Merely Immortal: Lee Kuan Yew and the rise of Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Sunday aged 91, was an autocrat who favoured harsh punishment over the softly-softly approach. He also, nearly single-handedly, turned a tatty colonial outpost into an economic powerhouse – and kept it his family’s preserve. In his honour, we're republishing here our 2007 story by ANDY DAVIS, first published in Maverick magazine.
Oh, I remember that place,” says my wizened Singaporean-Chinese taxi driver as I give him the address I need to get to. “It used to be a village, close to where I grew up.” He assures me it all used to be kampong (a rural hamlet), but when we get there the rice paddies and water buffalo are hard to find among the high-rise apartment buildings with their manicured lawns.
This is the city-state of Singapore: imposingly modern, intimidatingly bustling and with an economy that is the envy of countries ten times its size. Yet two hundred years ago it was a fishing village, and sixty years ago it was a colonial possession of declining value.
The conversation with my taxi driver soon turns to South Africa and its myriad socio-economic problems. “Just look at Singapore,” he says. “If you want rapid economic growth and a stable, ordered society, don’t look to democracy. What you want is a socially minded authoritarian regime. Like us.”
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say Singapore’s success can be traced to an autocrat, in the singular, because one man is largely responsible for all that it is.
Some people satisfy themselves with limited ambitions, like generating large amounts of wealth for themselves and their immediate family. Lee Kuan Yew, on the other hand, took a sleepy outpost and, in less than a generation, turned it into a ridiculously wealthy high-tech enclave. As a result, he today stands as South East Asia’s most notable and respected elder statesman.
As Time magazine’s Terry McCarthy describes him: “A champion of Asian values, he is most un-Asian in his frank and confrontational style. He is a man of great intelligence, with no patience for mediocrity; a man of integrity, with a relentless urge to smite opponents; a man who devours foreign news but has little tolerance for a disrespectful press at home.”
Born the eldest child in 1923, Lee says in his autobiography that his three brothers, one sister and seven cousins weren’t close enough in age, so he played with the children of the nearby kampong. “We played with fighting kites, tops, marbles and even fighting fish. These games nurtured a fighting spirit and the will to win.”
That thread held true through his early education at Raffles College, where he studied English, mathematics and economics.
I was the best student in mathematics, scoring over ninety marks. But, to my horror, I discovered I was not the best in either English or economics. I was in second place, way behind a certain Miss Kwa Geok Choo.” That academic rival would later become Mrs Lee Kuan Yew.
Lee wanted to study law at Cambridge but the outbreak of the Second World War delayed his plans. Japan routed the British in Singapore and occupied the island from 1942 until their surrender in 1945.
The key to survival was improvisation,” says Lee of life under the Japanese occupation. He started what he calls “brokering on the black market” and launched a successful underground business manufacturing and selling tapioca-based glue called Stikfas to stationery concerns.
Right at the onset of the occupation he started to study Japanese and soon found a job as a transcriber of Allied wire reports for the Japanese. He also held the post of English language editor of a Japanese propaganda publication. From these positions, he may (or may not) have secretly passed information to the British, as is conveniently widely rumoured.
Later he would identify the Japanese occupation as the most important period of his life. “My appreciation of governments, my understanding of power as the vehicle for revolutionary change, would not have been gained without this experience,” he says in his autobiography. “I saw a whole social system crumble suddenly before an occupying army that was absolutely merciless.”
He also saw the impact that harsh punishment could have. Although people were half-starved by the latter part of 1944, he says, front doors could still be left open at night. Organised neighbourhood watches still patrolled, but found nothing to report on, because penalties were too severe. “As a result I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime. That was not my experience in Singapore before the war, during the Japanese occupation, or subsequently.”
That philosophy led to the famous caning of an American teenager found armed with a can of spray-paint in the 1990s. It may also have led to murders in the city in the first half of 2007 numbering just six. All six cases have already been solved.
