Little over a week ago, Lee Kuan Yew, the founding minister of Singapore, died at the age of 91. Respected by both the West and East, Mr. Yew led a tiny city-state of under 6 million people out of a tumultuous East Asia and to the forefront of the developed world. When the majority of the former colonial world struggled with independence, Mr. Yew helped make Singaporeans some of the wealthiest and most well off people in the world. Under his 30 years of leadership, Singapore became central to the world’s globalizing economy by operating as a hub for 40% of world trade. A capitalist trained at the London School of Economics and an authoritarian trained by the late 20th century, Mr. Yew managed to gain adoration from both the citizens of Singapore and from governments across the globe. Lee Kuan Yew was truly a unique individual, and will go down in the history books as a man of the ages.
However, ‘Unique’ needs emphasis when speaking of Lee Kuan Yew because his rule over Singapore truly was an anomaly. Singapore’s history of economic growth and social stability combined with political domination is a result of unique historical conditions and contingency. Most importantly, Singapore’s success came from the uniqueness of Mr. Yew, a leader who fought corruption and the temptation of greater political power. Creating an absolutist government that was transparent and corruption free became possible only because of an individual like Mr. Yew.
The discussion of a ‘Singaporean model’ of rule by politicians and academics comes at the cost of ignoring the context of Singapore’s rise. Singapore remains unique as a small, manageable city-state in East Asia. Placed perfectly as a trading hub, Singapore also sidesteps conflict by being integral to the world economy. Singapore’s rise comes from very specific conditions that, in combination with Mr. Yew’s leadership, allowed its path of development. Any foreign attempts to replicate it can only end in failure.
More importantly, despite Singapore’s current prosperity, the consequences of absolutist rule are beginning to show in the city-state. If Singaporeans want to sustain their status as a nation of stability and wealth, their institutions must become more inclusive of others. In other words, Singapore needs to embrace political liberalism.
Singapore has always been a polity under duress, and with the coming demographic challenges, these stresses will only become worse. Singapore’s history of governance largely consists of paternalistic policies that controlled population, freedom of speech, housing practices, and other issues that were, in Mr. Yew’s view, tantamount to stability in a region fraught with chaos. However, Singapore now stands to gain from removing these controls within the institutions and structures of its society.
From the laundry list of unnecessary controls, Singapore definitely needs to end the Orwellian nature of its speech laws. Just yesterday, the Singapore government arrested a 16-year-old student for creating an inflammatory video comparing Mr. Yew with Mao Zedong and Jesus Christ. This case serves as a cold reminder of the darker legacy left by Mr. Yew, whose most visible tool to destroy and silence political opponents was innumerable defamation suites. Singapore remains a nation where opposing the ruling class, People’s Action Party (PAP), is criminal and the government rigs elections to ensure the victory of the PAP.
Novelist William Gibson once described Singapore as “Disneyland with the death penalty,” and that is not far from the truth. While Singapore holds the status as a nation of economic and technological progress, it also remains one of the only nations with multiple crimes that can result in corporal punishment or death. Combined with the various other controls on life and Singapore fits Gibson’s characterization. While Mr. Yew was unapologetic of the paternalistic government, this form of rule can no longer remain if Singapore hopes to sustain its progress. From a looming demographic crisis, increased East Asian political conflict, and domestic inequality, the solution to Singapore’s problems lie in shifting towards a more inclusive society.
Gross domestic product alone does not defines a nation, and any economist worth their graphs knows that. Freedom, liberty, the right to do what you want (so long as it does not harm others) all define an open and prosperous society. To continue the justification of social oppression and control for the sake of GDP generates a greater risk of reversing the gains made by Mr. Yew. While Mr. Yew was incorruptible, the same cannot be said about the rest of humanity. With the current political institutions in place, it would not be too difficult for the government to begin increasing its (already significant) control over the population. Nor would it be difficult to transition to a more open and fair society. Singaporeans lose too much by risking the former.
Mr. Yew helped save Singapore from the brutal cycle of corruption, war, and instability that plagues most former colonies. The current government, however, can no longer use these factors as justification for current policies because of Mr. Yew’s success. Singapore has the opportunity to continue its amazing journey as the world’s foremost prosperous and pioneering nation, but staying the Disneyland with the death penalty will throw all that away.
A great article by the Economist sparked this post, please do read it.