Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore at the centenary of his birth

When he rose like a comet in the political sky in the 1950s, he was Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. When he died in 2015, he left behind Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. It was a country like no other.

To observe the centenary of his birth this year (in September) is to commemorate the memory of a man of whom it might be said that the legacy he left behind was no less than a country itself. This is not to indulge in idle flattery, because he detested false praise almost as much as he was neuralgic in his intolerance of opposition and dissidence, including in the media. To say that he moulded Singapore in his image is no more than to acknowledge that a tiny island city-state, crime-ridden and vice-infested even during its economic heyday as a colonial metropolis, was transformed into a developmental model after independence.

This change did not occur naturally: It was man-made. Indeed, almost everything distinctive about Singapore is man-made: the ethical probity of its governance; the efficiency of its public administration; the global reach of its private sector; the astonishing capacity of its ethnically-heterogeneous and largely-immigrant population to live in peace; and, supremely, the uncanny ability of its armed forces and intelligence services to provide a credible deterrent against invasion and occupation. The man who was ultimately behind the making of contemporary Singapore was Lee Kuan Yew.

I remember standing in front of him in the Istana. I was in my early 30s. There was no point in being overawed by his presence. No matter what I said, he had heard it before. But if I squirmed, he would yawn. So I put up a brave front as I answered his questions on the role of the Indonesian military after the fall of President Suharto, the agency of Islam-based politics in that country, and how Singapore should position itself in the new circumstances. Let us say that I passed that examination.

What followed was extraordinary. Lee’s razor-sharp mind tutored me to think strategically about events and their impact on our tiny island city-state. His mentorship alerted me to the need for integrity, intelligence and decisiveness in thinking. Integrity means never fooling oneself (or others) through delusional thinking.

I owe much to that tutorial. Thousands of scholars, journalists and others comment habitually on the way that states are run. However, it is only the state-makers, who are responsible for the fate of millions including the innocent young, who know what it takes to run a country. Lee spoke as a practitioner of politics, less interested in theories than in the daily practice of ensuring that Singapore did not sink into oblivion. That would have meant his personal failure and he hated failure.

Of course, he had stalwarts such as Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San, Toh Chin Chye and S Rajaratnam as his early comrades but it is historically improbable that they could or would have come together to create Singapore without him. He was the one and only catalyst who pulled their energies together to produce the People’s Action Party (PAP), which, if it is anything, is more than the sum of its parts. Its longevity attests to its organisational strengths. Formed in 1954, the PAP has ruled Singapore continuously since 1959 for a period covering the tumultuous national eras of self-governance, merger with Malaysia, separation, and independence.

The reason for the resilience of Lee’s Singapore is philosophical. Singapore is a Platonic state. Scholars have written about how the makers of Singapore followed Plato by first envisaging the kind of state that they wished to build, and then instituting a systematic process of education and leadership selection to produce the results that they desired.

Although Lee and his colleagues were democratic socialists, they were realists as well. (A realist is a political romantic who has been mugged by reality.) Lee and his fellow captains understood that it would be impossible to keep independent Singapore economically afloat without a well-governed populace that respected legitimate order and hierarchy born of educational and moral merit (and not inherited wealth or social privilege), and which observed a work ethic that rewarded personal performance, not ethnic entitlement or the idea that rewards should be shared equally.

Plato would have been happy to be reborn in Singapore, an Asian state that was transforming his ideology into practice (apart from serving better everyday food than was available in the Athens of his time). Karl Marx certainly would have been most unhappy. As for Thomas Jefferson, he would have been scandalised to see his libertarian nationalism subsumed by the authoritarian impulses of a state that nonetheless justified its political conservatism through its economic affluence.

So much for the greats of another epoch. In his own time, Lee belonged to a veritable international guild: the builders of new nations. The league consists of enduring names such as Dwight Eisenhower of the United States, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Winston Churchill of Britain, Charles de Gaulle of France, Konrad Adenauer of Germany, Mao Zedong of China, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia, Tunku Abdul Rahman of Malaysia, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and Fidel Castro of Cuba. There were also those who built brilliantly on the work of their predecessors and even outshone them, John F Kennedy prominently.

