Singapore After Lee Kuan Yew: Future Is Uncertain For The Utilitarian Paradise He Created


In this age of political Lilliputians, we must acknowledge the passing of giants. Although he ran only a small city-state, Lee Kuan Yew, along with late Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping, ranks among Asia’s most pivotal figures of the past 50 years.

These two men — a tall, aristocratic scion of a Hakka trading family and the diminutive Chinese revolutionary — came from very different perspectives, but shared a pragmatic streak, and ultimately strategies that came to be widely copied. You can see their legacy today across the continent, in rapid urbanization and growing economic power.

But it was Lee who first formulated the essentials of the new Asian economic approach, blending capitalistic modernity with a state-directed economy and authoritarianism. Although repression of dissidents in both countries rightfully offends Westerners, particularly journalists, it has not deterred foreign capital, technology and capital from seeking to cash in on Asia’s growth.

American and British capital may have fueled global capitalism’s 20th century triumph, but Lee and Deng shaped its expansion in the 21st.

Lee’s Achievement

This is not merely a testament to Lee’s tenure as prime minister from 1959 to 1990, the longest of any in world history, but the singularity and durability of his accomplishment. From Singapore’s independence to the present day, Lee helped fashion what is arguably the most successful and best run city in the world.

In 1965, after Singapore’s acrimonious exit from Malaysia, its outlook was far from promising. Unemployment was high and the fledgling city-state was wracked by internal dissension between its ethnic mix of Chinese, Indians and Malays, and between conservatives and communists, who seemed in political ascendancy as elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The then rough-edged Asian metropolis, an important trading center, boasted a per capita GDP of$2,667 in 1990 dollars, more than double the average for East Asian countries and trailing only Japan in the region, but well behind European countries and North America.

Faced with imminent disaster, Lee’s response was to create a new political system that blended a mildly socialist program with a development strategy aimed at attracting foreign capital and building up the manufacturing sector. Lee and his People’s Action Party (PAP) focused on developing a modern infrastructure — from the port and roads to education — that is second to none.

Perhaps PAP’s most remarkable achievement was the creation of the Housing Development Board, which turned the vast majority of Singaporeans from slum-dwellers to owners of apartments that were small but clean and modern. As Asian real estate markets have heated up, HDB has helped keep Singaporean housing costs far more reasonable than in China’s primary cities, or Hong Kong or Tokyo.

Lee believed widespread homeownership would make Singapore more stable, but it was not enough to make it rich. Under his guidance, everything — from cleaning the streets to developing arguably the best primary education system in the world — was calculated to attract foreign companies and skilled individuals; this at a time when China, India and much of Southeast Asia was either closed to investment, embroiled in lethal civic conflict or primarily dominated by crony capitalists.

And the world did come, making Singapore among the favored destinations for international corporations. In 1968 Texas Instruments TXN +1.26% established a chip-making plant there, the break Lee later credited with helping transform the city into a technology hotspot.

A 2011 Roland Berger study named Singapore as the leading location for European companies to establish headquarters in the Asia-Pacific region.Companies with regional headquarters include Microsoft MSFT +1.12%Google GOOGL +0.16%Exxon Mobil XOM +0.15%, and Kellogg’s. Singapore now has more than twice as many regional headquarters as far-larger Tokyo, not to mention Asia’s less affluent megacities.

Lee’s Chinese Legacy

Cambridge-educated, and with the demeanor of a British aristocrat, Lee promoted English as the country’s primary language, a decision that made the city particularly attractive to foreign investors and workers. But in many ways he remained very Chinese. Lee’s People’s Action Party blended British parliamentary forms with a highly authoritarian, centrally directed system. Author Alex Josey compared Lee’s role in the PAP to Mao Zedong’s suzerainty over the Chinese Communist Party.

When Deng visited the city-state in 1978, he saw it as an appealing model for his poor country: a top-down, mandarin-led system that could appeal to global capitalists. Deng, Lee would later recall, was most captivated by Singapore’s modern prosperity: “What he saw in Singapore in 1978,” he recalled in his book Third World to First, “had become the point of reference as the minimum the Chinese people should achieve.”

Anyone visiting China today can see the results of Deng’s insight: gleaming cities, massive expansion of educational institutions, modern roads and transit systems, and most of a general prosperity that has lifted the mother country of most Singaporeans to almost unimagined heights.

The story is not so positive for those who believe in liberal democracy. Although Singapore is generally less repressive than China, it did show the Chinese communists that being “free” was not necessary for becoming rich. It’s a lesson that many developing countries around the world — in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America — have taken to heart.

Singapore After Lee

Lee bequeathed to Singapore prosperity and order, but the durability of his legacy is in question. To some extent, this reflects the technocratic cast of the Republic; Lee may have been a “founding father” of his country, but he did not leave behind a system of beliefs that can tie people together in the manner of George Washington & co. in the United States. Lee is revered simply for being effective.

Indeed despite massive government efforts to promote a sense of identity, a recent survey found half of all Singaporeans indifferent to their citizenship as long as their wealth could be maintained. Stabilizing forces like religion and family, have also been weakened by the rush to embrace what former foreign minister S. Rajaratnam labeled “moneytheism.” The emptiness of this religion can be seen in the fact that residents of this highly successful city-state are now among the most pessimistic of peoples, alongside understandably dour residents of Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Slovenia and Haiti.

So even as the Republic prospers, there is growing disaffection, with the PAP’s support dwindling to the lowest level since independence. Fed up with government controls and the increasingly high cost of living, many Singaporeans are considering a move elsewhere. Already some 300,000 now live abroad, almost one in 10. As many as half of Singaporeans, according to a recent survey, would leave if they could

The utilitarian paradise created by Lee will also have to face competition from Chinese cities like Shanghai and Beijing, notes Ravi Menon, the former head of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Companies that might once have located operations in Singapore now feel pressure to locate in Asia’s dominant economy. Once Asia had few places where advanced technology and services could be developed; now it has many. China alone has 13 cities larger than Singapore, many of them with breathtakingly modern infrastructure and far less expensive workforces.

There is also widespread dissent about PAP’s policy prescription. One particularlyunpopular proposal has been to boost the city-state’s population from 5 million to roughly 7 million by 2030, largely through immigration. To help accommodate this growth, planners have suggested building a vast underground city with shopping malls, public spaces, pedestrian links and cycling lanes. Even normally docile and sociable Singaporeans may recoil from spending their lives like Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine.

The city also has become more dependent on imported labor, not surprising in a county that has one of the world’s lowest birth rates. Many Singaporeans feel the foreign influx is turning them into strangers in their own city. In 1980, over 90% of residents were citizens. Today the percentage is 63% and, by 2030, if the government’s plans hold up, foreigners will outnumber the natives.

Yet despite these problems, Lee Kwan Yew’s accomplishments are undeniable. He took a struggling, ununified city and left it an urban jewel. That history has moved on is inevitable, but one has to wonder, among all the current chiefs of state, whether any will leave behind anything approaching Yew’s legacy when they pass from this world.

Percentage Change In Asian Population Since 2000: +23.5%

This piece first appeared at Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is also executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is also author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050.  He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Singapore skyline photo by