A palpable sense of dissatisfaction exists among the island
| Financial Times
February 25, 2015
By David Pilling
WITH the possible exception of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, there are few nations that so closely reflect one man’s legacy as Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew, now 91 and in hospital with severe pneumonia, can claim to have built the nation that today has a higher material standard
of living than the UK, the US or Norway. His punchily written memoir, From Third World to First, shows an acute awareness of his achievement in conjuring a prosperous city state from an unpromising history and geography. But how will Singapore fare
when its founding father is gone?
In some ways, it is too early — not to mention somewhat bad manners — to ask. As Mr Lee himself once told The New York Times, one should not judge a man until he is dead. “Close the coffin, then decide”, is how he put it. Indeed, a true reckoning is impossible while he lives. That is partly due to Singaporeans’ sense of respect and indebtedness, and partly due to a lingering fear engendered by his persistent recourse to litigation when he feels maligned. One of his early collaborators conspiratorially when the subject of Mr Lee’s legacy came up: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
In another sense, the dilemmas Singapore will face in the post-Lee era are already upon us. Mr Lee retired from the cabinet in 2011
after the People’s Action party that he co-founded suffered its worst electoral result in 50 years. (The long-ruling party won 81 of 87 parliamentary seats despite garnering only 60 per cent of the votes.) Mr Lee’s
semi-retirement — even now he remains a member of parliament — ended a career that spanned 30 years as prime minister and another 20 as senior minister and minister mentor, a role created by his son, Lee Hsien Loong, who became prime minister in 2004.
Singapore’s problems, while real, are ones most nations would kill for. Clean, safe and an important financial and manufacturing centre, it struggles to serve as a model only because of its small size. Yet there is a palpable sense of dissatisfaction among ordinary Singaporeans, manifested both at the polls and in a lively blogosphere that is escaping the strictures of a strictly controlled traditional media. Many Singaporeans cannot afford sky-high property prices bid up by the city’s legions of bankers,
stockbrokers and other professionals. There is a growing wealth divide.
There is also resentment of immigrants. Of Singapore’s 5.3m people, 1.3m are non-resident foreigners. The government has
sought to slow immigration, yet must contend with one of the world’s lowest fertility rates. In the 1960s, fearing overpopulation, Mr Lee fronted the “Stop at Two” campaign.
Singapore’s women have taken him at his word — and more. On average, they now have only 1.3 children against the 2.1 needed to keep a population stable. The prospect of shrinking numbers raises real questions about the sustainability of growth.
"Lee tried to build a ‘multiracial society’ from a collection of people he said lacked a common destiny"
In response, the government is modifying the brand of bootstrap capitalism Mr Lee installed, promising more redistribution and more investment in social welfare. Only this week, it raised taxes on the top 5 per cent of earners from 20 to 22 per cent to help pay for it.
For Mr Lee, these brewing problems may be less surprising than for most. He was always paranoid, calling the business of creating
Singapore a “long hard slog... against seemingly insuperable odds”. The tiny island depended for its water supply on Malaysia,
from which it had separated in 1965. For defence, after Britain pulled out, it depended on its own conscript army. Mr Lee was haunted by Singapore’s racial and linguistic divisions, with its mixture of Chinese, Malay and Indians. He responded with a policy of
English-Mandarin bilingualism and tried to build a “multiracial society” from a collection of people he said lacked a common destiny. He stamped hard on corruption. He championed
corporal punishment as a means of disciplining a population that was his island’s only resource.
His achievements are real, if uncompromising. Like a headmaster, he has created a culture that he can only hope outlasts him. He never much trusted the democratic process. He told Tom Plate, a biographer: “I do not believe that one-man, one-vote... is the final position.”
More than in the people, he placed his faith in an elite. That elite remains mostly competent and pragmatic.
Yet when Mr Lee is gone, Singaporeans may wish they had learnt better how to manage things for