Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore and Christianity

Today the founding Prime Minister of Singapore passed away at age 91. He is rightly credited with single-handedly turning Singapore from a third-world backwater to a first-world success story. One of the wealthiest nations in the world, the Singapore miracle was largely due to this great man.

Born in 1923, he studied at Cambridge and the London School of Economics. He returned to Singapore in 1949, convinced that self-government was the way forward for this island state. He soon formed the People’s Action Party (PAP) which won government in 1959.

For three years it was in federation with Malaysia, becoming an independent Republic on 9 August 1965. This is its Jubilee Year, and its success can be overwhelmingly attributed to Lee. The PAP has won every election for the past half century, but it is now being seriously challenged by other parties.

Singapore_image_1Part of the original Four Asian Tigers, it is certainly an economic miracle: a tiny cluster of islands with no real natural resources, it is today one of the great city states of the world. The 2013 Index of Economic Freedom ranked it as the second freest economy in the world following Hong Kong. As one commentator notes, Singapore has “Asia’s second largest concentration of millionaires (after Qatar).” He continues:

This city-state of a little more than 715 square kilometers is now one of the richest countries on the planet, in terms of per capita GDP, with an economy entirely incommensurate for its tiny size. And this ambitious growth trajectory was engineered under Lee’s close supervision. Bereft of any natural resources, a young prime minister pushed the island to develop key infrastructure, including a world-class port and an airport. Alongside these projects, Lee focused on housing and jobs—Singapore’s preceding British overlords had other concerns—and established the foundations for the Housing Development Board (HDB) and the Economic Development Board (EDB).
The HDB transformed this swampy island into a first-rate, first-world metropolis, and helped pull Singaporeans—of Chinese, Malays and Indian descent—out of their ethnic enclaves and into carefully planned mixed townships. The EDB, meanwhile, slowly built up Singapore’s mix of industries and businesses, dodging recessions and crises to assemble an economy that could support a population swiftly moving out of poverty. From a per capita GDP of about $500 in 1965, Lee’s administration raised it a staggering 2800% to $14,500 by 1991.


But since all these facts are rather well known, let me speak briefly to the religious scene. Lee himself was not a Christian, although he was prayed for by millions. In a 2009 interview he said this, when asked about evangelical Christianity in Singapore:

You see most Chinese here are Buddhists or Taoist ancestor worshippers, I’m one of them, so it is a tolerant society, it says whatever you want to believe in, you go ahead. And these youngsters, the educated ones, Western-educated especially, now they are all English-educated, their mother tongue is the second language. Therefore, they begin to read Western books and Western culture and so on and then the Internet. So they begin to question like in Korea that what is this mumbo-jumbo, the ancestors and so on? The dead have gone, they’re praying before this altar and asking for their blessings and then they have got groups, Christian groups who go out and evangelize. They catch them in their teens, in their late teens when they’re malleable and open to suggestions and then they become very fervent evangelists themselves. My granddaughter is one of them. She’s now 28. My wife used to tell her look, don’t go for any more of these titles, just look for MRS. It’s just around the corner, God will arrange it.

Singapore has experienced quite remarkable cultural and religious harmony. Around a third of Singaporeans are Buddhist, followed by around 20 per cent Christian. Muslims are around 15 per cent of the population. The Christian churches there are thriving – the largest being New Creation Church led by Joseph Prince.

Quite a few very active megachurches are there, along with plenty of smaller ones. I have been greatly impressed by the quality and caliber of the believers I have met there. But the nation is at a crossroads in various respects. As mentioned, this is its Jubilee Year.

The biblical significance of this is of course important. And with Lee now gone, and the PAP slowly losing its commanding position in Singaporean politics, there are questions being asked as to how Singapore will fare in the near future. The once very socially and culturally conservative landscape is now beginning to shift.

The usual moves for things like the homosexual agenda are slowly but surely gaining voice and traction in the country. Just last year in late October a Singapore Supreme Court ruling upheld the country’s ban on same-sex relations between consenting adult men as found in section 377A of Singapore’s penal code.

But the activists are chipping away at that, and elsewhere. Those Christians who are standing strong on this and speaking out are few. I have met many of them and they are brave warriors, but as with so many nations, much of the church is asleep.

Way back in 1978 in a crusade there, Billy Graham called Singapore the “Antioch of Asia”. It has such a strategic position, not just in terms of geographical location, but spiritually speaking as well. Which way will Asia go in the future religiously? How will the gospel fare there?

Much of this will be determined by the church in Singapore. Will it rise to the occasion and remain faithful to Christ? Will it seek the welfare of the city (Singapore) as it reaches out to its neighbours? This is a crucial time for Singaporean Christianity.

It has a huge legacy and inheritance which it dares not squander. So much of this legacy is due to a wise, strong, forward-looking leader like Lee. Whether he finally came to Christ on his death bed I do not know. But he was in many ways God’s man for Asia for the past half century.

