By Dr Ruth Craggs, Lecturer in Human Geography, King’s College London.

Politicians and diplomats from around the world have begun to offer tributes this week as it was announced that Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died on Monday, 23 March 2015.

Lee led the People’s Action Party from 1959 and governed Singapore for three decades, overseeing independence from Britain as part of the Federation of Malaya in 1963 and then Singapore’s split from the Federation to become an independent city-state in 1965. Lee was known for masterminding Singapore’s impressive economic growth, and sometimes criticised for the tight political and social control he exerted domestically.

In the same year that Singapore separated from the Federation of Malaya, the new island country joined the Commonwealth. An Evening Standard report on the 1965 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meeting commented that, “The man who seemed to have created the biggest impression…is Singapore’s Mr Lee Kuan Yew. His quick brain makes him a match for Mr [Harold] Wilson any day.” (Cited in Josey, 2013: 337)

Lee was one of a generation of independence leaders who dominated the Commonwealth from the 1960s into the 1980s and early 1990s. Alongside others such as Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Lee was regarded as one of the organisation’s ‘giants’ and was a regular presence at Commonwealth summits over several decades.

In 1971, Lee’s Singapore hosted the first regular Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be held outside of London. This conference was symbolic of how the Commonwealth was changing as an institution, moving from a UK-centric organisation to a post-colonial, multipolar association. It also resulted in the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles, the first statement setting out the Commonwealth’s shared values and emphasising in particular “a commitment to democratic self-determination and non-racialism in international politics”.

According to Roger Carrick, interviewed for the Commonwealth Oral History Project, Lee “much enjoyed” chairing this meeting.  He used his role as Chair of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to project his new vision for an independent Singapore to the wider world, and to cement his own reputation on the global stage. A contemporary press report highlighted the careful stage management of the event, with even the urban fabric enrolled into the performance. Lee emphasised to the Singapore population

what an honour it is for the country to have so many guests. Buildings have been repainted, flower beds restocked, grass trimmed…Taxi drivers have been told by Mr Lee personally that they must be courteous to visitors and careful not to overcharge. Commonwealth Prime Ministers and Presidents are bound to be impressed by the efficiency and prosperity of Singapore (Gemini News Service, 1971: 2).

At the Singapore CHOGM, Lee was frustrated that arguments over South Africa dominated the conference and threatened to derail his careful preparations for a successful event. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Lee trod a moderate path between those Southern African leaders pushing for firm action on Rhodesia and the apartheid government in South Africa, and those, such as Britain, advocating a more conciliatory approach to promote reform. In 1989, Malaysian diplomat Tan Sri Kamal Jaafar, interviewed for the ICwS project, recalled that Lee’s Singapore was a lone voice alongside Britain arguing that economic sanctions on South Africa should be lifted straight away following Mandela’s release by PW Botha’s government.

As leader of an increasingly wealthy and successful Singapore after independence, Lee Kuan Yew played a crucial part – alongside and at times in contest with other independence leaders – in reshaping the Commonwealth into a post-colonial association of independent states. He regarded the Commonwealth as ‘not a bad club’ to belong to: association with Britain, in his view, was crucial in this international forum, while other key regional members of the Commonwealth could do much to help each other in terms of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, economic development and technical assistance. A respected Commonwealth statesman, Lee would be approached by Margaret Thatcher for advice at Heads of Government Meetings, which the Singapore Prime Minister himself described as “seminars for world leaders”.

Further reading on Lee Kuan Yew and the Commonwealth:

Yew, L.K., Smuts Memorial Lecture: The Commonwealth – a Continuity of Association after Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).

Craggs, R., ‘Postcolonial Geographies, Decolonization, and the Performance of Geopolitics at Commonwealth Conferences‘, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 31:1 (2014), pp.39-­55.

Josey, A., Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2013 [1968]).