Small island, big legacy

The success of Singapore’s founder, who died this week, challenges Western political axioms and carries implications for a turbulent Middle East.

March 26, 2015 20:03

TOURISTS TAKE pictures next to the Merlion statue in the central business district of Singapore, last month.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In what was apparently history’s only land-for-nothing deal, Malaysia trimmed what it saw as a geographic toenail, social liability and political hump.

Half-a-century on, that toenail – the equatorial island nation of Singapore – is a financial powerhouse, urban gem, social paradise and autocratic inspiration that calls into question Western political axioms, including attitudes toward the Middle East.

Under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, who died this week at 91, Singapore grew from a remote British colony famous for its cobras, lizards and monkeys into a global commercial nexus. Sitting atop $250 billion in foreign currency reserves, Singapore now boasts the world’s eighth-highest per-capita GDP – which at $55,000, is higher than those of the US, Canada and the Netherlands; and more than five times that of its former sovereign, Malaysia.

The city-state that is among the world’s cleanest, greenest and most efficient metropolises, with handsome tree-lined streets, broad parks and smooth public transportation connecting clusters of office towers and residential high-rises, is now populated with 5.6 million people who crowd an area smaller than half of Lebanon.

All this would not have happened but for neighboring Malaysia’s suspicion of Lee’s Chinese ethnicity and constituency, which made the Muslim nation’s leaders disown Singapore in 1965. That is how Lee found himself on an island with fewer than 2 million people, alone between the giant nations and vast seas that he would brave by creating from scratch an economy, a state, an army and a nation.

Inspired by Israel’s braving of its own small size, social diversity, mineral poverty and unwelcoming neighbors, Lee forged close ties with the Jewish state – which reportedly trained, armed and advised his security forces.

At the same time, Lee realized his small and poor country had one asset: location. Straddling a natural harbor between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, Singapore needed a modern deep-water harbor in order to become a linchpin of global commerce. Lee delivered this, cultivating his port both as a point of passage and as a storage destination. The result is the busiest transshipment hub in the world, where one in five of the world’s seaborne containers, and one in two oil containers, pass annually.

Though beset by its position as a non-Muslim island between the Muslim giants of Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore’s army never had to fight a war, and its security forces faced little more than infrequent and limited social unrest. Lee could therefore afford to invest in luring the foreign money, with which he developed industry while keeping taxes low and regulation simple.

Meanwhile, the island’s maritime traffic allowed Singapore, though lacking its own oil, to develop the world’s third-largest refineries; its minimal regulation and reliable courts attracted a vast financial sector that now comprises some 110 banks. Industrially, what began with labor-intensive, low-tech assembly lines has morphed into sophisticated petrochemical, engineering, pharmaceutical and electronic conglomerates.

Within two generations, the average Singaporean’s purchasing power has soared from less than half to 120 percent of the average American’s. While spearheading this economic drive and leaving behind him a fully employed society, Lee bred a political species that defied classification – a strange combination of incorruptible autocracy and compassionate capitalism.

A CAMBRIDGE-TRAINED lawyer, Lee knew Western freedom intimately even though he was born and raised in Singapore, where his family had lived for three generations.

At the same time, Lee got a close look at capitalism’s downside when he represented workers in labor disputes while Singapore was still a British dependency. Though his initial alliances with Communists later ended in total estrangement, Lee lacked hardcore capitalists’ disdain for social spending, and resolved to deliver cheap and quality education and healthcare.

Financed by an automatic deduction from any salary – much like Israel’s, only nearly twice as high – Singapore’s healthcare system is among the world’s best, priding itself on the lowest infant mortality rate in the world. The education system, which gets 20% of the national budget – as opposed to Israel 14% – is also among the world’s best.

While delivering all this opportunity and prosperity, Singapore’s leader nurtured a one-party system, jailed opponents, disciplined the media and, quoting Machiavelli’s The Prince, said plainly that he preferred to be feared than loved. “If nobody is afraid of me, I am meaningless,” he maintained.

Walking their streets, Singaporeans had no reason to fear a secret police that would arbitrarily snatch and jail them; yet if they were caught, for instance, spraying graffiti on a train car, they faced imprisonment as well as several whacks of the cane.

Western powers had known authoritarian leaders of many stripes, and when geopolitics demanded it, they readily bribed them. Lee, however, turned down a 1965 US Central Intelligence Agency offer to line his pockets with several million dollars, stating: “You do not buy or sell this government.”

Driven by the Confucian idealization of the public good, he really cared for his country more than he did for himself.

This week, as thousands of citizens, some weeping, followed his coffin to parliament where his body lays in state this weekend, it was clear that Lee Kuan Yew did more than transform a marginal colonial outpost into the rich and grateful society that is now led by his son.

Lee created a new political model, one that in terms of its appeal elsewhere is on par with Communism after World War II, and capitalism after the fall of Communism.

The first to be inspired by Lee’s model of authoritarian capitalism was China.

Having developed a personal friendship with Deng Xiaoping, who undid Mao’s economic legacy and unleashed China’s industrial revolution, Lee visited China more than 30 times and became an oracle for its leaders, who sent thousands of bureaucrats to his island in order to study his revolution.

China’s success in emulating Lee’s model is inconsistent. On the one hand, it has industrialized, but on the other, its government is often corrupt – which China’s own leaders openly admit, while seeking ways to emulate Lee’s accomplishments on this front as well.

This discrepancy makes some conclude that Lee’s success was made possible by the small size and seclusion of his fiefdom. Though ethnically diverse, with Tamils, Malays and Sikhs alongside a 75% Chinese majority, Lee arguably managed to create a functioning society and to discipline its government because Singapore is compact.

Even so, Lee’s authoritarian capitalism has been taken to gigantic China and is now being effectively emulated in other large countries, most notably Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Myanmar. This is also where Turkey seems headed, and where Iran and Egypt will arrive if it is up to their current presidents.

It is also where Syrian President Bashar Assad at one point seemed headed, when he opened a stock market and relaxed some banking regulation.

Obviously, like Communism and capitalism, Lee’s model is being perverted. Karl Marx didn’t plan gulags, Adam Smith didn’t plan subprime and Lee didn’t plan the majority’s bullying of the minority, as Turkey does to its Kurds; or the minority’s oppression of the majority, as Assad did to the Sunnis before they turned on him.

Lee gave the minorities and the majority a real social contract and truly equal opportunity to advance, and imposed on all of them a non-native language, English, as a new society’s main tongue. Lee was also a great believer in and engine of international harmony, first by endearing capitalism to Chinese leaders, then by interpreting China to Western leaders. Embracing his model while bullying neighbors the way, for instance, Russia and Iran do, was not in Lee’s manual and will doubtfully work as their leaders tinker with his model.

Still, even in versions much less wise than Lee’s, authoritarian capitalism is not only here to stay, but on the rise. As such, it challenges Western thinking on two levels: the theoretical and the diplomatic.

On the theoretical level, the self-righteousness with which Western statesmanship emerged from its victory over Communism has been dented. Plagued since then with its own ailments, democratic capitalism is now more difficult to preach as universally urgent and workable.

On the diplomatic level, America’s confusion of its democratic convictions with its strategic interests, first in Iraq and then in Egypt, will have to give way to a new pragmatism inspired by Lee’s legacy.

Such humility will rest on two pillars: First, that locals know more about themselves than foreigners; and second, that autocrats are not necessarily wicked.

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