Death of a great leader 3

On March 23, 2015, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s Prime Minister from 1959 t0 1990 and leader to his last day, died at the age of 91. The city-state he founded is in its 50th year of independence, a prosperous model of economic freedom to all the world.

lky   

Singapore was under British sovereignty from 1826 to 1963 (but was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War). In 1959 it became self-governing, and Lee Kuan Yew, leader of the People’s Action Party (PAP), became prime minister. After decolonization in 1963, Singapore joined with other newly independent territories – Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak – to form the Federation of Malaysia. Political disputes led to its expulsion from the Federation in 1965.

From Lee’s obituary in Malay Mail Online:

When Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965, two years after the federation was formed, Lee was left with a tiny city-state of migrants without a common language, culture or destiny, with no natural resources, surrounded by powerful neighbours like Indonesia and China. …

At the helm of a nation-state in its infancy, Lee built Singapore after his own image – stern, disciplined and no-nonsense. He brooked no dissent and did not tolerate corruption. He focused on running an efficient, pragmatic and meritocratic administration. Corporal punishment was used for even minor infractions like vandalism.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) government under Lee’s leadership industrialised Singapore, turned it into an exporter of finished goods and brought in foreign investment. A low-cost public housing programme was implemented and Lee introduced serious measures to tackle graft by creating an enforcement agency that reported directly to him, besides revising government service salaries periodically and increasing the standard of living for workers.

Lee expanded education and made English the working language in Singapore, although the majority in the multi-racial country spoke Mandarin. While he worried of the racial turmoil that could come with a monolingual policy favouring the majority Chinese community, it was his practical concerns that guided his decision since Singapore was trying to attract multinational corporations as a manufacturing hub. …

He also boosted Singapore’s defence force and implemented an Israeli model of national service, where all 18-year-old men are required to train in the programme for two years.

Singapore spends a quarter of its annual budget on defence and is the fifth-largest importer of military hardware …

Lee described himself as a street fighter. A knuckle duster who took on communists with “killer squads” and “Malay ultras” when Singapore was in Malaysia for two years. A tough and unyielding man feared by citizens.

Lee was the longest-serving head of government in Asia and remained in government even after stepping down as prime minister in 1990. Although he had resigned as prime minister in 1990, he had remained in government for another two decades: first serving as senior minister and later as minister mentor.

He only fully retired from the Cabinet in 2011 after PAP’s worst electoral showing since independence. …

Despite Singapore’s success as a “first world oasis in a third world region”, Lee believed that the country was still fighting for survival and that everything could come undone very quickly. He had a paranoid fear of nebulous threats and constantly reminded his people about the country’s vulnerabilities and to be vigilant.

“Where are we? Are we in the Caribbean? Are we next to America like the Bahamas? Are we in the Mediterranean, like Malta, next to Italy? Are we like Hong Kong, next to China and therefore, will become part of China? We are in Southeast Asia, in the midst of a turbulent, volatile, unsettled region. Singapore is a superstructure built on what? On 700 square kilometres and a lot of smart ideas that have worked so far,” Lee said in a 2007 interview with US columnist Tom Plate and new-media expert Jeffrey Cole.

The one time when the man known for his strictness and unsentimentality lost his composure in public was when Malaysia ejected Singapore.

In a press conference on August 9, 1965, where he announced Singapore’s independence and separation from the federation, a tearful Lee described it as a “moment of anguish”, his voice choked with emotion, pausing a few times as he spoke before finally asking for the [TV] recording to be stopped temporarily.

“For me, it is a moment of anguish because all my life … you see, the whole of my adult life … I have believed in Malaysian merger and the unity of these two territories. You know, it’s a people, connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship … Would you mind if we stop for a while?” he had said. …

Lee focused on building a meritocracy in multi-racial Singapore and strove for equality to harness talent that was the city-state’s only resource. He disagreed with the way Malaysia managed its multi-cultural, Malay-majority society through affirmative action policies.

