After Singapore patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, challenges for the Lion City

The government announced Lee Kuan Yew's passing. He left a giant imprint on his tiny nation, but how will Singapore climb out from his long shadow?

Joseph Nair/AP
Despite the rain, Singaporeans lined up outside Singapore General Hospital as the tiny nation's founder Lee Kuan Yew's health deteriorated, Sunday.

Rarely has the prefix "father of" been more applicable to a world leader than to Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean patriarch who imprinted his personality on a tiny island nation of 5 million people that roared out of poverty under his authoritarian rule. 

Lee was a man of contradictions. Born into an English-speaking Chinese family and known simply as "Harry Lee" until after WWII, he built a political base in multi-ethnic Singapore around Chinese language and ethnicity following the country's wrenching 1965 separation from the larger entity of Malaysia after race riots the previous year.

A staunch advocate for meritocracy who as Singapore's top student earned his law degree at Cambridge, his own family came to dominate the country. His son Lee Hsien Loong, known as BG Lee since he was named a brigadier general at the age of 32, became prime minister in 2004, a post he holds to this day. The younger Lee's wife runs Temasek Holdings, the country's sprawling $150 billion sovereign wealth fund. 

And while Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore Inc. on a foundation of wiping out the petty corruption that plagues so many business transactions across Asia, the political and financial behavior of Singapore's elite has rarely been transparent. And he had no patience for those who complained there couldn't be real transparency without democracy and a free press. Singapore needed to be built and such things would just get in the way.

A famously unsentimental man, he would laugh off complaints that the Singapore he'd built was "sterile" or "boring" or "charmless." After all, the Singapore it replaced – a colonial British port – was squalid and poor. Yes the old kampong and Chinese-style shop-houses had character, but the government's utilitarian public housing, block after block, put apartment ownership within reach of almost every Singaporean family.

At the time of independence, Singapore was still reeling from the Malay-Chinese race riots in 1964 that had left about 35 people dead. The island had been governed jointly with Malaya by the British, and independence in 1963 led to an uncomfortable forced marriage: Urban Singapore, about 70 percent ethnic Chinese, was yoked to Malaysia, a largely rural hinterland of Muslim Malays along with large Indian and Chinese minorities.

Lee always insisted he hadn't wanted to separate from Malaysia, but the deed having been done he set about restoring order and progress in Singapore with a stern, frequently paranoid hand. He'd already begun the process in 1963 by rounding up over 100 Singaporean opposition activists, including many members of parliament, and giving them long prison terms. Lee said they were communist agitators dedicated to violent revolution, but a message had been sent. 

After 1965, discussion of race tensions were censored out of public existence for decades, and electoral and residency rules were passed to make it impossible for ethnic-minority parties to flourish. Political groups that stood against Lee's People's Action Party (PAP) were quickly brought to heel: Libel lawsuits, bans on radio and television campaigning, and naked gerrymandering all served to cut the legs off the political opposition.

Prosperity, not democracy

But while no Jeffersonian democrat, Lee got results. Singapore's GDP per capita was $516 in 1965 and today it's $55,000. For comparison, US GDP per capita in 1965 was $3,800; now it's $53,000. Life expectancy has increased from 67 years to 82 years, making Singapore now the fourth longest-lived country in the world, behind Japan, Switzerland and San Marino.

Singapore's government-owned container port is the second busiest in the world, after Shanghai. The country has not only been economically transformed, but physically. Landfill has extended Singapore's territory into the surrounding equatorial sea. Beach Road, home to the famous Raffles Hotel, is no longer anywhere near the beach.

Lee's successful approach, a highly-managed capitalist economy coupled with a sort of benevolent authoritarianism, drew many admirers, particularly among single-party states and dictatorships. Long before China emerged as an alternative to liberal capitalism, Singapore was offered as a model for countries eager to improve their economic performance without giving up political control.

For a time Lee marketed the Singapore way as an expression of what he called "Asian values," and the country hosted delegations seeking to emulate the city-state's methods. No one has really succeeded. 

Top-down control has at times enabled Lee to impose rational solutions to problems that voters may not have opted for. Consider transportation policy. In the 1970s, traffic and pollution on the crowded island were surging, so Singapore introduced congestion pricing, which cut down traffic almost overnight. But by the late 1980s, traffic was again growing out of control, so the government came up with a simple system for limiting car-ownership: It would auction a fixed number of car permits every year.

The so-called "certificates of entitlement," most of which expire after 5 years, are a luxury for the rich and have put car-ownership out of reach of many Singaporeans. Recent auctions have seen them go for $70,000 a piece. Yet Singapore has plowed a lot of the proceeds of such sales into building one of the best public transit systems in the world. Today about 65 percent of Singaporean commuters take the bus or the train. Just across the Java sea in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, there are no restrictions on car-ownership – and residents are free to crawl along at 5 miles an hour during rush hour.

Identity and criticism

Lee's death comes at a time when Singapore is still struggling for a 21st century identity. He had been in ill-health for some time and his days of guiding Singaporean politics from behind the scenes, first in a post called "Senior Minister" after stepping down in 1990, and then as "Minister Mentor" when his son took power, are long over. 

Younger generations have been chafing at the restrictions on free expression for some time now - as many have have been angry at the widening gap between rich and poor and the soaring cost of living. There's a general feeling that the price of the "Singaporean dream" isn't worth it anymore among generations who grew up with neither the fear of grinding poverty, communist expansion in Asia, nor a return of the tumultuous race relations of the 1960s.

Finding a way to allow for creativity and innovation now falls to the younger Lee – or, perhaps, someone else if democracy ever truly takes hold there.

Gone are the days when chewing gum was subject to massive fines, and tourists arriving on the old hippie trial had their long hair shorn at the airport. Gone too is the ruthless example making that destroyed the lives of the few who dared to air dissident political views – or simply criticism of Lee himself. 

Consider the story of Chia Thye Poh, a member of parliament for Singapore's Socialist Front at the time of his arrest in 1966. He'd been protesting that Lee had circumvented parliament by signing the separation agreement with Malaysia. He spent the next 22 years in jail, mostly in solitary confinement, for his efforts. There was no trial.

Mr. Chia was released in 1989, after becoming the longest held prisoner of conscience in the world after Nelson Mandela. But Lee wasn't done yet. For the next four years Chia was required to live in a one-room shack on the resort island of Sentosa. Lee's government charged him rent.

Those kinds of heavy sticks have been mostly put away in Singapore. But they've left a legacy of rigidity and rules-following that the government worries stifles creativity and innovation. Lee Jr. has led campaigns aimed at persuading Singaporeans to lighten up and have more fun, all in the name of staying competitive for foreign investors in Asia. And he is usually very serious about it. 

Some years ago, I managed to get a Singaporean government spokesman on the phone to ask a rather simple question about interest-rate policy. "No comment! And that's off the record!" he shouted, and then hung up.

Now Singapore will see if that fear of Lee Kuan Yew's wrath, and the values he stood for, vanish with him.

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