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After more than 50 years of running Singapore, its octogenarian leader is stepping aside. Can the island nation stay prosperous and peaceful as democratic storms begin to blow?
It is impossible to write a political obituary of someone who not only hasn’t yet passed away, but whose influence will assuredly live on long after he passes from the scene. This is especially the case with Lee Kuan Yew: founding father, prime minister, and until this week, “minister mentor” of the world’s most admired city-state, Singapore.
Lee is finally stepping down from the cabinet position he created for himself, as is his successor Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who also served as a senior minister. Their departure, combined with the swearing-in of a raft of younger cabinet ministers after Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) took a severe blow in parliamentary elections this month, lowers the average age of the cabinet to a sprightly 53. But Lee, now 87, retains a seat in Parliament, not to mention the ear of his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister.
In 2000, Samuel Huntington praised Lee — who has officially or unofficially ruled Singapore for more than 50 years — as one of the “master builders of [the 20th] century,” but his influence could be even greater in the 21st. Singapore’s 20th-century legacy is that of being one of the few truly successful post-colonial nations. While Arab states crumble and the rest of surrounding Indochina struggles in the second world, Singapore skyrocketed From Third World to First, to borrow the title of one volume of Lee’s lengthy but instructive memoirs.
The ghosts of colonialism have long since vanished from Singapore. As we enter an urban age in which cities are agile islands of governance that often matter more than countries, Singapore is very much a 21st-century role model, unencumbered by unproductive territory or surplus mouths to feed. And at a time when big government is a four-letter word, Singapore continues to earn high praise for being run like a company (Lee purposely modeled agencies, the civil service, and incentive structures on Royal Dutch Shell). Its economic strategy reads like a business plan, and with the world’s highest salaries for government workers, it is also perennially rated the world’s least corrupt country.
Emerging markets around the world are searching for a new model in a post-Washington Consensus world. Some have suggested a “Beijing Consensus” of economic reform without political reform, given the Middle Kingdom’s spectacular rise to superpower status.
Yet it is in fact the Singapore Consensus, not the Beijing Consensus, that is likely to win the 21st-century competition over governance models. Unlike China, whose government has resources and rights at its disposal that no other state can match, Singapore’s ideology is non-ideology; it is pragmatism. Lee himself continues to receive constant visitors from China, Kazakhstan, and other emerging markets seeking both a role model and blessings as they attempt to master globalization the way Singapore has. Rising city-states like Abu Dhabi take their cues from Singapore, copying everything from the city’s farsighted urban planning to its adoption of e-government protocols. Likely none will ever achieve Singapore’s near-perfect degree of efficiency: No contemporary leader has either Lee’s self-discipline or his willingness to impose discipline.
Lee’s Singapore, in other words, is a technocrat’s dream. It is a mistake to call it a nanny state. It has a welfare system with national health insurance and low-cost education like Europe, but it does not encourage Greek-style laziness or Spanish-style profligacy. Instead, Singapore conditions good citizen behavior through incentive schemes aimed to keep people working in good times and bad. Unemployment is perennially low; almost everyone has something to do. It also encourages sustainable behavior through consumption taxes and congestion pricing for car owners. There is no better example of “nudging” than Singapore. (And yes, you are allowed to chew gum again — just don’t spit it out on the street.)
Some believe that Lee’s departure will take the edge off the PAP’s authority. After all, just look at the Middle East, where next-generation leaders are far softer than their fathers. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong doesn’t command the fear or respect of his father. Although PAP just suffered quite an electoral blow, with even Foreign Minister George Yeo losing his seat, the prime minister wasted little time in announcing humbly that there are important lessons and takeaways from the election to learn from. Even as the country becomes more internally democratic, Singapore is still ground zero for the great debate over what constitutes good governance in the 21st century. Singapore proves that you can have accountability without Western-style democracy, a perennially incumbent government that is nonetheless responsive to citizens’ concerns.
