August 9th, 1965. The Republic of Singapore finds itself in a strange place – ejected from Malaysia due to racial strife, the tiny city-state now found itself alone on the global stage, as a resource-poor backwater surrounded by more powerful neighbors. Per the World Bank, 70% of Singapore’s households were overcrowded, half the population was illiterate, unemployment was at a staggering 14%, and the GDP per capita was 516 dollars.
Fast forward to 2018. Singapore’s GDP per capita now stands at roughly 62,000. Unemployment is at a low 2.1%. An economic giant in Southeast Asia, Singapore is ranked 2nd in terms of ease of doing business. Singapore has the 9th highest HDI on the planet, and despite its lack of natural resources, Singapore exports 68 million tons of refined oil per year – third in the world. Additionally, Singapore is a leader in high-tech manufacturing, including semiconductors, chemicals, and pharmaceutical drugs. Clearly, spectacular leadership had to be present in order to catalyze this transformation.
Lee Kuan Yew was born on September 16, 1923, in British-controlled Singapore. He managed to survive the Japanese occupation of Singapore from 1942-1945, setting up small businesses in order to make enough money to make it through each day. Lee Kuan Yew was nearly killed as well – after the Japanese rounded up ethnic Chinese civilians, Lee Kuan Yew managed to escape while his fellow natives were executed. After the war, Lee Kuan Yew studied in England, until he decided in 1949 to return to Singapore. He founded the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954, and won a seat in the Legislative Assembly in 1955. In 1959, the PAP won a landslide victory, and the British granted autonomy to Singapore – with Lee Kuan Yew at the helm. However, Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP believed that Singapore needed to merge with larger, neighboring Malaysia – with Malaysia’s size, resources, and established government, it was believed that a merger with Malaysia would both prevent the spread of communism to Singapore and provide a route to economic development. The merger, which occurred in 1963, lasted only two years – racial tensions, along with disputes between the PAP and the ruling Malaysian political party, the United Malays National Organization (UNMO). As a result, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965.
A bleary eyed Lee Kuan Yew addressed his new, fully-independent nation, regarding the failed merger with Malaysia as a “moment of anguish”. The new nation had a tiny military, a weak economy, and no resources. Immediately, the PAP took action to remedy Singapore’s situation. Lee Kuan Yew reached out to the Israeli military – a nation who had survived for 20 years under similar circumstances – and asked them for guidance on how to build a first-rate military. In 1967, a national service program was implemented, and the military of Singapore gradually grew into a powerful one – even today, for its size, Singapore has a very powerful military.
Yew also recognized the need to purge corruption in his nation. He expanded the powers of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB),
Economically, Singapore was in desperate need of strength. The Jurong Industrial Estate was greatly expanded, and the Jurong Town Corporation was tasked with rapidly industrializing the area. In 1963, the Jurong area had 24 factories, but by 1968, the area had 153 factories, with an additional 46 under construction. Lee Kuan Yew also had the old British naval dockyard converted into a civilian port – this allowed for Singapore to exploit its geographically advantageous position in the Strait of Malacca, the main shipping corridor between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP also attempted to open up Singapore to foreign investment, as Yew promised investors stable macro-economic currency, budget surpluses, and a strong currency to address fears of volatility and instability.
Lee Kuan Yew’s government desired to both attract foreign investors, and turn Singapore into an entrepreneurial hub of its own right. 1972 saw the creation of Singapore Airlines – one of the most successful airlines in history – and Neptune Orient Lines, a maritime shipping corporation capable of exploiting Singapore’s natural geographic advantage. Lee Kuan Yew created a culture of self-reliance in Singapore, encouraging his own citizens to take the initiative with regards to business and trade. For instance, in 1971, Singapore created a currency market within their borders after the United States finally abolished the gold standard. As of April 2016, the Singapore Foreign Exchange Center is the third largest on Earth, seeing around $517 billion in daily trading volume.
Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP ensured that the gains brought on by Singapore’s rising status would be enjoyed by the population. Whereas the Economic Development Board (EDB) focused primarily on turning Singapore into a global business hub, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) efficiently utilized new revenues to benefit the people of Singapore. Tasked with combating the prevalence of slums and urban decay, the HDB built 150,000 housing units in the 1960s alone – primarily in high-rise towers which efficiently utilized Singapore’s limited land area. The HDB planned neighborhoods and towers with social stability in mind, ensuring that the cosmopolitan city-state would not segregate itself based upon race or income. Well-funded and administered by the determined Lim Kim San, today it is estimated that the HDB has provided public housing for roughly 80% of Singapore’s residents.
However, Lee Kuan Yew’s rule was also marked by the lack of Western democratic norms. Lee Kuan Yew ruled for three decades, and the People’s Action Party effectively ruled Singapore as a single-party government. The Singaporean legal code is often described as very harsh, and Singapore has one of the highest per-capita execution rates of any nation. Yew often cited the concept of “Asian Values” in justifying Singapore’s lack of democracy, stating that “democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries”, often because values held in Asian nations – namely collectivism – are fundamentally opposed to Western liberalism. Today, this concept is primarily visible in the People’s Republic of China, though other Asian nations also are ruled by non-democratic regimes.
Looking at raw data, it is evident that Lee Kuan Yew brought prosperity, stability, and strength to Singapore. Yes, Singapore was not a democratic state – but the people of Singapore never revolted for true democracy, and democracy would have certainly failed in Singapore in 1965. Instead, by putting competent individuals in positions of power and implementing technocratic ideals, Lee Kuan Yew asserted himself to be one of the most successful leaders in human history. While the Singapore model is certainly not a universal model of success, it is certainly a model which all global leaders must consider.