Lee Kuan Yew rode a bicycle

The long-lived authoritarian architect of Singapore’s independence and prosperity, Lee Kuan Yew, reportedly biked to his college classes at Fitzwilliam House at the University of Cambridge after World War II.

Lee Kuan Lew Singapore

From the Los Angeles Times obituary published over the weekend:

During Japan’s World War II occupation of Singapore, Lee was forced into duty as a translator for Japan’s official news agency. After the war, with Singapore back under British colonial rule, he traveled on an Allied troop ship to England to study. He spent four months in London, hated the city and moved to Cambridge.

In Cambridge, where he rode a bicycle to classes, he proved to be a brilliant student. He studied law at Fitzwilliam House and completed his legal studies at the Middle Temple in London. There he became active in the Malayan Forum, a political group of students who sought an end to colonial rule in Malaya and Singapore.

After Singapore’s independence, the government planned how transportation can best benefit the insular city-state. The government quickly understood that physical constraints limited the ability of roads to meet the rise in transportation demands. Rail transit seemed like an obvious choice in spite of the much greater expense, but American transportation consultants and experts from the World Bank tried to push Singapore to build roads with an all-bus public transportation system.

Transport Minister Ong Teng Cheong argued for the rail system in spite of the cost, and Lee himself understood that economic development and quality of life go hand-in-hand with efficient transportation. “If all of the new urban renewal projects and office developments go up,” said Lee in 1972, employment “goes up to 300,000, and there will be a monumental jam. Even buses alone” [i.e. with no cars allowed] “will jam. There is not enough turning around time. We must go” with rail transit. This investment “must be taken because I do not see how you can have dense urban development without a mass transit system.”

So Lee was instrumental in pushing for Asia’s second oldest rail transit system, which launched in 1987 and today operates trains serving 133 stations on 95 miles of track with peak-time headways of one to two minutes, and off-peak trains running every six minutes.


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