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When the People’s Action Party won the 1959 general election in Singapore, making Lee Kuan Yew the country’s first prime minister, LIFE was there to capture the energy in the elated crowd.
And when Singapore was weeks away from gaining independence after its short-lived union with Malaysia, an eventful six years later, LIFE’s Hong Kong bureau chief sat down with Lee to hear his thoughts on the future of his country.
Lee, whom LIFE described as having “a Spartan, no-nonsense — and above all — incorruptible dedication” to his role, repeatedly emphasized racial unity as the key to a successful Singapore. “We must forge a multiracial society out of our Indians and Chinese and Malays or we’re going to have one group dominating the other,” he said, “or were going to have segregation and partition which is fraught with danger for all of south Asia.”
Half a century later, the coexistence Lee espoused is a defining feature of Singapore, a country in which nearly 40% of the population is foreign-born. Emphasizing the importance of allegiance to Singapore above residents’ countries of origin, Lee recognized multiple national languages and religious holidays and prioritized residential integration.
But declaring loyalty to Singapore was not tantamount to forswearing one’s ethnic identity. “I’m very proud of the fact that my ancestors are Chinese,” he said. “But our future lies in being part of Southeast Asia.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.