The Importance of Family- One Man’s Vision for His Country

If modern Singapore, with her economic successes and social stability, was an award-winning gourmet dessert, then Mr. Lee Kuan Yew would be the finest artisan who always remembered his most important ingredient: family values.

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, will be unquestionably remembered for his instrumental contributions to national development. He was an astute pioneer whose uncanny foresight led Singapore, time and again, to new social and economic heights; a nimble political leader who forged strong local and international relationships.

A Social Advocate
In the social institutions of family, marriage, and parenthood, Mr. Lee was no less a visionary. He consistently affirmed the importance of healthy social and family values, “of family structure, of social framework, of filial ties and bonds, which hold family units together”. He was a strong advocate of the three-generation family structure that has been “a great strength for continuity in bringing up of next generation” and has “transmitted social values, more by osmosis than by formal instruction”. “We must preserve this precious family structure if our society is to regenerate itself without loss of cultural vigour, compassion and wisdom1, concluded Mr. Lee.

Early in our nation’s development, Mr. Lee recognised the significance of youth development. In his National Day address in 1967, two years after independence, he affirmed the pivotal role of socio-emotional and moral education for youths:

But, in the long run, it is the quality of our youths that will determine our future. And we have to invest in them more than any other sector. Changes are taking place in the schools. The emphasis is now on content and quality. We want our schools to produce citizens who are healthy and hardy, with a sense of social purpose and group discipline, prepared to work and to pay for what they want, never expecting something for nothing. Our schools will train students in the classrooms, in the playing fields to make them healthy and robust. But even more important, they will teach our students high standards of personal behaviour, social norms of good and bad, right and wrong. Without these values, a literate generation may be more dangerous than a completely uneducated one.2

Mr. Lee was similarly well aware of social issues that posed potential risks to Singapore’s societal values. In 1978, he cautioned Singapore about the dangers of evolving family values:

Today, there are more divorces than there were ten years ago and remarriages and broken marriages. It’s all the sign of change for the worst. But we must try, in certain areas, to exclude experimentation until we are sure that it is an experiment which is successful and we won’t know for at least one generation, probably not for certain for two generations. In one generation, perhaps we can see whether it’s a failure and we need two generations to see whether it’s a success. And I am not sure at all that what I am seeing, experimenting with lifestyles… I don’t know. I think this is a curious world, this is a twilight world. Let’s go slow, let’s not change in this. I am by nature quite an adventurous man. I like to try… But in this case, I am quite sure something is going to happen. I say, ‘Don’t try.’ And this is the problem: Which areas don’t try? I think they are areas connected with the family and the next generation because that is how we have sustained ourselves.3

Nearly two decades ago, he predicted the social vulnerabilities of our times, asserting that “if we allow [the Internet] to make our people permissive, promiscuous, relaxed and it unravels the family and the extended family, then I say we are undone and finished, because family strength and social cohesion were the basis on which we built Singapore”.4

An Exemplary Husband and Father
Mr. Lee practiced privately what he advocated publicly. He made marriage a collaborative partnership with his wife and cherished their unity. Of his marriage, he describes:

We gradually influenced each other’s ways and habits as we adjusted to and accommodated each other. We knew that we could not stay starry-eyed lovers all our lives; that life was an on-going challenge with new problems to resolve and manage… We never argued over the upbringing of our children, nor over financial matters. Our earnings and assets were jointly held. We were each other’s confidant.5 [An excerpt from eulogy to his wife]

We have never allowed the other to feel abandoned and alone in any moment of crisis. Quite the contrary, we have faced all major crises in our lives together, sharing our fears and hopes, and our subsequent grief and exultation. These moments of crises have bonded us closer together. With the years, the number of special ties which we two have shared have increased. Some of them we share with the children.6 [Letter with advice on marriage to his son Lee Hsien Yang who got married in 1981]

He was an encouraging and engaging father. When asked about his and his wife’s expectations of the children, he replied:

No, as I said earlier. We did not try to shape their careers. We were both lawyers, but we did not think it was good to encourage them to be lawyers. Instead we asked: What are you good at? What are you interested in? What will give you pleasure and satisfaction, and you’re good at it?6

When asked about his use of the cane to discipline the children, he light-heartedly remarked:

No, I didn’t need a cane and didn’t have one. My wife’s cane was not used very often but she has caned them. The children knew that there are certain things you must not do. I would support my wife so that there’s no bickering between husband and wife, where the children say, “Oh, my father is right!” (Laughs) I gave my wife full support. I would back her. On the whole I would say it’s a harmonious family.6

The Icing and the Cake
For many of us, Mr. Lee’s gilt-edged legacy and reputation in nation-building will be memorialised in history. But for Mr. Lee, I believe they were only the icing on the cake. At his 80th birthday dinner, he revealed:

At the end of the day, what I cherish most are the human relationships. With the unfailing support of my wife and partner I have lived life to the fullest. It is the friendships I made and the close family ties I nurtured that have provided me with that sense of satisfaction at a life well lived, and have made me what I am.7

The preeminent artisan of Singapore believed only in the choicest ingredients: family ties and friendships. As we move forward in the days to come, let us therefore honour Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his ideals for family, marriage, parenthood, and friendship, preserving those values, and living out a legacy and inheritance he so passionately fought for and left behind.


  1. Lee, K. Y. (1982, February 7). Speech by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Chinese New Year reception on Sunday, 7 Feb 82, at Istana [Speech transcript]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore
  2. Lee, K. Y. (1967, August 8). Prime minister’s address on TV on the eve of National Day, 8th August, 1967 [Speech transcript]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore
  3. Lee, K. Y. (1978, May 31). Translation of the Prime Minister’s Question & Answer session at the Singapore Malay Teachers’ Union Seminar held at DBS auditorium on 31 May 1978 [Speech transcript]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore
  4. Lee, K. Y. (2013). The wit & wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew. L. Davis (Ed.). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet.
  5. Lee, K. Y. (2010, October 10). Lee Kuan Yew: The last farewell to my wife. AsiaOne. Retrieved from
  6. Lee, K. Y. (2011). Lee Kuan Yew: Hard truths to keep Singapore going. F. K. Han, Z. Ibrahim, M. H. Chua, L. Lim, I. Low, R. Lin, & R. Chan (Eds.). Singapore: Straits Times Press.
  7. Lee, K. Y. (2003, September 16). Speech by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew at his 80thbirthday dinner held at the Shangri-La Hotel on 16 September 2003 at 9.45 pm [Speech transcript]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore

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