[Singaporean Literature]

"The Fairness of the System": Lee Kuan Yew's Encounter with Britain's National Health Service

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

Although Lee Kuan Yew's experience of the Japanese conquest of Malaya left him with few illusions about either the permanence of Empire or any caucasian racial superiority or mission, his first encounters with Britain's National Health Service left him greatly impressed:

Soon after the National Health Service Act was passed in 1948, I went to collect my spectacles from an optician in Regent Street in Cambridge. I had expected to pay between five and six pounds for them. At the counter the optician proudly told me that I did not have to pay for them, and instead gave me a form to sign. I was delighted and thought to myself that this was what a civilised society should be. [129]

Visits to a dentist and a physician while he was a student at Cambridge again left him "enormously impressed," as did the British willingness to provide "free dental treatment" for Europeans who travelled to the U. K. to avoid paying for such care at home. "What struck me most," he added, "was the fairness of the system. The government was creating a society that would get everybody -- rich or poor, high or low or middle class -- on to one broad band of decent living standards. And this although there were still shortages" (129).

Looking back from more than four decades after his encounters with Britain's NHS and Harold Laski's lectures at socialism at the London School of Economics, Lee confessed that he was then "too idealistic" to realize the financial costs of such policies, and when Singapore became independent, it did not have enough wealth to fund them. He also did not realize, he says, "that under such an egalitarian system each individual would be more interested in what he could get out of the common pool than in striving to do better for himself, which had been the driving force for progress throughout human evolution (129).


Lee Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times, 1998.

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