Lee Kuan Yew and the lessons of Singapore

The life and spectacular success of Lee Kuan Yew is a challenge to everyone who believes in the virtue of democracy.  In the words of Theodore Dalrymple, he was “undoubtedly the most intelligent and capable world leader of the past half-century.”

Lee led Singapore with a velvet-gloved (mostly) iron fist from its first day of independence, and he took it from a sleepy, crime-ridden, ethnically divided, and poor ex-colonial outpost to a wealthy and sophisticated world center of finance and commerce, with a per capita income 50 percent higher than its former colonial master, almost no crime, and arguably the best-educated populace in the world.

Lee believed that the people of Singapore were not ready for democracy, and that the country faced so many threats of ethnic strife, with its mixed population of Chinese (~80%), Malays, and Indians, that real democracy and freedom of speech were out of the question.  He believed that an intelligent government could lead the nation up the value chain, starting with relatively low-wage industries like supertanker-building, through electronics manufacturing, on into the highest-value activities like finance and global corporate management.  And he pulled it off.

Sure, journalists went to jail for writing things of which Lee and his People’s Action Party disagreed.  And sure, the PAP got unrealistically high percentages of the vote in the elections that were held.  And yes, drug offenses, even possession of marijuana, were punished by hanging, and petty crimes such as vandalism resulted in flogging.

But it worked – really, really well.  Something resembling fascism, to be sure.  Singaporeans gave up on the values we cherish, and in return for the sacrifice, they became rich, secure, and sophisticated.

I watched Lee Kuan Yew and the city-state he ran, Singapore, with deep fascination for several decades.  When I first arrived in Singapore in 1971, I was stunned by the contrast with Hong Kong, its rival, and Malaysia, its next-door neighbor.  Hong Kong was a chaotic, dirty, crowded mess, exuberant, money-obsessed, and fascinating.  Singapore was then known as the “garden island” and was ordered, safe, and heads-down hardworking.

The year before, Malaysia, with its Malay majority and substantial (~40%) Chinese minority, had just gone through bloody “ethnic strife” that saw Chinese Malaysians beheaded by raging mobs of Malays.  I will never forget, days before my arrival in Singapore, sitting in a coffee shop in Kuala Lumpur with a British journalist who told me that he been there when a mob of Malays entered it and proceeded to behead all the Chinese who were present.

No expressions of ethnic chauvinism were permitted in Singapore.  No freedom of speech at all when sensitive topics were concerned.  Everyone learned their ethnic language: Mandarin Chinese (not the various dialects of the regions from which Chinese Singaporeans has immigrated), Bahasa Malaysia, and Tamil.  But everyone had to learn and use English, the language of world commerce and a neutral common ground.

I actually got to meet and talk with the man a bit over 30 years ago (I don’t remember the exact date), when he took a few months to come to Harvard, meet with faculty, attend classes, and absorb knowledge.  I don’t think I had a thing to pass along to him, but nonetheless he took time to chat pleasantly with a junior faculty member who knew a few things about Japan and how its giant corporations managed themselves.

Because I remain committed to democracy, I feel the need to explain away why Lee’s version of autocracy, a Platonic republic ruled by a philosopher-king, worked so spectacularly well, and why it is not a good idea for America, or almost any other country.

There are two relevant considerations:

  1. Singapore was so small (roughly three million population at the time it gained independence) that in any field of endeavor, all the major participants know each other personally, and observe each other’s activities closely.  Because Lee insisted on a culture of honesty and public service, personal corruption was not possible, for the most part.  Instead of messy checks and balances, mutual surveillance and shared values kept people honest.
  2. Singapore was surrounded by much poorer, much bigger countries, and was disciplined by its fear of being taken over by hostile larger neighbors – Malaysia and Indonesia, both of which were angry at and bigoted toward their Chinese minorities, who excelled at business and built wealth that generated envy and animosity.  Singapore, like Switzerland, invested heavily in defense, so that taking it over by military force would not be worth the trouble.

Benign autocracy or benevolent dictatorships can be effective, but they are subject to corruption through self-dealing and rationalizations.  Lee’s governance could never have worked in a larger country where a lack of serious and immediate external threats and anonymity would have allowed self-dealing.  And I wonder how long and how well it will work for Singapore.  But in the meantime, Singapore is a superbly functioning, rational, and enviably prosperous republic.  A bit boring, as almost all visitors note, but compared to its neighbors, a paradise.

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