From Third World to First: Singapore Elder Statesman Lee Kuan Yew’s insights on Filipinos

We take it for granted that material and accounts that provide priceless outsiders’ perspectives on the Philippines are so readily available for all to learn from but forget (1) how books are prohibitively expensive to most Filipinos and (2) how most Filipinos lack any inclination to read books to begin with. So it is worth at least sharing some of the choicest insights on Filipinos written by some of the greatest minds of modern times. One such great mind is that of Lee Kuan Yew.


As Prime Minister of Singapore, now Elder Statesman Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) stared down the likes of Bobby Ongpin, Cesar Virata, and even then President Ferdinand Marcos himself. Such episodes came to light in the aftermath of the assassination of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr in 1983 which, as most crises do, provides real tests of true leadership. LKY recounts his experience dealing with Marcos and his lieutenants during these difficult times in the Philippines in his book From Third World to First: The Singapore Story.

Subscribe to our Substack community GRP Insider to receive by email our in-depth free weekly newsletter. Opt into a paid subscription and you'll get premium insider briefs and insights from us.
Subscribe to our Substack newsletter, GRP Insider!
Learn more

* * *

On then President Ferdinand Marcos who in a one-on-one meeting in Brunei in 1984, gave LKY an account of Ninoy Aquino’s assassination that the Singaporean leader described as “most improbable”.

Singapore banks had lent US$8 billion of the US$25 billion owing. The hard fact was they were not likely to get repayment for some 20 years. He countered that it would be only eight years. I said the bankers wanted to see a strong leader in the Philippines who could restore stability, and the Americans hoped the election in May would throw up someone who could be such a leader. I asked whom he would nominate for the election. He said Prime Minister Cesar Virata. I was blunt. Virata was a nonstarter, a first-class administrator but no political leader; further, his most politically astute colleague, defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile, was out of favour. Marcos was silent, then he admitted that succession was the nub of the problem. If he could find a successor, there would be a solution. As I left, he said, “You are a true friend.” I did not understand him. It was a strange meeting.

On then Trade Minister Roberto “Bobby” Ongpin who met with LKY as the Philippines reeled from a funding embargo implemented by foreign governments outraged by the assassination of Ninoy Aquino:

[Marcos] sent his minister for trade and industry, Bobby Ongpin, to ask me for a loan of US$300-500 million to meet the interest payments. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “We will never see that money back.” Moreover, I added, everyone knew that Marcos was seriously ill and under constant medication for a wasting disease. What was needed was a strong, healthy leader, not more loans.

On then “Prime Minister” Cesar Virata who met with LKY to assure him that the Philippine Government was working on a succession plan as Marcos’s health fast deteriorated.

Cesar Virata met me in Singapore in January the following year. He was completely guileless, a political innocent.

* * *

One wonders what Lee Kuan Yew would have written about the presidents who came to power in the Philippines after Marcos’s ouster in 1986.

Then again it does not take much of an imagination to picture how small many of them would look before the sort of leader that LKY is, and all of the others who can engage in intelligent dialogue with their peers in world leadership on an equal footing. Filipino leaders indeed so mirror the people who selected them.

39 Replies to “From Third World to First: Singapore Elder Statesman Lee Kuan Yew’s insights on Filipinos”

  1. This was the trouble with Marcos. He implemented Martial Law for 20 years. And did not train an able successor. Enrile is corrupt and is still corrupt. Ramos is corrupt. These were his supposedly able successors.

    Then , we got a stupid housewife: Cory Aquino, who knew nothing about governing.
    Followed by stupid and corrupt leaders like Erap, Ramos and GMA. Now, we are deeply in debt; with the National Treasury being looted by these political leaders; who are Thieves…

        1. He got two terms as president, plus 9 years of Martial Law = 20 Years. Martial Law years cannot be compared with his two first terms..

    1. AHHH, at last, someone who see’s reality.
      Since E-RAP the country has been run by nothing less than an organized crime syndicate.It may have been that way sooner as well…..say since 1948?

    2. Filipinos are intelligent people but they become dumb when it comes to choosing the right leader.some became dumb when they smell Money .but the other good qualities of Filipinos exel other countries.what Filipinoes need is diciplina with an iron fist.

      1. agree!
        Western style Democracy is an alien concept to Filipinos. this society is just like a child that needs a controlling/ firm hand to guide them, instruct them on the proper ways and just like a child, when that hand is gone. they go nuts…

    3. I think we all should be happy that he did not train an able successor to continue his horrible legacy. With a psychotic tyrant like Marcos who destroyed our working democracy and progressive economy at that that time, give me a stupid housewife anytime.

      1. Nice TROLLING, son.

        So you like being in a government whored by media that always tells you ‘everything is OK’ and never go forward for progress as a society and a nation but to be part of a MEDIOCRITY.

