Any expatriate who has lived in Singapore over the past 15 years (as I have) knows how spoiled they can get by its efficiency, security, and the ease with which everything seems to work. Whether the traffic, subway, airport, pedestrian movement, malls, or construction projects - they all seem to function effortlessly, and with incredible grace, making Singapore the envy of just about any other place in the world. A big part of the reason for this is the effective manner in which the government operates, much of which is due to the legacy of modern Singapore’s Founder, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY).
Say what you will about the type of democracy LKY created, and nurtured, after stepping down as Prime Minister in 1990, the net result is an economic miracle unrivaled in Southeast Asia that has punched way above its weight for decades. It has done so for several reasons - including its ability to constantly adapt to regional and global economic realities, by expanding its physical size, by encouraging foreigners to live and work there, but also by maintaining a diplomatic presence on the global stage that has made it a ‘player,’ in its own way.
When LKY assumed office in 1959, Singapore had fewer than 2 million inhabitants. Today, it is approaching 6 million, many of whom are foreigners, who have helped make the country a regional financial and technology powerhouse, but who have also produced much of the hard labor that was essential to achieving Singapore’s incredible growth. In 1960, Singapore’s GDP was less than $1 billion; in 2014 it was just under $300 billion. In 1960, the country’s GDP per capita was $427 per person; in 2013 is was over $55,000 per person. By any measure, this is an astonishing success story.
Many people have criticized Singapore’s political system, characterizing it as a ‘one party state’ masquerading as a democracy. They note the restrictions on freedom of speech, the severe penalties for criticizing the government or its officials, the latent or overt discrimination of Malay and Indian minorities, and the overly paternalistic nature of the ‘nanny’ state. Depending on your vantage point - as a Singaporean, expat, minority or overseas foreign worker - some or much of this will ring true, or simply not be perceived as relevant or necessarily important. It is all part of the Singapore story.
What is certainly true, however, is that LKY and his People’s Action Party have consistently delivered the goods - in a big way. If you ask me, I don’t particularly care if a government has a small “D” in its ‘democracy,’ or whether it listens to my phone calls, or makes laws against jaywalking and chewing gum. Many such laws are not enforceable in the first place and don’t matter.
What matters to me is whether I can live in a place that is safe, clean, efficient, and gets the job done. On that score, Singapore’s government gets an A+. Having moved from Singapore to Manila, I can tell you, I missed much about Singapore for a long time. Even today, having been back in the States for 8 years, I wish much of what works so well in Singapore could be transported to the U.S. We could learn a lot from ‘the Singapore way.’
So, if you ask me what LKY’s legacy is, I would say it is a textbook case about how to make something really meaningful out of very little — how to transform a tiny island nation into an economic goliath. How to create a safe haven in a region filled with churning waters. And how to constantly evolve in order to survive and thrive.
This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.