Of course, many of these leaders stood thousands of ideological miles apart from one an other. Had each been able to go his own way completely, each would have created a world in his own image. However, given that the world is not so easily charted and governed, each of those leaders created a nation that would have a chance of existing in a diverse and hostile world after they had passed from the scene. What they had in common was a desire to build resilient structures of the state and the market on the ruins of departed ages, for the time being at least. Lee did that for Singapore. It exists to this day.

One reason for Singapore’s continuing existence is Lee’s unsentimental understanding of the importance of the balance of power mechanism in international relations. In a speech to the University of Singapore on October 9, 1965, soon after Independence, Lee observed: “The
foreign policy of Singapore must be one to encourage first, the major powers in the world to find it — if not in their interests to help us at least in their interests not to have us go worse … The second point is that we must always offer to the rest of the world a continuing interest in the kind of society we project … But in the last resort, it is power which decides what happens and, therefore, it behoves us to ensure that we always have overwhelming power on our side.”

It is this strategic realisation of the final and irreducible importance of realpolitik that made Singapore embark on its quest to be a global city, that is, a city-state not held hostage by an economic hinterland that had vanished along with Singapore’s Independence in 1965.

Rajaratnam, who articulated the vision in 1972, used the concept of the global city to underline his rejection of the prognosis that Singapore would suffer “a gradual relapse into economic decay and mounting political turbulence”. Indeed, on the contrary, Singapore has continued to confound its critics by surviving predictions of its death, including after Lee’s death. What the global city paradigm does is draw Singapore out of its immediate regional orbit into a globalised world whose discipline impinges on its neighbours along with it. Hence, everybody has to play by the same rules.

Today, the rivalry between the United States and China threatens the world order in which
Singapore exists. Hence, the need of the times is to revisit Lee’s foundational comments on
foreign policy made in 1965 in the sharper light of this age. To put it bluntly, the US must not
find it in its interests to see Singapore go worse; nor must China. The only way that Singapore
could ensure that outcome is by refusing to become an exclusive part of either American or
Chinese plans for global hegemony. Economic ties with China and military relations with the
United States can no longer be kept separate.

However, this is true of other countries as well. Singapore would need to calibrate its two most important global relations with an eye on how other nations are responding to the dichotomisation of global affairs caused by the Sino-US contest for supremacy. Lee would have approved, with his prescience, the need for Singapore to have overwhelming power on its side.

Domestically, the PAP has shown itself capable of adjusting to the changing mood on the ground. It is not shy to adopt unpopular policies, such as its stand on the continued need for immigration to keep the country demographically and economically viable. However, it has shown its sensitivity to public sentiments by reminding arriving foreigners that they need to integrate socially with locals; they cannot constitute a gilded ghetto merely because they possess the talent to contribute to the economy in substantial ways. Yet, fine-tuning immigration levels and measuring the degree of integration will be a challenge as Singaporeans become more self-conscious as a society.

This is one area in which newer generations of leaders could draw from Lee’s visionary enterprise of nation-building through the construction of HDB flats and the institution of the Central Provident Fund. He also built from scratch the world’s best airline, which owes much to his ability to spot and select corporate leaders like JY Pillay to lead Singapore Airlines.

As society matures, Singaporeans are moving from material needs to ideational wants. Greater space for civil society within the frontiers of state security is today’s version of nation-building, comparable to what public housing meant to an earlier generation.

Singapore endures and will endure because its public institutions are strong, relations between state and society are built on trust, and the political demands made by younger Singaporeans lie well within the reasonable am bit of social development and political change. Most Singaporeans are rational and know that living in Singapore is like riding a cycle which will fall the moment the cyclist stops pedalling. (True, circuses have cyclists who can keep the balance even on a stationary cycle but a nation is not a circus.)

Lee Kuan Yew brought Singapore from the Third World to the First World in one generation. Staying in the First World is up to Singaporeans. The Fourth Generation of leaders and
younger Singaporeans, bereft of his priceless experience in the world of politics, must measure up to his exacting standards because there is only one Singapore. The challenges are new but the answers are cold. They can be found in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore.

The writer is founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consultancy firm. An award-winning journalist, he studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

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