24 March 2015

How Lee Kuan Yew changed the world


Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore, is dead at the age of 91, and across the globe writers, academics and world leaders are reliving his achievements and wondering at the legacy he left behind him. President Obama called him “a true giant of history,” while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he was a “legendary figure in Asia” . His influence over Singapore, Asia, and the rest of the world is palpable even today. Below are five areas where Lee’s remarkable impact will be remembered most strongly.

Growth in Singapore has exploded

Singapore’s growth story is nothing short of miraculous. Under Lee Kuan Yew guidance, Singapore’s GDP per capita grew from less than $5,000 in 1960 to over $55,000 in 2010, as these charts from Quartz show. It now has the third highest GDP per capita in the world, and as a financial centre it rivals Hong Kong and tops Tokyo. Singapore came a close second to Hong Kong (89.6 compared to 89.9) on the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom by the Heritage Foundation.

Singapore is one of Asia’s greatest international trading hubs

To understand why Singapore is decades ahead of its regional neighbours, Lee’s trade strategy says it all. The Bloomberg View Editors write that:

“Lee’s great insight was to recognize that Singapore, after being kicked out of the Malaysian Federation in 1965, needed to look beyond its then-hostile neighborhood and export higher-end goods to the advanced economies of the West and Japan.”

It is unsurprising then that Singapore is one of the founding members of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, blazing a new path for Asia while some of the biggest regional players (including Australia, Japan and South Korea) were hesitant. When it comes to trade, Singapore has a history of bold, smart moves.

 Singapore has a national identity

The fact that Singapore exists as a country at all is, of course, all down to Lee Kuan Yew. As Roger Cohen from the New York Times notes, Lee was well aware of the implausibility of Singapore’s success:

“The measure of that achievement is that the ingredients of disaster abounded in Singapore, a country that is ‘not supposed to exist and cannot exist,’ as Lee said in a 2007 interview with The New York Times. ‘We don’t have the ingredients of a nation,’ he noted, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.’ Instead, it had a combustible ethnic and religious hodgepodge of Chinese, Malays and Indians gathered in a city-state of no natural resources.”

So how did he do it? “Lee’s only religion was pragmatism”, writes Cohen. “Lee had one basic yardstick for policy: Does it work?” He recognised that prosperity, enterprise, and a firm rule of law was the key to uniting his new nation. Under his regime, Singapore did and continues to work, and is one of the cleanest, least polluted and most productive cities in the world.

A new kind of governance for Singapore

It is here that the pure positivity of Lee’s legacy becomes muddied, for Singapore’s early success was, in part, at odds with democracy. From Bloomberg again:

“Lee did more than anyone to spread the idea that Western-style democracy was ill-suited to developing nations – that other countries could emulate Singapore’s economic success only under the tutelage of a wise, if occasionally repressive, state.”

Some Eastern European countries, including Russia, Ukraine and Georgia, took this message to heart, and the ramifications are still being felt today, as Ben Judah from Politico Magazine makes clear:

“Vladimir Putin is a greater admirer of Lee, whom he awarded Russia’s prestigious “Order of Honor.” In Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili has been under Lee’s charismatic spell, passing his books around like bibles. The Ukrainian government, when ruled by Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovych, would disguise its kleptocracy by likening its governance to Singapore.”

He goes on to say that “the cult of Lee Kuan Yew has poisoned Eastern Europe”, and that, while Lee himself had “nothing but disdain for Putin’s regime”, his spell continues to bewitch Russian officials. In May 2014, Bloomberg reported that “President Vladimir Putin is trying to transform Crimea into the Singapore of the Black Sea”, and quotes the head of the new Crimea Affairs Ministry Oleg Savelyev as saying: “I blew the dust off the book, ‘Singapore: From Third World to First’ by Lee Kuan Yew to have another read when I became minister”.

What is Singapore’s future?

Where will Singapore go next? It is a question that Lee himself asked: “Where do we go next? How do we hasten getting there when we don’t know where we’re going?”

Lee believed in education, and today, Singapore produces some of the brightest students in the world.  Singapore came second in the OECD PISA rankings in Maths, Reading and Science, and the country’s unique approach to Maths is being adopted all over the world, especially in the UK. This success is partly attributed to the discipline and pragmatism that was Lee’s signature. But for all that, creativity is lacking, and this ethos is not as comfortable for younger generations.

For some, the benevolent authoritarianism that Lee espoused no longer seems worth it in today’s globalised world. Strict laws about defamation limit freedom of expression, while socially conservative regulations make it difficult for young people to purchase property unless they are married. Homosexuality is still a criminal offence, and I personally remember the shock of getting my Singapore visa stamped into my passport at the Malaysian border along with a notice reminding me that the penalty for drug related offences was death. In one of the most economically free countries in the world, the friction of these contradictions, between authoritarianism and liberalism, can be felt.

The Bloomberg View account of Lee’s legacy concludes that “The Singapore that Lee created – a nanny state that continues to curb free expression and put political opponents at a disadvantage – has hardly begun to grapple with that challenge.” Lee Kuan Yew founded a nation, brought a population out of poverty, and quite literally put his country on the map. His legacy was nothing short of miraculous. Now perhaps Singapore needs a more subtle miracle to continue moving forwards.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.