Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, who passed away on Monday, was one of 20th century’s most remarkable leaders who almost single-handedly transformed a modest port in Malaysia to a city-state that has become a symbol of economic modernity.
Few expected the city-state of 2 million people to succeed when Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965. But Mr Lee’s authoritarian but corruption-free rule alloyed with liberal economic policies turned Singapore into a favoured investment destination — a ‘tiger economy’. Mr Lee saw his success in simple terms, making him a hero to modernisers the world over.
He decided to maximise Singapore’s two resources: Its ‘excellent geographical location’ and human resource. He focused on building ‘the best’ transportation and communication system, creating a pleasant living environment and providing good houses and medical services. Education was a priority, with an emphasis on the English language so that Singapore could be a service sector power. Lastly, he tackled corruption and established a meritocratic system that secured citizen support for his ‘model’ even if it meant giving up political freedoms.
Mr Lee was criticised for stifling dissent, harassing the Opposition, muzzling the media and instituting stiff punishments. He insisted that ‘Asian values’, which privileged group rights over individual liberties, necessarily involved democratic tradeoffs. He was a product of his time; his outlook was shaped by post-war anti-communist ideology and political instability in Asian countries. It is not clear if such constrictions on freedom are sustainable as Opposition voices are growing in Singapore.
Mr Lee had the benefit of dominating a city-state as opposed to governing a big country like India. But he did prove that a strong State can effectively govern a multi-racial society by policing boundaries and encouraging tolerance. He used to say that “the sense of fairness cannot be over-emphasised”, including the equal opportunity of education, employment and services. Better infrastructure and substantive tolerance were, in some ways, his watchwords. They must be ours too.