A look at Lee Kuan Yew and the 'malaria-infested backwater' myth

Singapore made incredible strides under Mr. Lee, who was laid to rest today. But it was also well ahead of many of its Asian peers at independence.

Jeanette Tan/AP
Standing in a downpour, Singaporeans embrace as they watch the carriage carrying the coffin of Lee Kuan Yew pass during the funeral procession, Sunday, at the Padang parade grounds and City Hall in Singapore. Tens of thousands of Singaporeans undeterred by heavy rains lined a 9 mile route through the Southeast Asian city-state to witness an elaborate funeral procession Sunday for longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew, who died on March 23 at 91.

Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew was laid to rest today amid pomp and an almost unprecedented outpouring of grief in the city-state he helped turn into an economic powerhouse.

About 10 percent of the population have filtered through Parliament House where he's been laying in state for the past four days - many waiting for 5 hours and more - and attendees at his funeral today included Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton, as well as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

Singapore's accomplishments under his leadership were deep and lasting. As I wrote the day he passed:

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.

But Singapore's financial success has also been overstated, at least in the sense that its relatively-privileged position at the time of full independence in 1965 has often been either ignored - or completely misstated.

Take Reuters' obituary on Mr. Lee, which said that he had overseen "the island's transformation from a malaria-infested backwater." No, he didn't. Not to take anything away from Lee and Singapore's accomplishments, but there's been a lot of mythmaking around Singapore's success. The iron-fisted, development above-all-else else approach that Lee crafted helped guide Singapore to the heights. But it was already a good way up the hill when he started, as Cornell's Tom Pepinsky pointed out last week (the graphs in that post are worth the click.)

At independence, Singapore was already a middle income country, thanks to its thriving port, legacy of transparent and predictable law under the British, and position on the Straits of Malacca, surrounded by commodity producing giants like Malaysia and Indonesia and manufacturing giants like Japan, South Korea, and not too long after, China.

GDP per capita in 1965 dwarfed that of Indonesia and China, and was far ahead of Malaysia, with which Singapore was joined for its first two years of independence. By the early 1970s, Singapore was already ahead of the UK in per capita GDP. As Mr. Pepinsky writes: "That Singapore has progressed tremendously since independence is true, but not a story of turning the “Third World” into the first. If anything, it is a story of how to escape the middle income trap." (From Third World to First: The Singapore Story is the title of Lee's memoirs).

This British government promotional video of Singapore in 1957, though not the whole truth, speaks to the "Malaria-infested backwater" myth.

Or take this piece in The Economist last week, which begins: "When it started life as an independent, separate country in 1965, Singapore’s prospects did not look good. Tiny and underdeveloped, it had no natural resources and a population of relatively recent immigrants with little shared history."

Natural resources? The history of Asia since WWII is that there's little correlation between natural blessings and economic success. Indonesia, blessed with oil, gas, gold, timber, coal and copper, has lagged. Resource rich Myanmar has likewise suffered. Meanwhile the economies that have vaulted into the ranks of the global heavyweights - Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore among them - were all resource-poor. Sure, the tiny Sultanate of Brunei is rich - a monarchy with 400,000 people that has oil coming out of its ears - but it is an exception that proves the rule. 

Make no mistake. Singapore and Lee's accomplishments were tremendous for such a tiny country. And while his personality remains stamped on the city, his rule wasn't personalized. His legacy is one of efficient institutions that have steered Singapore to some of its greatest economic successes since he stepped back from day-to-day involvement in political affairs in 2004.

Some of his legacies aren't exactly positive.

His political ruthlessness was also spoken of with affection at his funeral, His protege Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee as prime minister until his son Lee Hsein Loong was deemed seasoned enough to take the reins, approvingly spoke of how "to those he believed were out to destroy Singapore, he put on his knuckle-dusters" in his eulogy.

For much of his political career there was little distance between "out to destroy Singapore" and "disagrees with Lee." The task going forward will be whether the tight control on political competition that has served Singapore for 5 decades can be replaced with something approaching a real democracy.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.