Li's political career began in November 1954 when he founded the moderate-leftist People's Action Party (PAP), which has dominated Singapore politics ever since. He became a champion of the poor and of labor unions while managing to solidify PAP's political influence. In June 1959 he became the first prime minister of the city-state of Singapore. In 1963 he brought Singapore into the Federation of Malaysia but in 1965 withdrew from the federation because of political unrest. A republic was established that same year, and Singapore became a wholly autonomous entity, with Li continuing as prime minister.
As prime minister, Li engineered a miraculous transformation of Singapore from a poverty-ridden port city to a wealthy, modern state that became the model of East Asian economic prowess. He oversaw a tightly controlled welfare state with an emphasis on private enterprise and foreign investment. But his rule also had a rather dark side that included the suppression of political opposition and the implementation of strict laws governing public behavior and drug use, many of which were accompanied by draconian enforcement that included corporal punishment and long jail sentences.
Criticized for his government's repressive policies, Li stepped down as prime minister on 28 November 1990, although he retained the position of senior minister, which he still holds.
Ha Thi Thu Huong
Kwang, Han Fook, Warren Fernandez, and Tan Sumiko. Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas. Singapore: Times Editions, 1998.; Lee, Kuan Yew. Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew: The Singapore Story. Singapore: Federal Publications, 2000.