The Strongman of Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew built a gleaming metropolis out of an ex-colonial backwater -- but it wasn't pretty.


Five years ago, Lee Kuan Yew reflected on how he would be remembered. “I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.” He added, “Close the coffin, then decide.”

That day has come. On Monday, March 23, local time, the 91-year old founder of modern Singapore was pronounced dead. Singaporeans will now mourn their first prime minister, who led them from 1959 until his retirement in 1990, and remained a prominent voice on the city-state’s affairs and international politics for another two decades.

He will be remembered as the father of his country, a political street fighter who cut his teeth in the struggle against colonialism. Some will recall an unapologetic taskmaster — a leader more respected than loved — whose pragmatism lifted a Southeast Asian backwater into a sleek metropolis and global business hub. Others will recall the politically incorrect pundit who became an outspoken champion of “Asian values” and a sharp critic of American-style democracy. Each is correct, and captures part of the man. But to these remembrances one more should be added: Lee was the most successful dictator of the 20th century.

It’s a verdict that will please almost no one. For his admirers, he is a singular historic figure, not an autocratic strongman like those who eventually lorded over other former colonial outposts. He may not have been a Jeffersonian democrat, they say, but he was no dictator. On the other end of the spectrum, dissidents and democrats will take umbrage at the notion of an illiberal, authoritarian leader being remembered fondly at all. Still, Lee was one of the most universally celebrated statesmen of the last 50 years. American presidents, British prime ministers, apparatchiks from the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and European officials all lined up to heap praise on the leader of this authoritarian duchy.

In polite company, it’s generally preferred to refer to Lee as a “soft” authoritarian — although it doesn’t feel that soft butting heads with a man who leaves you destitute, imprisoned, or beaten with a cane. Leaving aside his political opponents, I am hardly the first person to use the “d-word.” The late New York Times columnist William Safire called Lee the “world’s most intelligent, and to some most likeable, despot.” In a now famous exchange at Davos in 1999, Safire sparred with Lee, criticizing his suppression of the political opposition and trampling of the press. In response to Safire’s charges, the then-senior minister replied, “Do I need to be a dictator when I can win, hands down?”

He had a point. Asia may have its share of “tiger economies” and turnaround stories, but Singapore’s economic miracle is perhaps the most miraculous. In a small, speck of a country cast off from Malaysia in 1965, without natural resources or a common unifying culture, Lee accomplished more in a generation than anyone thought possible. In that year, Singapore’s per capita GDP stood at roughly $500. Today, it is more than $55,000, significantly greater than most nations (including its former British colonizer). When Lee retired from office in 1990, Singapore had some of the world’s busiest shipyards, cleanest streets, top schools, lowest taxes, best healthcare, and most efficient public services. The so-called “little red dot” had become one of the world’s most livable cities, a magnet for skilled foreign workers and the multinational corporations who hire them.

But the miracle wasn’t without its price. Lee kept his political project on a tight leash, dampening free speech, muzzling his critics, and squashing political opposition before it could take root. The ruling People’s Action Party is rightly considered synonymous with the government because it has won every election since 1959. Singapore didn’t have a single opposition leader in office until 1981, and until 2011 there have never been more than four opposition members serving in the parliament at one time. On one hand, Lee’s political machine was unquestionably effective at delivering results for Singapore. In most years, it’d be hard for any political party anywhere to compete against PAP’s record of accomplishment. That said, when it came to ensuring their political future, Lee and his cohort were incredibly gifted at putting their finger on the scale.

Lee’s preferred cudgel was the law itself. Singaporean authorities are notorious for bringing defamation suits to silence political opponents. In 2001, Lee and his successor, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, brought a defamation suit against opposition leader and democracy activist Chee Soon Juan, when Chee questioned the circumstances surrounding a $10 billion loan given to the Indonesian government. Chee has been arrested and jailed many times for delivering speeches or holding public demonstrations. When the target is an opposition figure, the goal is typically to bankrupt them, at which point they are prohibited by law from running for office. In 2014, Lee Hsien Loong, Lee’s son and the current prime minister, sued a blogger for defamation, even after he apologized for the offending post — the first time the government had brought a suit against an online critic. A slew of foreign news organizations — including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and The Economist — have either been sued, or settled out of court for defaming Lee’s family. The margin for any measure of criticism in Singapore is remarkably thin. Public speeches are prohibited outside of election season, and words deemed too pointed during political campaigns can land someone in the docket. The PAP’s use of gerrymandering is far more sophisticated than anything anyone ever witnessed in the American South, and those constituencies that have supported candidates not running on the PAP ticket claim to have paid a price with postponed public works or infrastructure projects.

Why did Lee succeed where so many other modern authoritarians failed? Most importantly, his accomplishments were real. Singaporeans saw their quality of life improve year after year. Political scientists marvel at the CCP’s “performance legitimacy,” but Lee’s Singapore was the gold standard. (Indeed, the CCP has been sending its officials to study the city-state’s methods for decades, importing whatever they think might work back home.) Suharto may have also delivered eye-popping economic growth over three decades, but Lee’s government did it without the endemic graft and corruption that led to the Indonesian strongman’s downfall.

From the beginning, PAP positioned itself as a clean hands party — hence, the early choice to dress in white — and has stayed doggedly true to that purpose: Singapore consistently ranks as one of the most transparent, competitive, and easiest places to do business. Singapore’s top ministers earn six- or seven-figure salaries because Lee knew he had to pay for talent, and if you are running a centralized state with little political turnover, it’s all the more important to try to model your government on a meritocracy. Frankly, the Singaporean officials I’ve interviewed over the years — from the foreign ministry, home affairs ministry, and economic fields — could run circles around many of their U.S. counterparts.

Nor was Lee’s Singapore clouded by ideology. There are no Potemkin Villages or grand acts of delusion as one sees so often in aging authoritarian states (as we are reminded by Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela). If there was a guiding philosophy, it was a relentless pragmatism, an insistence on doing what worked and then moving on to the next pressing thing. It was, perhaps paradoxically, a strength born from the country’s vulnerability: Such a small state in such a volatile neighborhood with so little margin for error couldn’t afford any doctrines besides a cool-eyed realism.

Still, Lee probably lived long enough to witness the first small cracks in the political system he built. In 2011, the opposition won six seats in the 87-seat parliament. It was the slightest of openings, but it was three times the number of seats they had held before. And while the party captured 60 percent of the popular vote, its popularity is on the decline; it was 67 in 2006, down from 75 percent in 2001.

Part of the trouble is that young Singaporeans no longer feel as indebted to the ruling party. Those born after 1965 don’t have a full appreciation of the miracle that Lee worked. They were born into a Singapore that punches far above its weight, and they can’t imagine it any other way. They are, instead, concerned about rising prices, housing costs, and immigration — indeed, many of the same things as voters anywhere else. The only difference is that they are only now growing accustomed to the idea that they could vote for someone else.

In 1988, two years before he retired as prime minister, Lee said, “Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is wrong, I’ll get up.” Of course, that’s not how it works. Singaporeans must arrive at their own verdict, and move on.

Photo Credit: Michael Stroud / Stringer

Correction, March 22, 2015: Lee Kuan Yew died at 3:18 a.m. Singapore time on Monday, March 23. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said his death was announced on Sunday, March 22, which was the date in the United States at the time.

William J. Dobson is Slate’s Washington Bureau Chief, and the author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.