“Our Malays are English-educated, they’re no longer like the Malays in Malaysia and you can see there are some still wearing headscarves but very modern looking,” he told NYT in 2010.

Lee said Malaysians saw Malaysia as a “Malay country” and was critical of how the Bumiputeras dominated Malaysia.

“So the Sultans, the Chief Justice and judges, generals, police commissioner, the whole hierarchy is Malay. All the big contracts for Malays. Malay is the language of the schools although it does not get them into modern knowledge. So the Chinese build and find their own independent schools to teach Chinese, the Tamils create their own Tamil schools, which do not get them jobs. It’s a most unhappy situation,” he said in the 2010 New York Times interview. …

Lee’s critics have often accused him of suppressing civil liberties and using libel suits to intimidate his political opponents into not running against him. The opposition boycotted Parliament from 1966 onwards, leaving a Parliament completely dominated by the PAP until the ruling party lost a parliamentary seat in a 1981 by-election. The watershed 2011 general election later saw the opposition Workers’ Party winning six parliamentary seats.

Lee believed that democracy was secondary to discipline, development and good governance.

“What are our priorities? First, the welfare, the survival of the people. Then, democratic norms and processes which from time to time we have to suspend,” Lee said at a 1986 National Day Rally.

He shied away from Western-style democracy, saying he had to amend the British system for multi-racial Singapore.

“Supposing I’d run their system here, Malays would vote for Muslims, Indians would vote for Indians, Chinese would vote for Chinese. I would have a constant clash in my Parliament which cannot be resolved because the Chinese majority would always overrule them,” Lee told German magazine Spiegel in 2005.

He laughed off a journalist who called him a dictator, saying, with a touch of arrogance, that he did not have to be a dictator when he could win “hands down”. 

“I can get a free vote and win. And there’s a long history why that is so. Because I have produced results, and the people know that I mean what I say and I have produced results,” Lee told NYT’s William Safire in 1999.

Although there were laws against homosexuality they were not enforced. He himself was “indifferent to homosexuality”, but he …

… frowned on [gay] pride parades because he wanted to maintain social order.

“China has already allowed and recognised gays, so have Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s a matter of time. But we have a part Muslim population, another part conservative older Chinese and Indians. So, let’s go slowly. It’s a pragmatic approach to maintain social cohesion,” he said.

Lee’s cold pragmatism, in line with his ambivalence about the divine, was devoid of romanticism and ideology. …

“Ambivalence about the divine”? Lee was an agnostic. We do not regard agnosticism as “ambivalence about the divine”.  (Actually, we regard agnosticism as atheism in kid gloves.) But the authors of the report do point out some contradictions in Lee’s view of religion.

He also practised meditation, in which he repeated a Catholic mantra “Ma Ra Na Ta” for 20 minutes, which means “Come to me oh Lord Jesus”, though he was an agnostic. …

Lee remained a fighter to the end. He didn’t care what his critics thought of him. The final verdict would not be in his obituaries, he said.

Lee had built the foundation for a thriving Singapore from nothing and turned the country into Asia’s financial centre, a developed country in a Third World region. But he also realised that his time of fighting communists and extremists had passed and that it was a new world now. He called for a “fresh clean slate” when he retired from Cabinet in 2011.

Younger voters who grew up in Singapore’s concrete jungle now worry about the cost of living amid a widening income gap and resent the country’s liberal immigration policy that PAP had long introduced to support its flourishing economy. …

He is not above all criticism even by admirers. He did not allow freedom of the press.

Information was tightly controlled in a muzzled press. …

He liked and tried to enforce tidiness and cleanliness. He outlawed chewing-gum, probably because it makes city streets dirty. It was as if his city-state was his household.

“Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up,” Lee once said in 1988.

The report also tell us that his favourite book was Don Quixote. 

A choice that fits well with his great qualities as a man as well as a leader. As does this:

When his wife Kwa Geok Choo was bedridden in 2008 from a stroke for two years before her death, he used to sit beside her and read her favourite poems to her and tell her about his day, convinced that she could hear him and understand though she could not communicate.

