I had written this blog two years ago when Lee Kuan Yew the premier of Singapore had passed away. The world press was divided on the leadership of Lee Yuan Yew, some calling him dictatorial and sadistically capitalistic, others hailing him for building Singapore from scratch and making it what it is today. I will have you read the blog and decide which side was true or whether truth lay somewhere in the middle.
However, my main reason for sharing this blog now is Lee Kuan Yew ‘s leadership style was very similar to some of the top world leaders of today who have come up in last few years – Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Edip Erdogan – tough, dictatorial, unapologetically capitalistic, retaliatory, no nonsense and nationalistic. And the international press today is as divided on their style of leadership and policies as they were on Lee’s leadership legacy after his death.
The blog takes you through the historical circumstances Singapore went through, the policies Lee adopted, the countries he befriended and those he offended, and the mortal blow he dealt the local media with for being critical of him. Enjoy.
Formerly published on another blog platform on April 15, 2015
Recently, Lee Kuan Yew, the person responsible for making Singapore what it is today, died. We in India, particularly those with scant awareness about foreign affairs, were familiar with Singapore as a place of prosperity and aspiration, lights and glitz, long before we woke up to the global significance of China and the vulnerability of America as a super power.
In India, various political leaders at different times have told us they would be making our cities like Singapore if brought to power but none have.
But the bigger question is why Asian countries aspire to be like Singapore? It is not just Singapore’s economic success but the fact that it combines all the virtues of a desirable place: cleanliness, discipline and great law and order. Even the great Western democracies fall foul on some of these counts.
Law and order may be different and even cleanliness is achievable in many places but discipline , as many of us know, may not be easy to bring about in a democratic society, which is by nature chaotic. In fact, the existence of such societies depends on absence of discipline. There is little doubt that Singaporeans had to pay a price for the kind of economic success Singapore achieved, for which you have to both thank Lee Kuan Yew and call him lucky.
Thank Lee for Singapore’s success because after its independence from Britain and following its ouster from Malaysia in 1963, he steered his nation in the direction which was unique in those days, the 60s, and also frowned upon by others. Among the countries that won freedom at the time Singapore did, Singapore was the only one to embrace market-economy, in its most unapologetic form.
Call Lee lucky because even with Lee’s sure-handed capitalism, Singapore would not be possible without Singapore’s advantages – a largely homogeneous society, a city state, etc – quite unique to Singapore.
But many of these attributes were disadvantages to start with. When Singapore had been dispelled by Malaysia because of racial tensions (Lee its premier was in his early 40s then), it didn’t have any army to defend its borders; it didn’t have any economy to speak of. Its small size – and therefore less significance – would have made it vulnerable to a takeover – or at least an invasion – by a bigger power, particularly one from the Soviet bloc. Fearing it, Lee befriended the US.
To make Singapore militarily strong, Lee sought the help of Israel. He created a police-judiciary to eliminate corruption. To the same end, he raised the salaries of officials to the level of those in high positions in private sector – and said, “If you pay pee nuts, you attract monkeys.” He removed political opposition by reducing Singapore to a single-party polity.
He made spitting on road, littering chewing gums on road etc. punishable offenses.
(Remember, we heard, in our growing up years, that in Singapore you would be punished for throwing chewing gum on road?) He told Singaporeans to speak good English and develop clean habits.
He completely muzzled the press. Singapore Herald’s license was seized because of a critical article it had carried about Lee’s government and three years later the government amended its constitution to make it mandatory for media houses publishing out of Singapore to renew their license yearly. And publications of foreign media houses critical of the Singapore government but without any production base in Singapore were simply banned.
Although Singapore never saw the likes of Tienanmen Square or Capture Wall Street, winds of change are blowing in the island nation. Living costs are very high in Singapore and the gap between poor and rich has grown over the years.
There is a groundswell for more inclusive policies. It led to a slump in Lee’s party’s (People’s Action Party of Singapore) popular vote, following which Lee stepped down making way for his son. Any nation, however successful, yearns for change in a passage of 40 to 50 years. Singapore, however different it may be from the rest, should not be an exception. But Singapore will always consider itself lucky to have had Lee in its formative years and not the other way around.