Choa Chu Kang Way, is still visible today, although it is no longer listed in most modern maps and street directories. The defunct road, along with its several old lamp posts, has been gradually forgotten. Other roads such as Lorong Chembol, Lorong Keduang and Lorong Puyu had long completely disappeared into history, while part of Lorong Kebasi (where the former Yew Tee Community Centre once stood) and Lorong Limbang (which gave rise to the naming of Limbang, one of the neigbourhoods at Choa Chu Kang North) were absorbed into the restricted premises of Kranji Camp.

lorong bistari1

lorong bistari2

Choa Chu Kang was a different picture in the sixties and seventies, where pig, poultry and vegetable farms were abundant. On the opposite side of Woodlands Road, there were granite mills and crushing plants for the Mandai Quarry, providing ample job opportunities for the villagers living in the vicinity. At Lorong Bistari, small businesses such as hardware shops and sawmills lined up along the road; Guan Seng, one of the sawmills, was destroyed in a fire in 1973. An estimated 150 tons of wooden planks and boards, reported to be worth $80,000, were consumed by the flames.

guan seng sawmill at lorong bistari destroyed in fire 1973

The Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) started developing a small light industrial estate at Choa Chu Kang North in the early eighties. It was named Yew Tee Industrial Estate, and was made up of rows of double-storey terrace workshops built in the area bounded by Woodlands Road, Stagmont Ring, the railway tracks and Peng Sua Canal. To boost the industry, parcels of vacant lands near Lorong Bistari, between 30,000 and 60,000 square feet, were made available for lease to small factories.

stagmont ring 1977

The Choa Chu Kang New Town was developed in the late eighties. By 1991, as many as 35,000 housing units were ready. However, Choa Chu Kang North, or Yew Tee, was not yet developed as a residential district, even though main roads such as Choa Chu Kang Way were already laid by the late eighties. It was only after the completion and opening of Yew Tee MRT Station in 1996 that the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) decided to carry out its Development Guide Plan to transform Choa Chu Kang North into a modern new town.

choa chu kang new town 1992

To provide a greater ease of accessibility to the new town, a new expressway called Kranji Expressway (KJE) was constructed in the early nineties, linking Choa Chu Kang, Bukit Panjang and Bukit Batok to both the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) and Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE). Part of the original Stagmont Ring was used as a section of KJE that cut through Choa Chu Kang and split it into northern and southern portions. It took a total of $128 million and four years for KJE to be fully operational ready in 1994.

lorong bistari3

Published: 20 April 2015

Posted in General | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The Singapore General Hospital War Memorial – A Tragedy Seventy Years Ago

There are several major war memorials in Singapore, located at Kranji, Bukit Batok, City Hall and the Esplanade Park. Not many are aware that there is actually a small war memorial at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), located along College Road and opposite the College of Medicine Building (present-day Ministry of Health). The SGH war memorial was set up in remembrance of the eleven medical students from the King Edward VII College of Medicine, who were brutally killed during the Second World War.

sgh in memoriam 2015

On 14 February 1942, a medical student Yoong Tatt Sin, also the general secretary of the Medical College Union, was killed while on duty when the Japanese invaders bombed Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Later that evening, his grieving friends and colleagues, a group of 25 medical students, brought his body to the General Hospital at Outram Road (present-day Singapore General Hospital) to give him a proper burial.

Five trenches facing the College of Medicine Building had been dug for air raid purposes. As there was little time in preparation, one of the trenches was converted to a grave for Yoong Tatt Sin. During the funeral procession, the Japanese arrived and began intensive shelling at the students. Ten students were killed; others were wounded while fleeing and taking cover at the nearby buildings and the trenches. One of the causalities was Hera Singh, a prominent sportsman, school prefect and the captain of the V.I. Cricket in the late 1930s.

sgh in memoriam4 2015

Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. The next morning, the eleven dead students were hastily buried at the trenches where most of them fell and died during the shelling, along with some other military casualties during the battles.

Between 1942 and 1945, the General Hospital was used as the main surgical hospital for the Japanese forces stationed at Southeast Asia. The College of Medical Building was converted into a department of bacteriology and serology used by the Japanese Army Medical Corps. In 1943, the Japanese established the Syonan Medical College (called Marei Ika Daigaku in Japanese) at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which was later moved to Malacca until the end of the Second World War.

sgh in memoriam2 2015

sgh in memoriam3 2015

After the war, the British colonial government erected a memorial along College Road, made up of a red cross with a granite base, in remembrance of the British soldiers and civilians who had perished during the occupation. In 1948, Dr G. V. Allen, the principal of King Edward VI College of Medicine between 1939 and 1942, unveiled a war memorial plaque inscribed with the names of the eleven dead students (Yoong Tatt Sin, Mabel Luther, N.P. Sarathee, E. Baptist, H.E. Oorjithan, Ling Ding Ee, Hera Singh Bul, Chan Kok Loon, Chen Kok Kuang, Teoh Tiaw Teong and Abdul Hamid Bin Mohd Yusoff).