God had raised him and Singapore up for his purposes. Now it is up to the Christians in this great nation to decide how they will proceed. May they not waste this remarkable opportunity and all the many blessings – material and spiritual – that they now enjoy.

We must all pause to reflect on this great leader, politician and statesman. He did so very much for Singapore, Asia and the world. But we must also pray for the church in Singapore. This is indeed a crucial period. Singapore is at a crossroads. May it become indeed the Antioch of Asia.


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30 Replies to “Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore and Christianity”

  1. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for this revealing information about a great statesman!

    But what did Lee Kuan Yew’s wife mean when she told their granddaughter to “look for MRS – it’s just around the corner”?

    What is MRS?

  2. What economic lesson can we take home for our aboriginal communities under the spotlight at present and also for Norfork Island?
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  3. Glad you covered this passing of a great man in our region.
    Lee Kuan Yew, has always received respect from the majority of Singaporeans. Christianity is highly noticeable, to everyone in this fair City Sate, it’s citizens enjoys a very high level of freedom. When visiting the city one cannot help but feeling safe and relaxed. Not to mention the complete lack of graffiti ugliness so apparent in most Western Cities,
    Bill Heggers Bridgetown W.A.

  4. Might it be possible to unearth video tape of Lee being interviewed in Airport lounges by Australian PC media whom he most capably exposed as fools?

  5. Dear Bill,

    Thank you for the article about Lee. Whether or not he was Christian he showed Christian perseverance in his marriage. Apparently he was married for 60 years and said that the death of his wife was the biggest challenge he ever faced. My husband and I can relate very much to that remark as we are not looking forward to our separation through death.

  6. I knew very little about Singapore (except that it was the stayover stop for my cousins from Scotland traveling to visit our cousins in Australia) I’d also heard that it was so clean and safe because they were so strict about enforcing even the most minor infractions (with caning) and while more secure, hardly freer because of strong government control over every aspect of life. I guess I was wrong? Not aware of the religious tolerance or the free market tendencies. Thanks for the additional insight into Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as well! I’ll check out your links.

  7. Bonnie, it’s true that Singapore has strong government control over everyday life. At the same time, the religious tolerance was one of Lee Kuan Yew’s core policies, because one of his overriding concerns was to create a stable society. This is also why he forced all the different ethnic groups to live together in the same government-built housing blocks. His concern was to create a single Singaporean identity, so that Singaporeans’ allegiance would be to their nation, rather than to their communal identities.

  8. Ursula, I would be very interested if you would care to expand on your suggestion that there are economic lessons to be learned here for Australian indigenous communities.

  9. I googled “Lee Kwan Yew Christian?” This was something I had wondered about for years, but just never pursued. I am an orthodox christian who has marveled at the Joseph Prince teleweb presentations for about two years. There are very few tele evangelists who so consistently present the good news and Grace message of Christianity as Joseph Prince. The views of his hearers show intelligent, respectful, and happy people. He has a large audience in North America. In my opinion, he is the most honest and positive evangelist on the web today. If he is reflective of the society in which he lives, then I’d say that it is an admirable one. The Lee legacy has allowed a pursuit of the positives without being subsumed by grossness.

  10. Not all the things coming from the west to east is good as the history reflects – as in the case of Singapore devil has had already played a big role to counter gods ways of truth by cunningly deceiving people with homosexual agendas and the latest new prosperity gospel with mother grace preacher Joseph prince who is not only popular in Singapore but also in US. No wonder he considers Kenneth Copeland another prosperity gospel heretic as his guru instead of Jesus. Nothing to be surprised and new.

  11. Russel, what inspired me to ask that question was bill’s discribtion of the economic turn around for an isolated island nation without significant natural resources. I thought that was enough to be able to draw a comparison?
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  12. Bill, you talk about winning elections and parties as if Singapore has a western style democracy. Someone else was saying he was a dictator, though benevolent. Have they changed over the years? Could dictatorships really be benevolent?

  13. Thanks Bill for the commentary. I’m a Singaporean, and a Christian. Frederick, Lee Kuan Yew never confessed to be a believer. In his last days, FB posts by his eldest son (who is also our current Prime Minister) and daughter in law seems to slant towards Buddhism. His son posted a photograph of the golden top of a Buddhist temple in Singapore, and his daughter-in-law, a lotus flower. There is however a hopeful revelation that Lee Kuan Yew shared in an interview with NYtimes some years back. He was deeply saddened by the condition of his ailing wife. So as to sleep, he took to meditation, and will chant “Maranatha”, which he understood as “Come to me, O Lord Jesus”.

    Hi Bonnie, you’re welcomed to visit Singapore, and this year will be an especially good time coz we’re celebrating 50 years of nationhood. (we’re a baby nation!)

