Singapore Sacrifices Diversity to Growth

Strict rule transforms island from backwater to metropolis - but at a price, a letter from Singapore

TELOK AYER market is one of the few spicy holdouts in bland Singapore. On any given steamy night in this equatorial city-state, the colorful food vendors serve up lots of pungent dishes and piquant conversation.

One recent evening at this old Victorian market, where the strict government has herded street vendors, Telok Ayer wondered about the future without Lee Kuan Yew.

Well, not exactly without. Mr. Lee, Singapore's schoolmasterish dictator for 31 years, resigned as head of the government last month. But he stays on as senior Cabinet minister and head of the People's Action Party, a political monopoly holding 80 of 81 parliamentary seats.

``No one takes this seriously,'' says a Chinese woman, pointing to a government poster urging the use of Mandarin Chinese. ``This government has gone too far. My children don't even know Mandarin.'' Singapore's population is a mixture of Chinese, Indians, Malays with English, Chinese, Tamil, and Malay all commonly spoken.

``This government has been too strict,'' says an Indian 'emigr'e as he serves up tumblers of coffee. ``But will it change? Maybe.''

Running Singapore as a personal fiefdom, Lee made this island state one of Asia's most prosperous nations. When he took over in 1959, Singapore was a shabby colonial backwater overshadowed by widespread unemployment, squalor, and ethnic strife.

Today, the dramatic skyline, glittering airport, top-notch schools, tidy streets, and sleek subway signal that, economically, Singapore's 2.7 million people have arrived. The telephones work, civic sense abounds, and efficiency rules.

Westerners flock here for shopping and respite from the intensity and chaos of most of Asia. Many other Asians wish their countries had a bit of Singapore's prosperity and discipline.

``Why can't we do this?'' asks an Indian admirer, as he sat at one of the tidy tables set among the food stalls of Telok Ayer.

But as some Singaporeans are starting to admit, the price has been high. To forge a ``rugged society,'' Lee commanded absolute political control. Opponents were muzzled. Suspected subversives were detained indefinitely. Human rights abuses, international monitoring organizations say, were routine.

More stunning was his no-nonsense, puritanical social regime. No jaywalking, littering, or spitting. Flush the public toilet or get fined. Campaigns like that chiding people for overeating in restaurants were frequent.

In a polyglot society made up of a Chinese majority and sizable Indian and Malay minorities, Singapore's ethnic color dissolved in a wave of conformity. ``We decide what is right,'' goes a well-known Leeism. ``Never mind what the people think.''

Well, the people are hoping that, while Lee remains in power on the sidelines, his personality cult is over. No one expects dramatic change. The successor, newly sworn-in Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, is hand-picked and cut from the Lee cloth.

He has presided over the recent campaign against the Western press in which the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Asian Wall Street Journal have, in effect, been driven out of Singapore.

After taking over last month, Mr. Goh admitted he was keeping the seat warm for Lee's son, Lee Hsien Loong.

Goh also has recognized, however, the need to bring ``more compassion and graciousness'' to society. Indeed, that realization had already begun to sink in during the last few years.

Second generation Singaporeans, bored and stunted by the country's social severity, have been voting with their feet and leaving in droves for Australia and the West. In 1988, 4,700 families left the colony of 2.6 million people.

Even the Speak Mandarin campaign was an admission, in the government's own heavy-handed way, that Singapore is losing its rich ethnic heritage.

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