Lee Kuan Yew was born in Singapore and educated at Raffles Institution and Cambridge University where he was a top law student. Active in the Malayan Forum in London, Lee returned with his compatriots, determined to take an active part in Singapore’s struggle for self-determination. By his own admission, Lee began his ‘political life by representing the trade unions.’ The first of these was the Singapore Union of Postal and Telecommunications Workers (SUPTW) which was about to go on strike in 1952 and needed a legal advisor. Recalling those early days, Lee said:
“For two weeks, the union ding-donged in the press against the Commissioner for Posts representing the Colonial government on the merits of their case. I drafted their statements. Public sentiments swung towards the unions, and the Colonial government had to give way: higher wages and better terms and conditions of service, removal of thick printed red stripes on their trousers making them look like circus attendants.”
In gratitude, the SUPTW presented Lee and his wife a pair of Rolex watches (which are on display in this exhibition). His success with the SUPTW drew more references:
“Because the union won, I was next briefed by the clerical union of Post & Telegraphs for their demands, which went to arbitration. Again the union won. Thereafter, I became adviser to innumerable trade unions English-speaking, Chinese-speaking and Malay-speaking. When I fought my first election in 1955, I chose Tanjong Pagar because that was where the postmen were based and also the dock workers. I won easily.”
In 1954, Lee and a group of committed Singaporeans founded the People’s Action Party (PAP). More than half the founding leaders of the Party were unionists and union leaders. He won the Tanjong Pagar constituency seat in the 1955 general election, alongside Lim Chin Siong and Goh Chew Chua. In the 1959 general election, Lee led the PAP to a landslide victory, riding on the back of trade union support and became Singapore’s first Prime Minister. Lee remained Prime Minister till 1990. Throughout his leadership, he remained close to the NTUC and formalised a symbiotic relationship between the NTUC and the PAP, which continues to this day. When Lee died in 2015, there was a national outpouring of grief.