        Don’t ever try to laugh while you’re choking on your own tears. 😀

  2. Man, this really seals it for us. Unless the voting style changes then there’s no means of changing the system.

    and man, I almost cried with them facts about books here..

  3. Some myths broken here:
    One, Marcos wasn’t solely responsible for the Philippine’s prosperity before. It was US Aid.
    Second, LKY didn’t learn from Marcos. It seemed the other way around.

    1. “LKY didn’t learn from Marcos. It seemed the other way around.”

      Filipino gossipers spread this bullshit exaggerations because they think Marcos is the best when in reality, he’s just a gradeschooler compared to other country leaders. Just like our stupid grandparents who believed that Jose Rizal mastered 22 languages.

    2. 3rd, Singapore became what it became due to the West’s investments, not this guy’s leadership. He was told what to do, just like Marcos.

  4. “As I left, he said, “You are a true friend.” I did not understand him. It was a strange meeting.”

    Then after a few years, LKY was asked by a stupid student journalist what he thinks about “there’s a woman behind every successful man.”

    Clearly, Filipinos can’t tell the difference between a showbiz personality, a politician, and a thinking man.

  5. Just because he knew that he was going to be robbed doesn’t make him a bigger intellect than anyone else. Singaporeans are not smarter than average either. What has happened in Singapore has been the product of the West just as much as it has been a product of LKY and his administrations.LKY may be a Man with an astute judgement and discernment from walking the 3rd world stage for many years, yes…but he’s no giant.
    In fact, many in the U.K. refer to him as ‘puppet’/’Pinnochio’.

  6. The Philippines only prospered under Marcos from 1965 to 1969 and from 1972 to 1982. The economy was not in 1970 until the first 3 quarters of 1972. When Marcos’ health deteriorated in 1983 plus the Aquino assassination in August of that year, the economy became even worse.

  7. The Philippines only prospered under Marcos from 1966 to 1969 and from 1972 to 1982. The economy was not good in 1970 until the first 3 quarters of 1972. When Marcos’ health deteriorated in 1983 plus the Aquino assassination in August of that year, the economy became even worse.

    1. … and of course there were no extenuating circumstances for the relative economic prosperity the country had back then — just Marcos’ demigodly genius, yes?

  8. Filipinos, majority of them, must be clueless, and naive to elect the same cohorts of leaders who take their countrymen for a ride until the next election come around, and then they will elect similar cohorts, disguised as “lesser evil”, who will take their turn of governance and plunder the coffers of the national treasury. Meanwhile, the business and economic elites and their collaborative capitalists from abroad hail the new governance as good for the continuing undribled capitalistic motive. Three hundred years of Spanish subjugastion, and another hundred years of American colonization wasted the intellect and souls, and bofies of Filipinos, until now, The new collaborators are also the new Filipino inteligentias who learned the capitalistic sytem from abroad, and from local elite schools of management, Only the visionary insight of the Marcos regime, that is the labor exports, the OFWs continue to support the economy, a consumer led one, to be on an even keel. Who will be the next ‘leaders’ or real ones?

  9. Filipinos’ nature will never be affected by whatever bashing about their being dysfunctional. They may react explosively but that’s all there is. It’s just a knee jerk reaction. It dissipates quickly as it popped up. All they care is themselves nothing more.

  10. To all critics,
    Your comments about the filipinos and its leaders, just keep it to yourself. Who are you to judge the country and its people?
    Let us run our country the way we want it, we will fall, we will suffer but we will stand, fight and learn from it
    All countries somehow passed this stage.

    1. To all critics,
      Your comments about the filipinos and its leaders, just keep it to yourself.
      Whoa, that’s scary!

    2. Hahahaha. The Philippines has “fallen, stood, and fought” for much of its “illustrious” history, and yet the society remains fundamentally the same; its people have seemingly not learned a single thing ever since.

  11. The Filipinos have no clue how to be independent because of a long history of colonization and control from foreign occupiers. Finally, after WW2, when granted their independence, again, the society had no plan or no clue what to do so the opportunity is seized upon by the few who have not the country’s best interest at heart but their own. Being accustomed to being controlled, perhaps the Filipinos felt more comfortable being controlled but this time by an apparent “insider” so it would seem okay since it’s no longer a “foreign conqueror” controlling them!

    If you take a group of people who have been subjugated for years, decades, even generations, then set them free without guidance or honest leadership and without the enforcement of laws then you have what amounts to present-day Philippines where anarchy rules at pretty much all levels of society!

  12. Godsped Mr. LKY. We Filipinos in Singapore will forever be grateful. You believed in us when no one did. Hand-in-hand, we will make Singapore a better place.

    1. actually singaporeans would cringe when they hear you say that

      filipinos in singapore?

      here’s 2 fun facts,

      1. singaporeans are on their guard whenever people smile

      2. it’s actually on a documentary about singaporean curiosity with regards to filipinos smilling .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.