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As Yew Wish

The ‘Monaco of the East’. The ‘poster child’ for good governance

The Singapore that we know today, characterised by development and prosperity, was but a sleepy fishing port half a century ago. After years of complex political and economic differences between the ruling parties of Singapore and Malaysia, the two countries separated on 9 August 1965. Singapore was now an independent and sovereign city-state, finding itself in a predicament where it had to rebuild the very foundational bedrock that its society stood on. Having gone through a long period of violence and peril that came with being a colony, the people of Singapore looked for a renewed sense of belongingness and stability. One person who provided some respite was Lee Kuan Yew, the leader of Singapore’s ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP). Born in 1923 to Singaporean parents, Yew pursued a law degree from Cambridge University and returned to Singapore thereafter. Starting his political career as an election agent, Yew went on to co-found the PAP with the intent of bringing British rule to an end. When the PAP won elections in June of 1959, Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore’s first Prime Minister and pushed for a merger with Malaysia. However, the integration eventually became calamitous for both parties, ending in communal tensions and racial riots. Although the separation from Malaysia was at odds with Lee’s initial aspiration, it proved to be a turning point for the city-state’s history.

Lee Kuan Yew looked at Singapore as a blank canvas and took the onus of rebuilding it from the ground up. With meritocracy and multiracialism as the governing principles, he leveraged Singapore’s strong position as a key port for trading activity, for it had no resources of its own. Given the ethnic diversity within the Asian Tiger, Yew sought to build a multiracial city-state and made English the common language, whilst mandating bilingual school education. This allowed smooth integration of the immigrants as well as facilitated trade with the West, but also preserved the Singaporean mother tongue and ethnicity. Another issue in newly-independent Singapore was its jarring unemployment, which Lee tackled by inviting foreign investments from Multinational Corporations. First-world standards and infrastructure were established in a Third World country, and by the 1990s, Singapore became a major electronics exporter to the international community. In a bid to grow Singapore as a global financial centre, Lee attracted foreign bankers with the promise of a stable valued dollar, budget surpluses, and the pursuit of sound macroeconomic policies. His foresightedness, and Singapore’s inherited advantages, have transformed it to a $339,981 US million economy.

A key differentiator in Lee’s approach was that he strongly opposed the application of a ‘Western’ democratic system in Asian nations. He believed East Asian societies were fundamentally different from the West, and that here, an individual was thought to exist in the context of his family. This family was further a component of the extended family, which was then a part of the wider society. Lee Kuan Yew viewed America’s ‘individuality’ approach to be against the tested norm of a family unit, which he considered the building block of society. In an interview in 1994, he stated “free, easy and open relations between people regardless of social status, ethnicity or religion” as features he liked of the American system, but did not believe the system would work in the social fabric of the East. Conversely, “guns, drugs, violent crime, vagrancy, unbecoming behaviour in public” were aspects of the West he despised. In an extremely strong assertion, he said that giving an individual the right to behave as he pleases in public comes at the expense of an orderly society.

Yew’s strong belief about an individual deriving maximum benefit from a well-ordered society also adversely manifested in the civil liberties of his people. The miraculous transformation of Singapore came with tight political restrictions in the country, Singapore's government can best be described as a "soft" authoritarian regime, and at times it has not been so soft. It’s essentially a one-party system, with the PAP winning every election since 1959. There have been extreme clampdowns on free speech and press freedom, with laws such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act curbing all kinds of media liberty, defamation suits filed by the PAP against political opponents, and imprisonments for peaceful public demonstrations. There is no space for dissent, with the party expressing intentions of ‘lightly regulating’ even the internet community. From Lee’s perspective, this cost was justified as a “trade-off” between economic growth and security, and human and political liberties. He believed that as part of a “social contract”, Singaporeans absolved fundamental freedoms in exchange for job security, better health and education, and an extremely attractive-looking GDP.

Even if the people of Singapore willingly agreed with this ‘trade-off’ fifty years ago, the situation today is drastically different. People have increasingly come to identify and oppose the culture of political fear, and finally, see the repressive system underneath the slick surface of Singapore’s lustrous high-rises. While the public now demands a change, it is too soon to predict how these changes will manifest in the foundational pillars of Singapore. Would Lee Kuan Yew’s narrative make space for the desired liberty, or would Singapore be forced to make another trade-off?

Suhani Jain
Undergraduate Student at SRCC


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