It is run like a corporation. So they call it "Singapore Inc." The chief executive officer, Lee Kuan Yew, has the title of prime minister. The board of directors is composed of 10 members called ministers. Mr. Lee's administration has been efficient and scrupulously honest. The result in terms of growth and development -- spectacular.
During the 20 years Mr. Lee has been prime minister, Singapore has changed from a traditional Chinese town into a city of skyscrapers and carefully manicured lawns and gardens. Sixty-four percent of the population of 2.3 million now lives in public housing. Tourism, once unknown, florishes. Industries have sprung up like mushrooms after a downpour. The port is one of the largest in the world.
In 1979, gross domestic product was up 9.3 percent, compared with 2 percent for the United States and an average of 3.25 percent for the industrialized members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The main thrust came from manufacturing, transport, and trade. Inflation is 4 percent; unemployment, insignificant.
How was it done? By combining efficiency and honesty with ruthlessness. The government controls everything and intervenes everywhere. "It's like a partner, " an industrialist said. "They want to know what you are doing." Another put it this way: "Mr. Lee is like a daddy. He is anxious about his children, and industries are his children."
Mr. Lee is not the kind of a person to take "no" for an answer. Violations are punished by murderous fines, imprisonment, and caning. The prime minister's People's Action Party manages to win regularly all seats to Parliament, despite there being other parties. An American insists that elections are fair. "Nothing succeeds like success," he said, "and Mr. Lee is being very successful."
There is a lot of grumbling around Singapore. People complain about the way the prime minister does things, but there is little objection over the substance. The more important newspapers are in English. Their foreign coverage is excellent; on internal matters they avoid trouble by exercising self-censorship.
According to official figures there are 34 political prisoners. They were sentenced for advocating the violent overthrow of the government. When they promise to abide by the rules, they are set free.
Mr. Lee attributes his country's success to two main elements:
1. Its society is cohesive. Class divisions, though they exist, carry no stigma and do not hinder free mobility up or down the socioeconomic ladder. Talented children of all classes make their full contribution to national progress.
2. Workers in trade unions are not locked into antagonism against management or the establishment.
"Singapore's society, is young and supple," Mr. Lee stated. "It is not homogeneous; but like other immigrant societies, such as America, it has no sharp class divisions. . . . We have the rare opportunity to mold and shape our society into a harmonious whole."
The country is small, hence manageable. Continued advancement is creating a basis for confidence.People also remember the time, not long ago, when Malaysia's Muslims were waiting for this predominantly Chinese city to go under.
Unlike most other countries of Southeast Asia, Singapore has no xenophobic hangover from colonialism. As a consequence, the island has never suffered from any inhibitions in borrowing capital, know-how, managers, engineers, and marketing capabilities. There are some 12,000 foreign managers, engineers, and technicians here, or 20 percent of the total work force in these categories. They and their enterprise in manufacturing, services, and commerce help to employ about 30 percent of the total work force. Out of 462 export-oriented industries established between 1960 and 1978, 253 were wholly foreign, 159 joint ventures, and only 50 wholly Singaporean.
Having examined the performance of socialist planning in a number of countries, Mr. Lee opted for free enterprise in a free market economy. Older factories whose products had a high labor content were moved out of the country. The government is doing everything to encourage and facilitate the shift to higher value-added, skill- and technology-intensive industries.
Said Goh Chok Tong, minister for trade and industry: "Free and open competition guarantees us against inefficiencies. . . . We will not protect our industries and local businessmen through state subsidies or the erection of tariff walls. Our industries and local businessmen must compete with the best in the world. They will thus become equal to the best. They must. Our market is the world, not Singapore."
The government has decided that over the next three or four years wages will be increased by 20 percent yearly. The objective is to give notice to employers that wages will be used as a policy instrument to upgrade the economy, to compel more efficient use of the island's scarce, valuable manpower, and to spur investments in high- value, high-productivity industries. The aim is to become another Japan.
Situated in one of the most troubled parts of the world, Singapore views with grave concern the spread of Soviet influence. The Vietnamese invasion of Laos and Cambodia, Indira Gandhi's pro-Moscow leanings in India, and the invasion of Afghanistan cause the gravest concern. Foreign Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam has repeatedly called for Japan, the United States, and Western Europe to face up to what he warns is approaching: a "Soviet century." He told some Japanese that the Soviets have "won the first cold war, and the question is now whether the US, Western Europe, and Japan will provide coherent leadership to the free world in the second world war."
Singaporeans are particularly disconcerted about the US. They feel it no longer has the will to lead, to defend the noncommunist world. An official said Singapore is an "anxious friend" of the US: "We would like to tell the Americans , 'Do not abdicate. The whole of Southeast Asia is with you. Do not blind yourself to the larger concerns. Show once again that you have a political will.'"
The official said he felt that Washington's human-rights campaign only serves to give confused signals: "You seem to find more faults with your friends and allies than with the communists. Accept the world as it is. Differences of ideals should not affect the common interests. While the communists trample on human rights, you divide friends and allies. You influence can be effective, if discreet. The way the campaign was conducted initially left a very bad taste. Be careful about national sensitivities. Do not give the impression of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries."
For the past 20 years, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has given Singapore an intransigent and authoritarian leadership that has been almost universally accepted because the results were remarkable.
The problem is, after Mr. Lee, what? So rapid an economic development cannot go without social changes that will affect a traditional society like the Chinese. For now, problems have been shoved under the rug, but in the long run they are sure to emerge. Nothing is done to prepare the succession. Singaporeans are largely happy with the present, but anxious about the future.