After the war, Lee launched himself into studies at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge, and graduated with honours. As McCarthy says, “At Cambridge, Lee learned English law and English self-assurance, deftly taking a double first in the former and a double helping of the latter. He disliked the English while admiring their way of doing things. He had similar, if more extreme, feelings about the Japanese.”
In 1949, Lee returned home as a lawyer in the practice of John Laycock, a pioneer of multi-racialism. That doctrine has always been central to his vision for Singapore.
His dabbling in politics took a serious turn when, in November of 1954, he and a group of fellow English-educated friends (a group he himself described as “beer-swilling bourgeois”) formed the socialist People’s Action Party. The party was an exercise in political expediency; the English speakers needed a mass-support base to get anywhere and the trade unionists needed a respectable, non-communist leadership. The unified goal was to agitate for an end to British colonial rule.
By 1955 Lee was leader of the opposition. By 1959 he was prime minister, and as the PAP swept to power its ambitions were partially realised and Singapore gained autonomy from Britain in all state matters except defence and foreign affairs.
The country was not in a happy state, however. Housing shortages were critical, unemployment was enormous and seemed impossible to reduce, infrastructure was dodgy and the basic education system was poor.
Seeing the nation’s prosperity as being linked to the huge markets of Malaysia, Lee actively pursued Singapore’s inclusion in the Malaysian Federation. If nothing else, joining the federation would end, once and for all, British colonial rule of Singapore. That inclusion came in 1963, but was notable mostly for its brevity. Ethnic tension between Malaysia’s predominantly Malay population and Singapore’s mainly Chinese citizens erupted in a series of race riots in July 1964, and 23 people were killed. In September more riots broke out. The price of food skyrocketed and basic service delivery ground to a halt.
Unable to resolve the crisis, Malaysian prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman expelled Singapore from the federation. Lee desperately tried to work out a compromise, but failed. In a televised press conference, he famously broke down as he announced the separation to the people.
For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I believed in merger and unity of the two territories... Now, I, Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore, do hereby proclaim and declare on behalf of the people and the government of Singapore that as from today, the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty five, Singapore shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of the people in a most just and equal society.”
When British prime minister Harold Wilson expressed concern about the future of an independent Singapore, Lee replied: “Do not worry about Singapore. My colleagues and I are sane, rational people even in our moments of anguish. We will weigh all possible consequences before we make any move on the political chessboard...”
When Singapore was ejected from Malaysia in 1965, it had no natural resources save for the enterprise of its largely Chinese population and its port’s position astride one of the world’s major shipping lanes,” wrote Simon Elegant and Michael Elliot in another Time article. “It possessed little industry or infrastructure besides a naval base and ship-repair facilities left behind by Britain’s shrinking navy. Most of the population lived cheek-by-jowl in ramshackle two-storey shophouses or traditional village houses fashioned of rattan and bamboo.”
In terms of the economy, separation from Malaysia had left a pretty bleak scenario. It meant the loss of a common market of over ten million people. The British withdrawal meant the loss of 50,000 jobs.
This was when Lee earned his reputation, proving himself a political and economic dynamo the likes of which are seldom seen.
With international recognition of independence in place, he worked to stress the importance of racial tolerance and religious harmony amongst the multi-racial Singaporean citizenry. He persuaded the British to allow him to convert their military infrastructure for civilian use, instead of destroying it in accordance with the British law of the time. With that meagre base in place, he set his island on the path to industrialisation.
To lure investment and attract new capital, Lee offered five years’ outright tax exemption to new industry. He positioned the island as a rival to Hong Kong’s industrial outpost and declared communism “the ultimate enemy”. That, of course, won him immediate support from the United States, which had the Vietnam conflict looming on the horizon. Singapore soon proved to be a valuable regional ally to the Americans.
