The streets of Singapore are filled with mourning citizens. It reminds me of the scenes seen in North Korea when their great leader passed away. Only this seems more sincere. No over the top crying, just respectful lines of people waiting to pay a last tribute. These people are mourning the death of Lee Kuan Yew. He was their president for 31 years and stood at the cradle of one of the economic miracles we now call Singapore.
When Lee Kuan Yew returns from his studies in England he finds himself in a third world country. Singapore is still ruled by Great Britain and the chance for a better future looks slim. With virtually no space, no natural resources and a small population of migrants who lack a common history, many honourable men would have packed their bags and moved somewhere else. But this former student of Cambridge and the London School of Economics rolled up his sleeves and wasted no time. Together with a couple of other English speaking fellows he founded the People’s Action Party (PAP). On top of their agenda stood separating from England and, with Lee at the steering wheel, they managed to do just that. Within a couple of years they became wholly independent and Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister. And so began one of the most remarkable pieces of governing of the 20th century.
Yes, Lee wanted a democracy, but he had not worked this hard for independence just to let some populist take power in the next election. He believed in the meritocracy. Only the most competent men Singapore had to offer should lead the country. What’s more, he himself would be the judge of that competence. He believed firmly that he knew what was right for the country. That’s why he wanted to insure himself of the time and power he needed to turn his vision into reality. And thus he created a democratic society, but with some authoritarian traits. He wanted Singapore to be the shining diamond amidst its chaotic Asian neighbours. For his vision to become reality he had to transform the people first. He wanted them to be disciplined, polite and well educated. This desire and his pragmatic nature earned Singapore the nickname ‘The Fine City’ . It hints both at the well behaved citizens as well as at the high fines and harsh punishments that are enforced. Most famous is probably the $500 fine you get for spitting in the streets.
Most famous is probably the $500 fine you get for spitting in the streets.
His unorthodox style earned him both fans and critics. Unfortunately for the critics Lee had a habit of locking away people who opposed him. Nothing and nobody was going to stand in the way of his vision. He also controlled the media and used them to keep a firm grip on everything that happened within the borders of the city. However, Singapore was still a democracy and when time came to vote he was re-elected again and again. A side from the fact that a part of his opposition was in jail, people genuinely liked him. His popularity can largely be ascribed to Singapore’s incredible economic success. The GDP rose from $500 when he first became Prime Minister to $55.000 at his death. Singapore now ranks third in the world when it comes to GDP. Truly astounding.
With an average economic growth of 7% per year he turned Singapore into a financial hub comparable with New York and London. On top of this Singapore has become the second biggest harbour in the world just under China’s Shanghai. And as if that isn’t enough, Singapore is also one of the safest and least corrupt places in the world. All of this he managed to achieve in little over half a decade. Top that Obama!
With an average economic growth of 7% per year he turned Singapore into a financial hub comparable with New York and London
No wonder world leaders often sought his advice. It’s just hard to ignore his success. Neighbouring countries try to reproduce it, even China’s economy is partially modelled after that of Singapore. However, the west pays a lot less attention. Maybe it’s because they already regard themselves as fully evolved. Or maybe it’s just the standard resistance that comes with change. But I believe strongly that there are lessons to be learned. Lee Kuan Yew may have taken it too far sometimes, but we could use some of his long-term policies. The pace at which we keep re-electing governments is just not sustainable. This only makes room for populists and any long-term thinking is banned to the peripheries. Let us learn from Singapore and let us admire the incredible story of Lee Kuan Yew.