The plaque was first hung at the Harrower Hall. It was later relocated twice before settled at the College of Medicine Building, where it remains today.

sgh war memorial 2007

Published: 12 April 2015

Posted in Historic | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew, the Founding Father of Singapore (1923-2015)

On 23 March 2015, Singapore fell into a grieving state as Lee Kuan Yew, widely regarded as the country’s founding father, passed away at the age of 91 at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH). The former prime minister had been battling an infection due to severe pneumonia, and was warded in the intensive care unit since early February. He left behind two sons (current Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang) and a daughter (Lee Wei Ling).

lee kuan yew youngThe Beginnings

Lee Kuan Yew was born in 1923 in a Hakka Chinese family living at Kampong Java Road. His great-grandfather had arrived at Singapore in the late 19th century from the Dapu county of Guangdong, China. After completing his primary education, Lee Kuan Yew attended Raffles Institution and Raffles College (present-day National University of Singapore), where he became the top student in Singapore and Malaya.

After the Second World War, Lee Kuan Yew went to study law at England’s prestigious University of Cambridge, graduating with double First Class Honours. It was also at London where he met and married Kwa Geok Choo (1920-2010). In 1949, Lee Kuan Yew returned to Singapore with his wife, working as a lawyer and a legal advisor to trade and students’ unions.

lee kuan yew met wife 1950s

Entering Politics

It was in the fifties when Lee Kuan Yew began involved in politics. In 1954, Lee Kuan Yew, together with Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, Devan Nair, S. Rajaratnam and Abdul Samad Ismail, founded the People’s Action Party (PAP) with a mission to seek Singapore’s independence from Britain through merger with the Federation of Malaya. Together with his comrades, mostly made up of lawyers, journalists and trade unionists, Lee Kuan Yew aimed to establish a corruption-free and democratic government in-charge of a multi-racial society that would be harmonious and fair.

lee kuan yew touring tanjong pagar 1960s

In its early days of formation, English-speaking Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP had to work closely with the pro-communist members in order to gain support of the local Chinese, most of which could only communicate in Mandarin and dialects. Lim Chin Siong (1933-1996), the leader of the pro-communist faction, was influential in helping PAP to gain mass support. The cooperation, however, ended in 1961 due to different political ideas. Lim Chin Siong would leave PAP to lead the opposition party Barisan Socialis (Socialist Front).

lee kuan yew and his supporters 1960s

In 1959, after three rounds of Constitutional Talks with London, Singapore was granted internal self-governance. PAP would win most of the seats in the general election held that year to become Singapore’s ruling party, with Lee Kuan Yew becoming the Prime Minister of the self-government. He would become the Prime Minister of the State of Singapore when PAP won another general election after the merger with Malaysia in 1963.

lee kuan yew tears 1965The merger, however, was short-lived. Between PAP and the Malaysian leaders, there was an ideological divide over the nature of the Malaysian society. PAP wanted to build a fair and just multi-racial society – a Malaysian Malaysia, but the Malaysian leaders insisted special privileges be given to the Malay majority.

The uncompromisable differences meant that Singapore had to exit the federation, and on 9 August 1965, Lee Kuan Yew tearfully announced on television Singapore’s separation from Malaysia: “You see, the whole of my adult life, I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories. You know that we, as a people are connected by geography, economics, by ties of kinship

Singapore’s Independence

Lee Kuan Yew believed Singapore, a nation with limited natural resources, would require strong diplomatic relationship with other countries in order to survive. Shortly after independence, Singapore joined the United Nations (UN) and became a member of the Commonwealth. In August 1967, Singapore, together with Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with the objectives to promote economic development, social progress and regional stability against the influx of communism.

lee kuan yew and suhartoThe Singapore-Indonesia ties, however, had been deeply soured due to the execution of the two Indonesian saboteurs who were involved in the MacDonald House bombing during the Konfrontasi (1963-1966). After a brief discussion with former Singapore’s Ambassador to Indonesia Lee Khoon Choy (born 1924), Lee Kuan Yew, on his official visit to Indonesia in 1973, decided to pay respect at the Jakarta Kalibata Heroes Cemetery by sprinkling flowers onto the graves of the two Indonesian marines. The move clearly won the hearts of many Indonesians who held strong Javanese beliefs in souls and clear conscience.

Many Indonesian newspapers carried headlines describing Lee Kuan Yew as a magnanimous person. This helped to break the ice between the leaders of Singapore and Indonesia. Trust between the two countries were gradually restored, and for the next two decades, Singapore and Indonesia enjoyed a peaceful and beneficial bilateral ties. Lee Kuan Yew also maintained a close friendship with Suharto, the President of Indonesia between 1967 and 1998, until the latter died in 2008.

lee kuan yews speech at us senate 1985

Beyond Southeast Asia, Singapore was also actively establishing diplomatic relations with the major countries in the world. Bilateral ties with The United States and Japan were established shortly after the country’s independence.

lee kuan yew met deng xiao ping 1980Lee Kuan Yew also placed importance on good Sino-Singapore relations. He first visited China in 1976. Until 2011, Lee Kuan Yew had made a total of 33 official trips to China, and was one of the few in the world who had met all five Chinese leaders in Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.