    Yes, there’s punishment by caning, as to whether it’s for the most minor infractions, I guess it depends on perspective. Probably this reputation came about because of the “Michael Fay” incident, where an 18 year-old American was sentenced to caning for theft and vandalism.

    LKY article link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/11/world/asia/11lee.html?_r=0

  14. Thanks Nathan. But you may misunderstand a few things here. LKY and the PAP were elected – over and over again – by a huge majority. So this was no dictatorship. And they were voted in because the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans approved of this strong and decisive approach to running the country. It made for a clean, safe, secure and prosperous nation. It is just that leftists in the West saw this as being too authoritarian and disciplined and heavy-handed. But the people of Singapore loved it this way.

    As Henry Kissinger just wrote:

    Lee’s domestic methods fell short of the prescriptions of current U.S. constitutional theory. But so, in fairness, did the democracy of Thomas Jefferson’s time, with its limited franchise, property qualifications for voting and slavery. This is not the occasion to debate what other options were available. Had Singapore chosen the road of its critics, it might well have collapsed among its ethnic groups, as the example of Syria teaches today. Whether the structures essential for the early decades of Singapore’s independent existence were unnecessarily prolonged can be the subject of another discussion.


  15. Stumbled upon your post, Bill, and was most impressed by the balanced approach in your writing. I believe the church in Singapore needs to make a more vocal stand on morality and the idea of a traditional family. For too long we have been part of the silent conservative majority for fear of being seen as confrontational or intolerant. As Christians we are called to love but must resist the increasingly strident efforts to promote homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle.

  16. Hi,

    I’m sorry but I can’t agree with the general tenor of this entry Bill. While I agree that Lee Kuan Yew did increase the GDP/capita and established a stable and democratic society, I read his autobiography which makes for more sober reading. At the time the Khmer Rouge were killing in Cambodia, the chapter in his book which talks about what Lee was doing at the time. While of course I am not suggesting that he did condone it, I was unable to detect his the moral outrage. As the Leader of a nation in whose back yard this atrocity was going on, he failed to mobilize or co-ordinate with other powers in the region, or Western Nations, or maybe the UN to try and do something to stop it.

    I am not suggesting that he or a grouping of nations would necessarily be successful, the fact that he did not institute any actions I find very distressing. If the atrocity was happening far away (randomly, let’s say South America) I can appreciate it is less of a matter for Singapore as a nation. But when it is next door, this I reprehensible. I compare this tragic event to the reaction of the world to the Holocaust and what it DID (not just talked about) to try and stop it. I guess you have to read the book if there is some possibility that you were to arrive at the conclusion I arrived at.

    Secondly, while I admire Singapore’s stance on homosexuality, its abortion laws are a tragic, and I argue extremely serious stain (yes just like my own country’s (NZ) PM’s successive positions on abortion) on Lee Kuan Yew as a leader during which time it was legalized and liberalized. According to Johnston’s Archive, it is estimated that there have been 630,596 babies killed since 1970 in Singapore. That is a national tragedy. I am not blaming every Singaporean for this, and I am not casting any aspersions about Lee Kuan Yew’s destiny (only God knows that). But either way, he will have to answer to God for his role in the biggest holocaust in human history.

    I found an interesting Singaporean’s blog entry on Lee Kuan Yew. While I haven’t read all of it, I would agree with the author’s conclusion here:

    “Lee Kuan Yew has been called the “Father of Modern Singapore”. While his pragmatism has led Singapore a long way since Independence, this does not necessarily mean he was right in everything he did or believed. In particular, he was not necessarily right about the value of human life or God.

    Life is better than death. But on Lee’s view, the value of life does not extend far beyond the subjective capacity to choose. It flows from his metaphysical agnosticism.”

    Sorry, I do not regard money and stability as significant achievements when the slaughter of the unborn and of the born occurred on his watch.

  17. I see your point Bill and I agree that you are not saying he is perfect. It is also correct that the article focuses more in Singapore as a nation and the state of its church. I think your thoughts there are reasonable; in fact it seems that you focus less on the passing of Lee Kuan Yew than on Singapore (which I have no problem with).

    Maybe it is a matter of opinion, but I personally cannot attach a phrase like “We must all pause to reflect on this great leader, politician and statesman. He did so very much for Singapore, Asia and the world” to a person who passed laws that resulted in that many deaths and failed to try and stop what happened in Cambodia. I would also, for one of the great bell weathers of our sad age, write about Lee’s actions around abortion, even if it is to condemn them. I am 100% sure we are both on the same page with respect to abortion in the way I have said it and so I would assume you would condemn it as you do so great a job in general :).

    The same goes for John Key, and my previous Prime Minister, Helen Clark and right back to Robert Muldoon, with respect to abortion. I would never use those words.

