If you seek his monument, look around Singapore.
Wealthy, orderly, efficient and honestly governed, it is not the work of Lee Kuan Yew alone. But even his severest critics would agree that Mr Lee, who died this week at the age of 91, played an enormous part.
Singapore’s leader from before “self-government” from Britain in 1959, he was prime minister until 1990, leaving the cabinet only in 2011. Under him Singapore, with no natural resources, was transformed from a tiny struggling island into one of the world’s richest countries.
Admirers look to Singapore as a model, and Mr Lee as a sage. Part of his influence stemmed from his role as a clear-eyed, blunt-speaking geostrategist. He was an astute observer of the defining contest of the times–China’s emergence and how America reacts to it. More than that, though, the admirers look to Singapore’s combination of prosperity and one-party rule. They see flaws in “Western-style democracy”: its short-termism; its disregard for non-voters such as children and foreigners; and its habit of throwing up unqualified leaders. Mr Lee’s “meritocracy” promises a solution.
China’s leaders, especially, are fascinated by Mr Lee’s firm grip on power: it is no accident that the second-most-powerful man in the Chinese hierarchy is not running the economy or the interior ministry, but is President Xi Jinping’s enforcer, Wang Qishan.
Others, including Rwanda’s authoritarian president, Paul Kagame, who is seeking to rewrite the constitution to allow himself a third term (see page 56), enthusiastically compare themselves to Singapore’s founding father. Mr Lee does indeed have much to teach the world; but when his admirers conclude that Singapore proves authoritarianism works, they are drawing the wrong lesson.
Pyongyang with broadband
Mr Lee got many things right, especially in his choice of economic managers. They kept government small, the economy open and regulation simple, transparent and effective. Singapore often heads the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” rankings. It has deftly exploited the advantages that made it a successful entrepot as early as the 14th century: a fine natural harbour and strategic position on the Malacca Strait, through which an estimated 40% of world maritime trade now passes. Foreign investment has poured in.
Political stability and social order were part of the attraction. With a big ethnic-Chinese majority but sizeable Malay and Indian minorities, Singapore suffered race riots in the 1960s. Since then ethnic harmony has been preserved: by quotas in public housing that enforce integration; by restrictions on inflammatory speech; and by harsh penalties for lawbreaking (including corporal and capital punishment). Strikes and other forms of protest have been extremely rare. Social policies are illiberal–homosexual acts, for example, remain illegal.
Throughout, Mr Lee’s own People’s Action Party (PAP) has had a vice-like grip on power. The political system is based on the Westminster model inherited from Britain, but modified to prevent the emergence of a serious opposition party. Constituencies have been designed to magnify the distortions of a first-past-the-post system.
In the most recent general election in 2011 the PAP won 60% of the votes, but more than 90% of the seats. Mr Lee and other leaders have also used defamation suits to defend their reputations. The mainstream press was tamed. Opposition leaders have found themselves bankrupt.
Critics mock Singapore for being like North Korea or “Disneyland with the death penalty”, as William Gibson, an American novelist, described it in 1993. But Mr Lee’s defenders argue that the restrictions are a small price to pay for stability and prosperity. GDP figures do not lie: Mr Lee’s policies have worked. Singapore is a thriving city-state. Unlike North Korea or Disneyland, it offers a real challenge to the liberal notion that growth, prosperity and freedom go together.
Only one Lee Kuan Yew
But four peculiarities of Singapore make it look like an anomaly, rather than a model for the leaders of China and Rwanda or others who think the best thing for their people is their own unending and unquestioned rule. The first is size. Singapore is a city with a foreign policy, which gives it a cohesion that more politically and ethnically chaotic countries cannot match.
Second, this cohesion is reinforced by the turbulent circumstances of its birth. After a painful divorce from Malaysia in 1965, the government has never let Singaporeans forget that a Chinese-majority island, surrounded by Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, would always be vulnerable.
Third, it shines by comparison with its less well-run neighbours. Rather as Hong Kong’s prosperity was based on being Chinese but not entirely part of China, Singapore has flourished by being in South-East Asia, but not of it.
However, the most important reason for Singapore’s singular experience is Mr Lee himself. Incorruptible, he kept government unusually clean. He ensured that Singapore pays its ministers and civil servants high salaries. Under today’s prime minister, his son Lee Hsien Loong, the bureaucracy has remained efficient and untarnished.
Unlike many other independence leaders, Mr Lee designed a system to outlast him. Singapore’s government claims it has faced enough electoral competition to keep it honest, but not so much that there was a high risk of losing power. So it has been able to eschew populism and take decisions in the country’s long-term interests.
But outside Singapore, maintaining probity requires checks and balances. In much of the developing world, critics are regarded as enemies and those in opposition are treated as traitors whether their complaints make sense or not.
Even in Singapore the model may not long outlast its creator. Singaporeans are having few children and ageing fast. The government faces demands for more social spending. Growth depends on immigration, angering natives who feel the influx is suppressing their wages–and making it impossible to get a seat on the tube. That balance between competition and inevitable re-election is shifting. The Singapore model may yet prove unsustainable even in Singapore.
Click here to subscribe to The Economist
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.