Finally we quote from the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom:

Singapore’s economic freedom score is 89.4, making its economy the 2nd freest in the 2015 Index. …  Only 0.2 point behind Hong Kong, Singapore ranks 2nd out of 42 countries in the Asia–Pacific region. …

A highly educated and motivated workforce has added to the economy’s dynamism and resilience, reinforcing Singapore’s innovative capacity. Singaporean society has a low tolerance for corruption, and the effective rule of law strongly undergirds all aspects of economic development. …

Singapore is one of the world’s most prosperous nations. Its economy is dominated by services, but the country is also a major manufacturer of electronics and chemicals.

Singapore has traditionally been lauded for its lack of corruption. As in most countries, there are ongoing concerns over issues of transparency and the power of deeply entrenched groups. Political speech is regulated, inhibiting organized pressure for policy changes. Contracts are secure, there is no expropriation, and commercial courts function well. Singapore has one of Asia’s best intellectual property regimes. … Starting a business takes three days, and required procedures are straightforward. No minimum wage is enforced, but wage adjustments are guided by the National Wage Council.

So even in Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew,  there’s been a little state interference in the economy.

The state funds housing, education, transport, and health care subsidy programs and influences other prices through regulations and state-linked enterprises. … Imports of chewing gum and “objectionable” publications are restricted, and some service industries face barriers. …

Now that Lee Kuan Yew has gone – and if he does not “get up” from his grave – what are the chances that the state will grow and regulations will multiply? That while objectionable publications will no longer be restricted (because social media will spread information anyway), and chewing-gum will become freely available, Singapore will drop from second place in the Freedom Index? We hope it will not. But we are too realistic – or pessimistic – to declare such a development unlikely.

Posted under Capitalism, Commentary, liberty by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, March 25, 2015

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This post has 3 comments.

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  • Don L

    Again, applying the law that one never thinks about things one never thinks about…I do not much of anything about Singapore and virtually nothing about Lee Kuan Yew. I am aware, however, that Singapore, specific to economics, is like Hong Kong and other free market societies around the world.

    Ultra small geographic areas with virtually no natural assetts are giants of prosperity because government intervenes only to make markets free of /from government intervention and protect property rights: http://mises.org/blog/man-behind-singapores-transition-economic-powerhouse-lee-kuan-yew-dead-91

    It appears, given multiculturalism, Mr Yew did adopt an enlightened monarchial governmental position relative to societal and environmental control. Candidly, I cannot comment on whether or not this was good or bad…enlightened monarch still cuases a cringe. Yet, his political economic approach, contrary to the norm of dictators/depots/tyrants/oligarchs/
    monarchs, was superb. Bottom line, the implementation of free market capitalism is proven the highest and best economic policy for the benefit of all in the society.

    The lefties never ever discuss these successes…it would be to disprove that which they promote…reveal them to not be for true natural equality and opportunity but for attaining ruler-status through lulling, duping and the ruse. Makes one wonder how an Elizabeth Warren would fair pushing her absurdity “You didn’t build it” BS.

    Incidentally, in 2012, after Dodd Frank went into effect, many, many mega milionaires and billonaires erenounced American citizen ship and fled to Singapore: http://mises.org/blog/all-aboard-singapore

    • liz

      I didn’t know a thing about him, either, but he sounds like quite a brilliant leader.
      Interesting that he was wisely concerned with maintaining social order, while our President is doing his best to destroy the social order.

      • Don L

        I don’t find that he established any alien and sedition laws…free speech, then, wasn’t quashed. I don’t like the press control…yet, given the nature of the multiculturism…this and some other questionable restraints may have been what was necessary to secure unalieanable rights. What is paramount was the economic freedom. After all, without economic freedom…there can be no exercise of rights; unalienable or otherwise. Ah, what was also wise was his understanding of private capital investment as opposed to Obamahavior (repubs too) government ‘investment…there is no such thing…it’s government consumption and it always fails.