    In a real way, God views all sin as reprehensible, mine as much as Lee Kuan Yew’s. But I believe we should examine leader’s lives because they can have a greater impact for better and worse; in Lew Kuan Yew’s case, “great” and “did so much” with respect to economic matters pales alongside his stance on abortion.

  18. Matthew, I think it is rather harsh to cruicify LKY for his views on abortion, considering that Abortion is legal in so many countries in the world. I do not understand your views on his apparent inactivity when Khmer Rouge were killing in Cambodia. There is no way to know what he did or did not do behind the scenes. He definitely have said many times that the that any reason to invade other countries was unacceptable. Singapore at that time was in no position military and distance to be able to assist or help in any way.

    What I know is this. Many Singaporeans respect even though some may fear him. But most of us know that what he did when he did it, he did it in the interest of Singapore. He got many things wrong and perhaps some unforgivable in many eyes, but the majority still believed he got most things right. He bettered our lifes. My parents were born in Malaysia. Every one and I mean everyone of my relatives right up to now still wishes they had someone like him. Both my parents came over to Singapore in the 1950s. It was the truth that Singapore was a mess. My dad recounted many times that he was nearly killed in one of the many racial riots for being the wrong place at the wrong time. Gangs were everywhere trying to recruit or make trouble. The standard of living then as compared to neighbouring areas was quite alot worse. But when he came into the picture in the late 1950s, my dad and his brothers heard him speak and decided that singapore was the place to be. Since then, they have helped many of their relatives back in Malaysia. You just have to see how chinese are treated in Malaysia or the benefits that are given to Malays compared to Chinese. Its almost like the chinese in malaysia are treated like second class citizens. In singapore its the other way, Malays do get some benefits and subsidies that no other races have. Proportionally the malay ministers are lower then the 30% population of malays. But have do have a number of malay ministers and a number of past malay presidents. I will leave you to check on the number of chinese minsters/Kings/Sultans of states in malaysia. This is just one of the reason why so many are thankful to LKY including many malays. Many of my parents never had education. No homes, poor sanitation etc etc. But look at where many of them are now including their families. Do we have issues, could LKY had tone down or relaxed many of the things he enacted or did? Could he have been more kind to some of his opponents? Yes. Was he wrong in many of these attacks? I would say yes as well. Is he human? Yes.

    Many of us in Singapore understand LKY. We trust in why he did what he did even when we did not fully agree with many of the matters. Just looking at the way he lived his life. The same home without renovation, in the same office/living rooms/rooms/toilet that looked almost like the 70s tells us even more about him. The way he dressed and shoes and even the car he is driven around in. He is frugal beyond what we ever expect him to be. Does he own other houses in singapore. Yes. Does he stay in them. No. He stays in that same old house and works in that same old office up until recently.

    As you said, at the end of the day, only God can judge him. It could just be the difference in thinking between Asians and elsewhere. We all have different thoughts. We value different things. We can agree to disagree.

  19. Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s “obsession” was Singapore – that she should survive and thrive. You probably know by now that Singapore is also known as the Little Red Dot (courtesy of a derisive comment by former Indonesian President Habibie to mock our smallness). But Singaporeans have since embraced the appellation – yes we are small – but we can punch above our weight. With tributes pouring in, we got to know that there was also – Mr Lee’s Red Box. It is a deep wine colour brief case. According to Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was Mr Lee’s Principal Private Secretary, before Mr Lee came in to work each day, the locked red box would arrive first, at about 9 am. It held “Mr Lee’s papers, speech drafts, letters, readings, and a whole range of questions, reflections, and observations”. His subordinates would have to work assiduously on what Mr Lee had put into the Red Box. Upon reading that, I am deeply touched by Mr Lee’s utter commitment and dedication to the country (hence Singaporeans’ deep sense of gratitude to the man in spite of his imperfections). This reflection came to me:

    He gave his all for the tiny Red Dot
    on this terrestrial ball.
    What would I
    What would you
    the kingdom of heaven?

  20. I’m afraid that he had some reprehensible views on human life. From his 1969 parliamentary speech on the Abortion Bill:
    “It is unlikely that the results will be discernible before five years. Nor will the effect be felt before fifteen to twenty years. But we will regret the time lost, if we do not now take the first tentative steps towards correcting a trend which can leave our society with a large number of the physically, intellectually and culturally anaemic.”

  21. Thanks Anthony. Yes I already spoke to this issue in a comment above. As he said in his speech, his concerns were to keep fertility rates down in order to keep economic and social standards high. I of course disagree with him on this, at least in his support of abortion to achieve this.

    To say that Lee Kuan Yew was an incredible leader is not to say he was perfect. To say that Singapore is an amazing country is not to say it has no shortcomings. But compared to so many other leaders and countries, these two deserve special praise indeed.

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