Can Singapore remain innovative, come up with new ideas and increase value-added services in a changing Asia and above all preserve the economic legacy of Lee Kuan Yew? That’s the big question, which requires an immediate answer
It was in 1986 that I attended a history conference in Singapore and encountered what I regarded as Asian modernity.
An immaculately clean garden-city, a disciplined workforce, an efficient transport system – the MRT was then under construction -, a first class university and a plural society with four official languages: English Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Everything was planned, over planned, water resources, human resources, you name it from housing flats to banning chewing gum.
All this Singapore owes to one man – Lee Kuan Yew – who passed away at the age of 91 on Monday 23rd March 2015. A 7-day mourning has been declared in Singapore for Singaporeans to pay respects to their Founding Father. This Cambridge-educated lawyer was an intellectual, a ruthless idealist, yet practical. He had been present at every stage in the making of Singapore, in his fight against colonialism, in the making of Malaysia, and presiding over the tumultuous years when Singapore broke away from Malaysia to become an independent sovereign state. And within two decades he had transformed Singapore from a Third World state into a First World country.
Modern Singapore, with its world-class business and financial centre, its technological society, ever climbing up the ladder of innovation and creativity, and a graft-free government with a GNP per capita of 55000 Singapore dollars, is the product of his strategy, his leadership and the dedication of his life to his country. His perspective, his wisdom, his insight and his advice, he shared generously in his numerous speeches, interviews, lectures and meetings.
At Octave Wiehe Auditorium, at the University of Mauritius, he explained in a lecture his strategy for developing tourism and the pharmaceutical industry in Singapore. Tourists were invited to come to Singapore, visit the neighbouring countries which have a lot to offer and when they are tired they can come back, rest and refresh in five-star hotels and do their shopping before flying home. He had recruited the topmost biotechnologist and provided him with a team of researchers to make a breakthrough in a few medicines which would build Singapore‘s pharmaceutical industry.
He was an original thinker and strategist who combined Oriental values with an international vision. His brand of capitalism with the State playing a major role inspired the South Asian Tigers and provided a blueprint for China’s economic reforms. Thousands of Chinese civil servants went to Singapore to learn about the Singaporean model and many statesmen turned to him to learn how to fashion order out of chaos.
However, one should not overlook the brutal fact that the achievements of Singapore were only possible by constructing an authoritarian state, which curbs the freedom of expression, circumscribes human rights, and rigidly controls the media. He had no qualms in suppressing dissent and in dealing high-handedly with those who put in peril his model of development although in the last decade the government has loosened up. But he was also a man of high integrity and, as he said himself, there was no compromise on what he considers as the basic principle affecting integrity.
As Singaporeans pay tribute to the Father of the nation, the young and assertive generation who has taken clean tap water and a high standard of living for granted, has already began to question the state authoritarianism, and dissent will keep on growing, as the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong does not have the prestige and the authority of his father.
The biggest challenge facing Singapore is how to preserve the economic model within a democratic set-up at a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened and there is growing frustration with immigration policy.
Can Singapore remain innovative, come up with new ideas and increase value-added services in a changing Asia and above all preserve the economic legacy of Lee Kuan Yew? That’s the big question, which requires an immediate answer as Lee Kuan Yew, statesman of world stature, leaves the scene.
* Published in print edition on 27 March 2015