Long Live Lee Kuan Yew’s Lion City

Foreign Policy |

By Parag Khanna

Singapore's long time leader has passed, but his ideas will live on in the country he created.

Henry Kissinger called him one of the “asymmetries of history.” Margaret Thatcher said “he was never wrong.” Barack Obama called him “one of the legendary figures of Asia.” Tony Blair said he was “the smartest leader I ever met.” Samuel Huntington said he was one of the “master builders” of the 20th century.

What more can be said about Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, who passed away on March 23? Simple: He will be one of the most admired leaders of the 21st century as well.

Lee would surely regret not having survived just a few more months to witness Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations this August. But he can rest in peace knowing that the country he led from 1959 to 1990 is the world’s most successful post-colonial nation. Gulf monarchies are laden with bling but vulnerable to wars, coups, and falling oil prices. Africa needs another half-century to heal its colonial scars. India is only beginning to get its act together. Meanwhile, Singapore has grown from having a per capita GDP of $516 in 1965 to about $55,000 today.

Singapore long since stopped comparing itself to its post-colonial peers. It is at or near the top of global league tables of competitiveness, livability, innovation, and other metrics — more on par with Switzerland than Saudi Arabia. Recently, a Western journalist newly arrived in Singapore on assignment let out a slow whistle after a few weeks of imbibing the city’s seamless efficiency, its legendary cleanliness, and its blend of skyscrapers and beaches. “Modernity now begins in the East and flows west,” he mused to me over a drink. I have noticed the same over the past two years since locating myself in the de facto capital of Asia, a surprisingly liveable city — and one from which I can hop on a plane and reach 4 billion people within a four-hour flight radius. (Disclosure: I have been, but am not presently, a paid advisor to various Singaporean government agencies and companies.)

At the time of Singapore’s independence — first from the United Kingdom in 1963, and then from Malaysia in 1965 — there were few models for the system Lee eventually built. In the 1950s and ’60s, Lee traveled from Sri Lanka to Jamaica looking for success stories of former British colonies to emulate. Fortunately, he chose different models instead: He decided to study the Netherlands’ urban planning and land reclamation, and the oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell’s management structure and scenario-led strategy-making. Singapore, it is often joked, is the world’s best-run company. Lee is the reason why.

The Asian way is thought to consist of borrowing and bettering. Lee did a fair bit of that, such as adapting Israel’s military conscription. But he also oversaw original and innovative policies that spread from Singapore outwards: Electronic road pricing, a system to reduce congestion, is now used in London and Stockholm, while Estonia and South Korea have created their own versions of the SingPass digital identification and online services portal to access government data and services.

Singapore has one of the world’s highest ratios of millionaires per capita. While income inequality remains high, Singaporeans born in the bottom income quintile are nearly twice as likely as Americans to rise to the top income quintile. Columbia University economics professor Joseph Stiglitz made a splash in 2013 by writing about how the United States needs Singapore-style affordable public housing and a robust pension system.

Lee also made Singapore the second-safest large city in the world after Tokyo, as ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Law and order” has it backwards, according to Lee. Order first, then law. For Lee, of course, order meant both public safety and political predictability. Trained as a lawyer at Cambridge, Lee didn’t hesitate to intimidate would-be rivals who stepped into the political arena — authors, professors, journalists, lawyers, and other critics — making sure they wound up bankrupt, in jail, or both. While the Western media focused on draconian punishments for chewing gum and graffiti, Lee meted out worse to political opponents like Chee Soon Juan and J.B. Jeyaretnam.

Lee was stubborn, but not afraid to change course. From socialism to libertarianism, he flip-flopped pragmatically until the country found a model that works: a freewheeling nanny state. He believed that one cannot be afraid of contradictions in a complex world. “I always tried to be correct, not politically correct,” goes another of his memorable aphorisms.

Even if Lee found it hard to let go of power — first to Goh Chok Tong, who served as prime minister from 1990 to 2004, and then to Goh’s replacement (and Lee’s son), current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong — he would prefer the world focus on this system rather than himself. Indeed, it only mattered whether you think Lee was a strongman or a visionary (or both) while he was alive. Now the yardstick is not personality but institutions. Lee Kuan Yew-ism, not Lee Kuan Yew. This is why the 21st century belongs to him more than to icons of Western democracy like Thomas Jefferson or even Jean Monnet, the founding father of the European Union.

The 20th century was a world of rival great-power blocks, while the 21st century is one of hundreds of autonomous city-states and provinces. Approximately 150 countries have populations of less than 10 million people. For inspiration, their leaders look to Silicon Valley, Dubai, and Singapore, not Washington, Brussels, or Beijing.

China’s then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping famously launched the Shenzhen special economic zone after visiting Singapore in 1978, kicking off more than three decades of uninterrupted Chinese modernization. Since then, Singapore itself has been helping to build and govern many of these industrial clusters across China. Indian officials recruited Singapore to help realize Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign to build 100 “smart cities.” In this century of urbanization, the world’s two largest countries want to be sovereign collections of prosperous Singapore-like cities.

Then there is governance. Even without mocking the ad-hocery that Western governments have degenerated into, it is clear that the West could benefit from more technocracy and less of what passes for contemporary democracy. For that, too, Singapore had the solution: data-driven governance and a meritocratic civil service.

Singapore’s civil service is like a spiral staircase: On each rung, civil servants manage a different portfolio in a different agency, building a broad knowledge base and gaining firsthand experience. By contrast, American politics is like an elevator: One can get in on the bottom floor and go straight to the top, missing all the learning in between. Constant consultation with the population — before, during, and after elections — and measuring progress with key performance indicators are Singapore’s hallmarks. Policy, not politics.

Today, the country’s leadership is building an adaptive model I call the “info-state,” governed by a blend of data and democracy. The former is embodied in the country’s “smart nation” strategy, which puts every citizen service, from pensions to taxes, at one’s mobile fingertips.

The latter is a work in progress. In 2011, Lee the younger’s People’s Action Party nearly lost the popular vote, while retaining a majority in parliament. In 2016, voters may double down on the push for political diversity. Much is made of Singapore’s low rankings in “happiness” surveys. The truth is that Singaporeans are as happy as any other society — but they are never satisfied. As contradictory as their founding father, Singaporean youth are complaining perfectionists and ambitious slackers. Lee was a creative problem solver in a world that’s growing steadily more complex. The next generation of Singaporeans will need more like Lee — if the country is to remain as iconic as he was.

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