This is something the now-swaggering opposition parties must remember as they gain real influence in Parliament and policymaking. Under the slogan of “First World Parliament,” they capitalized on undercurrents of frustration about access to top-tier jobs and education, but now a body with three significant parties has to make sure it doesn’t come to look like the U.S. Congress. Singapore now has to achieve both democratic consensus and decisive action, and the former will only be appreciated if the latter is preserved.
Singapore also transcends orthodoxies by embodying what seems an oxymoron to free market purists: planned innovation. Like many small states, Singapore simply cannot afford to fail due to its tiny territory and rough neighborhood. It therefore uses Shell-like scenario planning to forecast global and regional trends and determine what sectors to invest most heavily in to capture future markets. On a recent visit to Singapore, I toured the Biopolis and A*Star laboratories, set up with government support over just a few years. Already they are attracting leading biologists and pharmaceutical talent from around the world to develop medicines and biomedical devices to sell into Asia’s growing markets. It doesn’t take Silicon Valley-style trial and error and organic experimentation to notice that China and Japan are aging rapidly and that there’s money to be made in selling health-care services to them. It takes foresight, of which Singapore has plenty. It may seem paradoxical for a place to be both Eastern and Western at the same time, but that is one important characteristic that poises Singapore to capitalize on emerging power shifts.
Lee’s great regret is the turbulent expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia in the first place, which he discusses in a manner similar to Vaclav Havel’s disappointment over the “Velvet Divorce” that separated the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. But his enduring concern is that his many efforts at social engineering have made a nation, but not yet a society. Ethnic Chinese continue to dominate, local Malays feel like an underclass, and Indians are squeezed in the middle. Lee has done much to force them to mingle in public places and attend mixed schools, but he cannot change their DNA. Like young Americans who have no recollection of Cold War brinksmanship and angst, young Singaporeans have no connection to the Singapore that struggled in the early decades to avoid getting embroiled in regional turbulence while building a world financial capital out of a swamp. They only know the highest standards of living and economic freedom. Spoiled? Perhaps. Because they have little direct experience with the Lee who brought them the benefits they now enjoy, they would only continue to respect Lee if he formally and symbolically stepped aside to avoid any more paternalistic aftertaste.
But as the octogenarian exits the stage, the challenge is how to inspire a new generation of public servants to advance the Singapore model rather than just materialism. Patriotism may no longer be Singapore’s goal, but rather a more postmodern concept suited to the increasingly multiethnic landscapes of the world’s leading cities: stakeholdership. Cosmopolitan capitals like New York, London, and Abu Dhabi don’t necessarily offer citizenship or even permanent residency to their many multinational residents. Instead, the real race is to offer a sense of belonging and opportunity; a new passport is not the key to loyalty. It is this individual buy-in that will engender what scholars Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit call “civicism” in their forthcoming book The Spirit of Cities. Rather than nationalism, it is civicism, or pride in one’s city, that is destined to become the dominant “ism” of the 21st century.
If the Singapore model takes root, it will not be a triumph of authoritarianism over democracy, but rather the recognition that there are aspects of public policy that can indeed be treated like a science. And it’s not just a regional model: Across most of Latin America, a “New Left Consensus” has emerged in which pro-investment and pro-poor policies are pursued, irrespective of election outcomes. There is sensible continuity despite political change. It is hard to contemplate a post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore; and certainly, now that he and his son are moving to the side, political life there will become more complicated, less predictable, and more democratic. What remains to be seen is if the virtues of democracy can deliver better results than Lee has in Singapore’s first half-century. I would continue to bet on LeeKuanYew-istan.
Correction, March 17, 2015: In a May 2000 interview with Singapore’s Business Times, Samuel Huntington said Lee Kuan Yew was one of the “master builders of this century.” An earlier version of this article mistakenly said, “Samuel Huntington famously praised Lee … as one of the most successful statesmen of the 20th century.”