Arthur I. Cyr: The legacy of Singapore’s leader Lee Kwan Yew
“The Four Tigers” is a shorthand label for the dynamic economies of East Asia which achieved strikingly rapid growth from the 1960s into the 1990s – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.
The passing of the dominant leader of one of them is a good time to discuss all of them. On March 23, Singapore leader Lee Kwan Yew died at the age of 91. For over half a century, he and his organization have controlled government in the city-state of Singapore.
Such dominance usually entails dictatorship. Restricting truly representative government guarantees regime continuity, and that has been the experience of Singapore.
Yet President Barack Obama on behalf of the United States praised Lee as “a devoted public servant and a remarkable leader,” “the father of modern Singapore” and “one of the great strategists of Asian affairs.”
Why this remarkable praise heaped on a leader generally and rightly regarded as autocratic? Does Obama secretly envy other leaders who don’t have to deal with Republicans, or for that matter disagreeable Democrats, plus that meddlesome media? Maybe, but there are good economic and strategic reasons for praising Lee’s record, which in turn casts useful light on important U.S interests and concerns in East Asia.
In 1992, China’s great leader Deng Xiaoping announced, and brilliantly began to implement, the revolutionary policy of “People’s Socialism.” In effect, this is capitalism by another name. Simultaneously, Beijing’s enormous sustained military buildup has fed security concerns and an atmosphere of conflict which echoes the earlier Cold War era.
As China has risen to rival the great power of the United States, at least in the vast Pacific region, Taiwan and South Korea provide important, modernizing buffers. They have married strong economies to representative democracy, which remains alien to China. The 1997 transfer of authority over Hong Kong from Britain to China has restricted freedom there and focused even more attention on the other small Tiger: Singapore.
Lee Kwan Yew over three decades as prime minister transformed his nation from a relatively weak, threatened outpost of the British Empire to one of the richest per-capita economies on Earth. He had no ideology, no unbreakable alliances, and no faith aside from a sustained determination to build prosperity. Absence of government red tape and intolerance of corruption are among Lee’s long-term accomplishments.
The regime gave highest priority to attracting and building global corporations through well-planned business incentives, complemented by great social stability. Singapore Airlines and Singapore Telecommunications represented both domestic potential, and the vital importance of global ties for the small island. Each has become exceptionally profitable.
Singapore is strategically located within heavily trafficked global shipping lanes, and the regime has been disciplined and effective in attracting enormous external investment. General Electric and Hewlett Packard are representative of powerful global multinationals persuaded to locate regional headquarters in Singapore.
At the same time, Singapore has lagged in development of democracy. Lee’s People’s Action Party has won every election since self-government began in 1959, and his son is now prime minister.
Obvious brutal dictatorship has been avoided, but opposition is curtailed through regulation. Free speech does not really exist. Social order has priority over personal freedom. A notorious restriction on the sale of chewing gum was only relaxed in 2004 - somewhat.
By contrast, both South Korea and Taiwan over the past three decades have moved effectively from dictatorship to democracy.
Lee’s successors should continue his commitment to progress by accepting true party competition. Political freedom is our future.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.