Broad consensus has it that Singapore’s success is based on three central tenets: sustained infrastructure development, an educated yet low-paid workforce, and tax breaks on foreign direct investment. The state took responsibility to build or improve the airport, port, roads and telecommunications networks. A dedicated board was established to woo foreign investors. Labour unions and employers were tamed to end strikes and ensure workplace stability.
In all of these initiatives, Lee stood central and became known for an abrasive and direct management style. He was once quoted as saying he preferred to be feared than loved. A strong believer that the ends justify the means, he did not hesitate to prescribe repressive measures to safeguard national security and interests. At best he was paternalistic, at worst autocratic – but by no stretch of the imagination was he ever a tin-pot dictator.
Observing how corruption had led to the downfall of the nationalist Chinese government in mainland China, and the curse it had cast over other South East Asian nations, Lee introduced legislation that gave the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau far-reaching powers. Several high-ranking officials were charged with dishonesty. Yet there was also a carrot: Lee believed ministers should be well paid in order for government to stay clean.
Despite their success, though, his policies – and specifically his approach to civil liberties – have been much criticised in the West. The foreign press had a field day when it discovered that chewing gum was illegal (a proscription partially lifted by a recent trade deal), and the administration of beatings for petty offences is guaranteed to make headlines.
I’m not guided by what Human Rights Watch says,” said Lee in a recent interview. “I am not interested in ratings by Freedom House or whatever. At the end of the day, is Singapore society better or worse off? That’s the test. What are the indicators of a well-governed society? Look at the humanities index in last week’s Economist; we’re right on top. You look at the savings index, World Bank, we’re right on top. Economic freedoms, we’re on top. What is it we lack? Reporters Without Borders put Malaysia’s newspapers ahead of us. In Malaysia the ruling coalition parties own the major newspapers. In Singapore the major banks are in control of the company that runs our newspapers. There is no information that Singaporeans want that they cannot get. All major foreign newspapers and magazines are sold here. We demand a right of reply, that’s all.”
Head of state for more than thirty years, Lee Kuan Yew kept the position as prime minister of Singapore until he stepped down in 1990. He first became “senior minister”, then took another tailor-made title, that of “minister mentor”, which he still has.
His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, is currently prime minister. Father and son chair and co-chair the Singapore Investment Company (GIC). Younger son, Lee Hsien Yang, was president and chief executive officer of SingTel, a pan-Asian telecom giant. Fifty-six percent of SingTel is owned by Temasek Holdings, a prominent government holding company with controlling stakes in a variety of very large government-linked companies such as Singapore Airlines and DBS Bank. Temasek Holdings, in turn, is run by executive director and CEO Ho Ching, the wife of prime minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Needless to say, charges of nepotism dog Lee, charges he has vociferously denied.
This is a very small community of four million people,” he said in a recent interview with the German publication Der Spiegel. “We run a meritocracy. If the Lee family set an example of nepotism, that system would collapse. If I were not the prime minister, my son could have become prime minister several years earlier. It is against my interest to allow any family member who’s incompetent to hold an important job because that would be a disaster for Singapore and my legacy. That cannot be allowed.”
On claims of being undemocratic, he says this. “The British came here, never gave me democracy, except when they were about to leave. But I cannot run my system based on their rules. I have to amend it to fit my people’s position. In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion. Supposing I’d run their system here, Malays would vote for Muslims, Indians would vote for Indians, Chinese would vote for Chinese. I would have a constant clash in my Parliament which cannot be resolved because the Chinese majority would always overrule them. So I found a formula that changes that...”
Modern Singapore is Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. Sure, it is a little stifled when it comes to freedom of speech and spitting in the street. On the other hand, it is a stable, ordered first-world giant. Four million people live on a 700 square kilometre island and their environment is safe, vibrant and wealthy. There are no bums, no vagrants and only a handful of deeply frightened drug dealers and gangsters. Let him who can say the same cast the first stone. DM
Photo: Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew speaks at the Standard Chartered Singapore Forum in Singapore, 20 March 2013. EPA/STEPHEN MORRISON

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