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Singapore - death of the patriarch - and then?

I woke up at 4am this morning following a bad dream. My husband had also woken up and was not in the bedroom. I went to find him, bleary-eyed, and he was checking his messages on his iphone. As he has colleagues working in Australia and UK, he often does this if he wakes in the middle of the night. It's one of the drawbacks of being an international entrepreneur based in Singapore. He told me Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, was dead  - so sleep was banished and the TV went on.

All over Asia, in countries riddled with corruption and bogged down in debt, people say to us - 'We need a Lee Kuan Yew here in our country.' Why is he such a hero all over Asia? Why was his insight so valued by Western leaders with Obama calling him 'a giant of a man'?

As a young man, Lee Kuan Yew returned from Cambridge University with a double-first, smarting from the discrimination he had suffered at the hands of fellow under-grads, and made the decision to go into politics to help Singapore throw off its British colonial shackles. Sick of the Brits exploiting the people to extract tin and rubber in Malaysia, he got together with other activists to seek independence. (Singapore initially achieved self-governance.)

He was elected as a member of parliament in Tanjong Pagar in Chinatown, due to his support for local workers, with his People's Action Party winning 43 out of 59 seats. He became Singapore's first Prime Minister in 1959 (and stepped down in 1990). Using his powers of persuasion he convinced the people of Singapore to join the Malaysian Federation in 1963, despite the resistance of pro and anti communist factions. It did join on the day of his 40th birthday but the Malaysian government's policies ran counter to those of the PAP and with its will to dominate Singapore, conflict ensued. Riots broke out between the Malay and Chinese communities in Singapore, and although it was painful, and Lee untypically broke down at a press conference, Lee accepted the decision for Singapore to break away as an independent country in 1965.

A country of only 2 million people with no natural resources, little land and hostile neighbours did not have great prospects in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew  realised that he needed to attract foreign investment fast - but how? With a keen sense of pragmatism, he developed a tripartite policy of co-operation between business, government and the unions in 1968 to create stability - one which Margaret Thatcher would try to copy 10 years later in the UK starting with a crackdown on the unions.

Unlike the leaders of other nations wanting to develop quickly, Lee Kuan Yew did not borrow squillions and spend them wantonly. He believed in building national wealth and observing fiscal prudence - a nation living within its means. He called this self-reliance and it may have been based on his unwillingness to ever again be dependent on a greater power such as Great Britain. He fought on an anti-corruption ticket and stamped out corruption - a feat which his neighbours in Malaysia and Indonesia are still far from achieving.

Having suffered racism himself, he was an advocate of multiculturalism, creating a society in which different racial and cultural groups live together harmoniously with mutual respect. I've witnessed this cultural pluralism in action at several arts events in Singapore - but with the rise of the Chinese community as administrators and increasing use of Mandarin rather than English, it's questionable if this alliance between the communities can continue indefinitely.

Lee and his team of ministers set about cleaning up Singapore, improving the water supply and building decent social housing for the people, many of whom lived in shacks at the time. He attracted foreign companies to build factories, create employment and invest in modernising the country. When the Chinese failed to live up to their promises, he dared to tell the leadership about their failings.
Universal education was a key plank of the up-skilling of the nation so that Singapore could offer a cheap but skilled labour force to attract economic investment. Bi-lingualism was made compulsory so groups could communicate effectively with each other and foreign bosses.

To stop the soaring birth-rate, his government introduced family planning but Singapore's low birth rate today is a problem - as it is below replacement levels and there is a big aging population which requires social subsidy. This problem is solved by importing foreign workers - making up over 20% of the population - but in any downturn local people feel resentful of jobs going to foreigners. The ex-pat community is made up of Europeans, Americans, Australians and Asians most of whom operate in a cosmopolitan bubble far removed from the local people, attracted to Singapore by the low tax regime and cheap childcare.

The dark side

While  Lee was a decisive leader, he was also dictatorial and repressive in his clampdown on the unions, civil liberties and opposition leaders. His government's control of the media, prosecution of those who disagree with its policies and prevention of public protests, reduces the freedom and rights of Singaporean citizens to have full democracy. However, there was recently dissent over the National Library's decision to pulp children's books with gay characters which led to a climbdown on the part of the Library. Not so lucky was Amos Yee, a teenager  who uploaded a video to YouTube criticising Lee Kuan Yew and was sent to prison for four weeks, (including two weeks in a psychiatric facility) for his 'crime'.

Singapore is ranked 150th in the league of countries employing censorship, which doesn't fit well with its first world status. Dictators in other countries look on admiringly and seek to create the same highly regulated, state-controlled, low crime autocracy with economic prosperity - one in which cabinet ministers can earn $1 million per annum, feathering their own nests without any comeback.

Following the week long eulogy for its founder and the huge 50th Birthday celebrations, PAP romped home to victory in the election - so change has been postponed in Singapore once more.

Will the people have the 'guts and gumption' to stand up for themselves and be counted - and vote for a different party next time? Will another leader emerge to take Singapore forward to an 'exceptional' future? Or will fear of change restrict Singapore's ability to adapt to a new and changing world?

This post first appeared on The Way Of Yay, please read the originial post: here

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Singapore - death of the patriarch - and then?


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