Singapore’s evolution

  Lee Kuan Yew astutely evaluated any political or economic dogma that ran counter to his goals.
Wall St Journal
March 23, 2015

BY  Garry Rodan 

LEE Kuan Yew and Singapore are synonymous. He crafted Singapore’s central institutions and leadership through his nation building, succession plans and ideologies. The city-state’s future, like its past, will reflect Lee’s profound influence.

Lee was a vital figure in the 1950s nationalist struggle for self-rule and served as Singapore’s first prime minister for 31 years between 1959 and 1990. For the next two decades, he continued to exert a significant influence in the cabinet.

Yet Lee’s was also a career of global significance. This was initially a function of the Cold War and Singapore’s importance to the West in containing communism. Subsequently, Lee’s technocratic authoritarian rule presided over one of the most comprehensive economic and social transformations of modern times. This challenged a prevailing orthodoxy that free markets and free politics were prerequisites for successful capitalism.

While Lee’s laws constraining political opposition, civil-society activism and free speech were routinely condemned by international human-rights bodies, Western companies flocked to Singapore. They cited its efficient and corruption-free economic governance regimes as the reason for investing.

Social conservatives in the West were also among Mr Lee’s greatest admirers. His emphasis on individual and family responsibility ahead of “Western welfarism” struck a chord with them. Some social democrats in the West even lauded Lee’s commitment to public housing and called for the same in their countries.

Ironically, Lee’s power rise was founded on his early rhetorical allegiance to liberal democracy. Lee and his English-educated middle-class nationalist colleagues could only become significant players in the postcolonial struggle by teaming up with radical Chinese-educated leaders of trade-union and student movements capable of mass mobilization.

The formation of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954 brought this coalition together. The projection of Lee’s group as moderate democrats gave the PAP respectability in British eyes and supposedly some protection for the radicals.

Lee certainly understood liberal democracy. As a legal advocate for trade unionists and an opposition leader, Lee demanded the same democratic rights for Singaporeans enjoyed by British citizens. In 1955, he asserted: “If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally. If you believe that men should be free, then, they should have the right to association, of free speech, of free publication.”

After taking office in 1959, though, Lee outmaneuvered the radicals within the PAP and consolidated his power in ways that indicated he would not be constrained by these principles himself. The priority, he explained, was social and economic development. Political freedoms, he projected, would later follow development.

By the 1990s, when Singapore boasted a higher per-capita gross domestic product than many countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the rationale had changed. Now Lee argued that liberal democracy was culturally alien to Asians.

Lee’s long-standing elitist ideological convictions formed the basis of his antipathy towards liberal democracy. In 1967 he contended that around 5% of the population was more than ordinarily endowed with talents, “in whom we must expend our limited and slender resources in order that they will provide that yeast, that ferment, that catalyst in our society.”

The task, as Lee saw it, was to ensure that the genetically gifted dominate power so that the right decisions were made. Thus he institutionalized elaborate systems of appointment, promotion and status based on ranked educational credentials. It followed that close scrutiny of policy makers’ decisions by less endowed citizens was a distraction, or worse.

Significantly, Lee’s rationale for elite dominance took as much aim at other models of authoritarianism as it did democracy. His notion of meritocracy necessarily meant the pre-eminence of technocrats at all levels of decision making, albeit guided by moral values. Lee claimed in 2003, “My colleagues and I have institutionalized honesty, integrity and meritocracy into the systems we have created.”

As living standards generally improved and perceived prospects of upward social mobility continued, there was no groundswell of resentment at the acute powers and generous salaries reserved for bureaucratic and political elites. In any case, clamps on press freedom and Lee’s ready recourse to defamation suits rendered questioning the capacity or integrity of elites hazardous.

However, in the 2006 and 2011 elections, rising voter concerns about social and economic inequalities resulted in a combined 15% drift to opposition parties. Singapore’s income gap, as measured by the Gini coefficient, rose to 0.478 in 2012 from 0.422 in 2000. According to researchers at Singapore Management University’s Lien Centre, absolute poverty levels in 2011 were around 10% to 12%.

In this context, elitist institutions and ideologies underpinning Lee’s meritocracy have been subjected to unprecedented questioning and criticism—especially in social media. In response, PAP leaders made rare admissions of policy mistakes, a welcomed humility that has further fuelled as much as contained skepticism about meritocracy.

Lee’s successors now promote a “compassionate meritocracy” to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Toward that end, recent budgets have boosted social spending and welfare provisions and the projections are for this to be expanded further. Such redistribution is a socially and politically necessary retreat from Lee’s earlier emphasis on individual and family responsibility in preference to “Western welfarism.”

Yet Lee laid the structural foundations enabling this policy redirection. While many other governments were busy selling public assets and companies late last century, Lee saw domestic political and economic benefits from strategically shoring up state capitalist enterprises and sovereign-wealth funds. As the 2015 budget statement indicates, investment returns from government-linked companies will play an increasingly important role in expanded social redistribution.

The popular portrayal of Lee as a pragmatist devoid of ideology is flawed. But he was astute and perceptive in critically evaluating any political or economic dogma that ran counter to his goals. He also couldn’t have done more to embed Singapore with the qualities and values that he believed were imperative to the city’s future success.

But was Lee too successful in creating a monolithic elite echoing his worldview? His PAP now faces the choice between reflexive repression of its critics and the self-liberation necessary to meet challenges without its founder.

Mr Rodan is professor of politics and international studies at Murdoch University.