National Interests

Lee Kuan Yew had demanded efficiency and capability in his government. In the sixties and seventies, his team of Goh Keng Swee (1918-2010), Toh Chin Chye (1921-2012), Lim Kim San (1916-2006), Othman Wok (born 1924), Ong Pang Boon (born 1929), S Rajaratnam (1915-2006), Hon Sui Sen (1916-1983) and Dr Albert Winsemius (1910-1996, Singapore’s Chief Economic Advisor between 1961 and 1984) was able to successfully tackle the urgent issues Singapore was facing, such as inadequate housing, national defense and economic struggles. Lee Kuan Yew himself also placed great emphasis on the ground, regularly visiting villagers living on both mainland Singapore and the outlying islands, to understand their concerns.

lee kuan yew speaking at hunyeang community centre tampines 1963

lee kuan yew touring radin mas 1964

Over the years, Lee Kuan Yew had built up a no-nonsensical reputation although some viewed him as a tough leader ruling with an iron fist. He made it clear many times that he would not allow any events to affect the country’s stability and undermine national interests.

This was demonstrated in late 1980, when a strike by the Singapore Airlines Pilots Association’s (SIApa) expatriate pilots threatened to escalate into a crisis. The month-long strike for higher pays and better benefits had already disrupted many international flights. With the 1980 General Election around the corner, Lee Kuan Yew stepped in and confronted the pilots with an uncompromising stand. He demanded, in one of his rally speeches, that the pilots end their strike: “I will, by every means at my disposal, teach you, and get the people of Singapore help me teach you, a lesson you won’t forget. And I’m prepared to start all over again. Or stop it!

The pilots eventually backed down. SIApa was de-registered a year later, and 15 leaders that incited the strike were charged and convicted. Even after he retired as the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew would intervene again, this time as the Senior Minister, when a group of SIA pilots threatened to strike over disputed pay-raise in 2004.

A Garden City

Tourism had a difficult start in post-independent Singapore as it did not have many attractions. Lee Kuan Yew believed that Singapore could be different from other developing countries in a practical way. In 1963, Lee Kuan Yew planted his first tree. He kept his tree-planting tradition every year, and it later evolved into an islandwide campaign. Today, there are 2 million trees planted around Singapore, meeting Lee Kuan Yew’s original vision of Singapore being a well-known Garden City.

lee kuan yew in parliament

The cleaning up of the Singapore River was also one of Lee Kuan Yew’s proposals of a clean and green Singapore. Before the seventies, the Singapore River had a notorious reputation of being an extremely dirty and polluted waterway at the country’s commercial district. In 1977, Lee Kuan Yew issued a challenge to his Environment ministry: “It should be a way of life to keep the water clean. To keep every stream, culvert and rivulet, free from pollution.” “The Ministry of Environment should make it a target: In 10 years let us have fishing in the Singapore River and Kallang River. It can be done.

The enormous task was given to Lee Ek Tieng (born 1934), the former chairman of the Public Utilities Board and then Environment Ministry Permanent Secretary, and his team. It took 10 years for the Singapore River and Kallang Basin to be successfully cleared of pollutants. By the mid-eighties, the river and its banks were no longer filled with garbage, bumboats, squatters and stench.

lee kuan yew played chess with sons


A language genius, Lee Kuan Yew was proficient in English and Malay, and understood Latin and Japanese. He once addressed the Malaysian parliament in perfect Bahasa Melayu that surprised many Malaysian leaders.

In his thirties, Lee Kuan Yew also learnt and mastered Mandarin and Hokkien in order to reach out to the masses in Singapore, much of it were made up of Chinese Singaporeans. After 1970s, he, however, stopped using Hokkien in his public speeches because he wanted Mandarin to become the common language of the Chinese Singaporeans. The Speak Mandarin Campaign that his government promoted aggressively in the eighties eventually led to the demise of Chinese dialects in Singapore.

lee kuan yew through the yearsCreating a bilingual society was what Lee Kuan Yew had in mind. While retaining one’s mother tongue, Lee Kuan Yew believed English should be the common language among different races in Singapore. This would give the country an advantage in the international arena. Thus, in the eighties, schools with Malay-, Chinese- and Tamil-medium classes were gradually phased out and replaced by English as the compulsory first language.

Lasting Legacy

In his political career, Lee Kuan Yew admitted making several bad judgements such as the shutting down of Nanyang University, population control and the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme launched in the eighties. His government’s tight control of the media and suppression of political dissent also drew criticism.

However, his achievements and contributions to Singapore far exceeded his political blemishes. For that, Lee Kuan Yew would be fondly remembered as the great man behind Singapore’s success and prosperity today. His unquestionable legacy as the founding father of modern Singapore will live on for many generations to come. For the city-state which will be celebrating its Golden Jubilee in the coming August, it is a monumental loss.

lee kuan yew 1923-2015

I have no regrets. I have spent my life, so much on it, building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.” – Lee Kuan Yew, 2014

Published: 23 March 2015

Posted in General | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments