SINGAPORE: In the wake of PM Lee’s announcement of a leadership transition timeline, some Singaporeans remember how he could have been a “world-class mathematician” had he chosen not to pursue politics. Mr Lee graduated with a first-class honours degree in mathematics and computer science with distinction. According to college tutor Denis Marrian, Mr Lee was “the brightest mathematician he had admitted to the college”.

Mr Lee has had an interest in mathematics since he was a boy. At 19, he was awarded the President’s Scholarship and Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship in 1971 by the Public Service Commission (PSC) to study mathematics at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. Two years later, while an undergraduate in 1973, Mr Lee was awarded the prestigious Senior Wrangler position. Awarded to the top mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge, this position has been described as “the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain.”

British mathematician Béla Bollobás said Mr Lee “would have been a world-class research mathematician” had his father – Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew – not persuaded Mr Lee to leave the field and pursue politics.

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This glowing praise has captivated Singaporeans after PM Lee announced that he would be handing over the baton to his successor in his 20th year as head of government in 2024.

A tweet highlighting Mr Lee’s math prowess was published on X (formerly Twitter) last Sunday (5 Nov) – the same day Mr Lee announced the leadership transition timeline. The tweet quickly racked up nearly half a million views and almost 250,000 likes.

In an hour-long interview with China Central Television (CCTV), Mr Lee said he had no regrets about choosing politics over being a mathematician. He said, “I was not a rising star. I was a promising student.”

When told he was being modest, the PM said: “No, it is a vast field. I did two undergraduate years in mathematics, so it is just barely at the foothills… I decided that I had the responsibility to come back to Singapore, be part of Singapore, and do what I could to help the country to succeed.”

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While PM Lee said that he had a fulfilling life after choosing politics, he lets his love for mathematics show occasionally, sharing posts on equations and math formulas on his Facebook page.

Li Shengwu follows his uncle’s footsteps

Likewise, Li Shengwu, PM Lee’s younger brother Lee Hsien Yang’s son, followed in his uncle’s early footsteps and brought honour to Singapore through his many accomplishments in mathematics in a very short time.

After completing his GCE A-Level examinations, Mr Li was awarded the Angus Ross Prize by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) for being Singapore’s top A-level literature student. He was awarded two scholarships – the Overseas Research Scholarship and the Clarendon Scholarship awarded by Oxford University – as he furthered his studies at Oxford.

Mr Li graduated at the top of his class in 2009 with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics. He won the Hicks and Webb Prize, an award presented to outstanding economics students, that same year.

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He went on to achieve a master’s degree in economics from Oxford University, and in 2011, he won the George Webb Medley Prize for his outstanding graduate thesis.

Mr Li received a doctorate in economics from Stanford University in 2016. He also became the very first Singaporean to be inducted into the Harvard Society of Fellows, a society which recognizes young scholars for their potential to advance academic wisdom.

Just two years later, Mr Li, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard University, won the coveted Exeter Prize, awarded to the best economics paper published in the previous calendar year.

Earlier this year, Mr Li became the very first Singaporean to be awarded the prestigious 2023 Sloan P. Foundations Fellowship prize – a highly competitive award given to “outstanding” early-career researchers.

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