Lee Kuan Yew, not a saint but surely a trailblazer in a Singapore that is still a work in progress

Full Text Sharing

Singapore is indeed a remarkable nation. From the outset, the island state had to face multiple odds: lacking any kind of natural resources, being surrounded by Malaysia, to which Singapore was initially part of before being “booted out” by Malaysia and Indonesia, both countries with Muslim majorities.

At the same time Singapore, thanks to its geography, was a major trading hub under  British rule and certainly this helped a lot in transforming this tiny island in the most successful nation in the world.

Singapore, a remarkable nation with a remarkable story and possibly a remarkable future: probably the most prosperous nation in the world, Singapore’s outstanding achievements were possible because of one man, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of the nation.

It is not that everything happened in Singapore because of LKY as Mr. Lee Kuan Yew is often called. But certainly LKY was the leader of the so called pioneers, those courageous and visionary individuals who built the Singapore that we all know.

Now LKY is no more. He died on 23rd of March at 3am Singapore time at the age of 91.

The current Prime Minister of Singapore, son of LKY addressed the nation and the world about the death of his father who was the prime minister for more than 30 years and even when he had stepped down in 2004, he had maintained the influential position in the cabinet of Minister Mentor, a father like figure.

He was indeed a guardian of the prosperity created. As the Prime Minster said this morning “Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore, he made possible what was impossible”.

Despite all the incredible successes, Singapore is not a paradise on earth nor was LKY a saint. Many have compared Singapore to North Korea or a “Disneyland with the death penalty”. Having visited Singapore several times and having read quite a lot about it, I frankly believe that these are just staggering exaggerations that unfairly portray the current Singapore.

Certainly, despite the fascinating skyscrapers, its indisputable clean and efficient government, clean and safe streets, Singapore is still a work in construction.

Remarkable as it is, still there is a long way for Singapore to fully prosper as a nation and it will be able to do it only when it will fully embrace  more open and liberal politics.

LKY never shied away from criticizing western liberal democracies; he has always been frank, even too straightforward in underlying the structural deficiencies of liberal democracies.

After all Singapore is an odd place, a multinational country where three different ethnic groups were forced to live together in order to survive and prosper.

Survival was the first overarching goal of LKY and his mates and there was nothing sure about it when Singapore was kicked out from the Malaysian Federation.

An entire country, including a common identity had to be built from scratch. Decades after decades LKY succeeded in an unprecedented way.

Yes Singapore is still a country in construction. You should not forget that freedom of expression is still quite curtailed; you should forget that Singapore has  a free speech garden where locals can apply to avail to the Speaker’ corner (due to the death of LKY, the use of the Speaker’s corner is temporarily banned).

I have several books about Singapore. Some of them glorify the work of LKY, others instead shed lights on the darker side of Singapore: the authoritarian, top down society that is still ruled by a majoritarian party, the People Action Party, PAP thanks to a flawed electoral system ( in the last election, the PAP ensured 90% of the parliament’s seats with only 60% of the votes).

One of these books is called the ‘Dissent Voices” written by Clement Mesenas that tells the stories of political leaders who went against the predominant thinking of the PAP and they were forced to go into exile.

A more recent book is “Hard Choices, Challenging the Singapore Consensus”, a collection of essays that reviews critical issues that will determine the future of the nation.

One of them is certainly about the political system: in Singapore there is a majoritarian party that has always governed since the birth of the nation and there is also a very weak opposition. Only in recent years the opposition although weathering defeat after defeat, has gained some momentum but it is at an embryonic status.

The entire political system is structured around the idea that a small nation like Singapore needs cohesion as a matter of survival. Cohesion per nature brings homogeneity. Homogeneity can often stifle divergent views and opinions. This was the price Singaporeans had to pay for what they got: prosperity and wealth.

The social contract at the basis of the system is founded on the principles that the government, in exchange of an unequivocal support from the electorate, will offer the best conditions for prosperity to be able to trickle down.  Yet you need to earn it. Nothing will be given for free.

The prosperity you see around Singapore was not given as a gift by LKY and his buddies. They provided the right framework for its citizens to become rich but then it was up to them to put up their sleeves and make money.

The Government of Singapore is per excellence an “enabling” one: the public servants have the highest salaries of the world because they act in terms of efficiency and delivery as they are top executives working for the biggest multinationals. The Prime Minister of Singapore earns more than one million dollars per year.

Singapore was never created with the aim of becoming an egalitarian Scandinavia of the South East Asia.

Singapore and its citizens were always on the “edge”: as the country was becoming rich and more prosperous as written by LKY in the second part of his autobiography From Third World to First”, no one could really take rest and enjoy the free ride.

Therefore you should not be surprised that in Singapore when people talk about national service, they refer to the military conscription that is mandatory.

Yes Singapore was under siege from many fronts. The same “under siege” mindset instilled by LKY made the island state the most prosperous nation.

The same receipt that brought stability and prosperity is starting to show some cracks, after all in Singapore there is not yet a welfare state. You see elderly above seventy years old cleaning local restaurants or working at minimarkets or sweeping the subways.

Change is also coming to Singapore. The Government understood that the next big challenges facing the nation will bring a rewriting of the national social contract.

Slowly the political space will be opening up; the opposition will become stronger and the citizens will dare to speak up louder.

Warren Fernandez, one of the most prominent journalists in the country and currently editor of The Straits Time wrote in May 1991:

“So the process of political development must continue if society here is to mature. Of course, this should not imply a blind aping of the West. We must build a political system in our own way and at our own pace, always conscious that this is a political experiment, which, unless handled carefully, may have explosive consequences”

Decades after its independence, Singapore is indeed a freer country. The path ahead can be bumpy for its leaders but only a gradual opening of the society will truly mark Singapore as the best nation in the world to live in.

LYK did his part in the most unimaginable way. It is up to new generations to set a new course and ventures their nation in unexplored areas even where their towering founding father would have disagreed.


Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.