23 October 2018
The national flag flies at half-mast over Singapore. Photo: Reuters/Facebook
The national flag flies at half-mast over Singapore. Photo: Reuters/Facebook

Why Singapore will be fine without Lee Kuan Yew

The death of modern Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew on Monday immediately raised the question whether the city state can maintain its fast growth, rule of law and stability without him.

During the first decade of Lee’s political career (1955-1965), his first major challenge was race relations, which had deteriorated quickly as the British colonizers were about to retreat, leaving behind a power vacuum.

The competition among the Malays, Chinese and Indians for leadership in the postcolonial era had become so intense that it led to a series of race-related clashes.

There was very little room for rational dialogue among the different ethnic groups to find common ground.

The next major problem facing him was nation-building.

During the 1950s, anti-colonial movements and wars of independence took Southeast Asia by storm, and large-scale American military intervention to contain the rise of communism in the region appeared imminent.

After the Bandung Conference in 1954, Lee Kuan Yew found himself and Singapore caught between a leftist Indonesia and a rightist Malaysia.

Within Singapore, the Malayan Communist Party and other leftist factions were ready for action, too.

The future of Singapore as a nation seemed to hang in the balance.

In 1965, when Singapore was expelled from Malaysia, 4 fundamental questions faced Lee:

1. Is Singapore going to be a communist country?

2. Is Singapore going to be a predominantly Chinese country?

3. Is Singapore going to be a racially equal country?

4. Is Singapore going to inherit the liberal capitalist economy from the British colonial government?

The margin for error in dealing with these problems was very narrow. Any wrong decision could be a matter of life and death for the young nation.

For the first question, since the Malayan Communist Party had antagonized the Malaysian authorities so deeply that the country would not tolerate a communist regime on its doorstep, Lee Kuan Yew was determined that communism was not an option.

When Lee was studying at Cambridge University, he learned about the ideals of Fabian socialism and had a first-hand experience of how Britain’s Labour Party government promoted socialism to alleviate the social conflicts arising from capitalism.

Lee therefore put forward the idea of “democratic socialism”, under which, politically, Singapore would practice a British-style parliamentary system while, in the economic sphere, the government would set up state-run enterprises to control the commanding heights of the national economy.

This was to prevent any potential hegemony of large private companies, so that the wealth gap could be kept under control.

For the second question, when Britain set up the Malayan Union, the predecessor to the Federation of Malaya, after World War II, the Malays opposed the membership of Singapore for fear that they would be dominated by the ethnic Chinese, who were a minority in Malaya but made up three-quarters of the population of Singapore. 

Given that bitter lesson, Lee was determined to create a racially equal society and not to give the ethnic Chinese any unfair advantage.

He not only treated the ethnic minorities in Singapore with extreme care but also painstakingly curbed Chinese dominance, to avoid racial tensions.

Lee went to great lengths to eradicate any possible impression that the ethnic Chinese were given any preferential treatment, and took steps to desinicize schools that taught in the Chinese language.

Although Singapore is a bilingual society, to this day English is more commonly used among ethnic Chinese than their mother tongue.

One of the toughest challenges Lee faced when Singapore was still part of Malaysia was race relations between the Malays and the ethnic Chinese.

In his continued effort to fight for equal rights for the ethnic Chinese, Lee hit a raw nerve among the Malays — who believed they should enjoy extra privileges as bumiputra, or “sons of the land” — thereby intensifying the conflict between the two ethnic groups.

Race relations were a highly sensitive issue in Malaysia, and Lee learned it the hard way.

So as not to repeat that mistake, Lee was very mindful of the rights of Singapore’s Malays, even though they make up only 14 percent of the population.

For the final question, Lee studied the models of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, where the welfare state had turned out to be effective in improving people’s livelihoods and facilitating social harmony.

He believed their successful experience could apply to Singapore as well, and history has proven that he was right.

Lee is gone, but his legacy lives on.

Today, Singapore is a well-established country with strong economic foundations and an effective social and political system that has stood the test of time.

Singapore is sad to lose Lee, but the country can afford to lose him, because what he left behind is a highly developed nation where things run on the right track and on schedule.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 24. [Chinese version 中文版]

Translation by Alan Lee

– Contact us at [email protected]


Former head of Department of Government and Public Administration, the Chinese University of Hong Kong

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