An amazing parallel runs through the political careers of Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of the Republic of Singapore, and Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister. Both began their political career at the same time and stepped down as prime minister on the same day.
Both laid down their office on November 28, 1990. Both were succeeded by their deputies: Goh Chok Tong became prime minister of Singapore, and John Major of Britain.
But while Thatcher left No. 10 Downing Street red-eyed with tears she could barely hide in a famous photograph showing her with her husband Dennis by her side in the back seat of a car, eased out by her own Conservative Party cabinet colleagues, Lee Kuan Yew remained in power. He became senior minister the very same day.
Lee and Thatcher both entered politics in the 1950s. Lee served as election agent for John Laycock of the Progressive Party in the 1951 municipal poll. Thatcher, in her mid-20s, ran as the Conservative candidate for the strong Labour seat of Dartford in the general elections of 1950 and 1951, winning national publicity as the youngest woman candidate in the country, but lost both times.
Thatcher finally entered parliament, elected from the North London constituency of Finchley, in 1959. She was MP for Finchley till 1992 when she entered the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher. The constituency was abolished in 1997.
Lee Kuan Yew became prime minister of Singapore on June 3, 1959, four months before Thatcher was elected MP in October 1959. Two years later, in October 1961, she was promoted to parliamentary undersecretary by the then prime minister Harold Macmillan.
The Conservatives lost the subsequent elections in 1964 and 1966, but when they returned to power under Edward Heath, Thatcher became education secretary – a position where she earned infamy as “Thatcher the milk-snatcher” for abolishing free milk for schoolchildren as part of government spending cuts.
She did not then expect to become prime minister one day. “ I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime,” she said as education secretary in 1973.
Lee Kuan Yew also had his moments of self-doubts. Every Singaporean will have seen pictures of him breaking down while announcing the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965. “For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life … you see, the whole of my adult life … I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories,” he famously said.
After the Conservatives lost the 1974 elections, Thatcher was elected party leader, defeating the erstwhile leader Edward Heath, in February 1975. After four years as opposition leader, she led the Conservatives to power in the May 1979 general election.
“As prime minister from 1979 to 1990, Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain and left an ideological legacy to rival that of Marx, Mao, Gandhi or Reagan,” the Economist said in a fulsome tribute following her death on April 8 this year. Even the Guardian, no admirer of hers, agrees that “she changed the face of the country, irrevocably, for good or evil or a bit of both”.
Lee Kuan Yew, too, transformed Singapore, leading it, as he said, from the Third World to the First World. He tamed the unions and transformed Singapore into a nation of homeowners just as Margaret Thatcher did when she came to power, facing down the miners and selling council flats to the tenants.
Singapore like Malaysia once faced a communist threat.
Thatcher had to contend with the Irish Republicans, escaping an attempt on her life when the terrorists triggered a bomb blast at a Brighton hotel where she was staying during a Conservative Party conference in October 1984.
Thatcher was tough. No wonder she was called the Iron Lady – a moniker bestowed by the Soviets which fitted her. As she herself said: “For my part, I favour an approach to statecraft that embraces principles, as long as it is not stifled by them; and I prefer such principles to be accompanied by steel along with good intentions.”
No one can dispute the toughness of Lee Kuan Yew, either. Both preached self-reliance. Lee is a firm believer in family values. So was Thatcher. She famously said in an interview in 1987: “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
“She was a remarkable woman,” said Lee Kuan Yew in an interview with Time magazine shortly before Thatcher was forced to step down.
He praised her economic policy when she visited Singapore in April 1985. He said:
You have striven for fundamental changes in attitudes and policies to change the direction Britain will take. Privatisation of major sections of the economy should bring back vigour to British industry. You have resisted the temptation to take the standard solution of fiscal stimulation to reduce unemployment; instead, you seek the slower but more lasting solution of encouraging entrepreneurs to risk their capital in new ventures and to hire workers. You have made it more worthwhile to take risks to create wealth; this requires courage in a Britain where ‘profits’ has become a dirty word.
For nearly four decades since the war, successive British governments seemed to assume that the creation of wealth came about naturally and that what needed government attention and ingenuity was the redistribution of wealth. So, governments devised ingenious ways to transfer incomes from the successful to the less successful. In this climate, it requires a prime minister with very strong nerves to tell voters the truth that creators of wealth are precious members of a society who deserve [the] honour plus the right to keep a better part of their rewards.
In an interview with Time magazine in November 1990, he said:
She was a remarkable woman. Not necessarily likeable but resolute, clear in her objectives and consistent. And most of her objectives, I thought, were right. Of course, she has a certain strong style which doesn’t agree with everybody.
But I like her. She was robust and candid. I didn’t agree with her, for instance, on apartheid in South Africa. But there was no hypocrisy about it. She didn’t agree with sanctions and she’s kept on saying so and held her ground, one versus the rest.
In an interview with the BBC on November 26, 1990, when it was clear Thatcher was on her way out, Lee said:
I’m sorry to see her work uncompleted and I hope somebody will complete it for her. I think it deserves to succeed. But my personal relations with her have always been agreeable. She’s never been obnoxious, and I hope I haven’t been to her. I disagreed with her on many an occasion, especially over apartheid and sanctions on South Africa. But at the same time, I admired and respected her combativeness. There’s a certain willingness to rough it out with the toughest around the place and to take on all corners. And I think that same approach was necessary to be able to take on Scargill and the miners’ unions. I couldn’t have imagined any other prime minister that I knew, British prime minister that I knew, and they go back to Macmillan, who would have lasted that one year of nastiness and brutishness.
Note: Lee Kuan Yew’s quotes are taken from The Papers of Lee Kuan Yew: Speeches, Interviews and Dialogues, available on the National Library Board website. Some of the other information is from Wikipedia and the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website.