A lot has been said since the demise of one of the world’s most esteemed and sought after leaders earlier this week. As the founding father of modern Singapore, he struggled greatly to bring the country to where it is today, a developed nation, a far cry from what it was back in 1959, when Lee initially became the prime minister. At the age of 91 years, Lee can indeed rest in peace as in his own words “I have done what I had wanted to, to the best of my ability. I am satisfied.” Not many leaders or human beings for that matter can say that and leave this world filled with satisfaction in knowing they have done their best.
A fourth generation Singaporean, Lee returned to Singapore, a lawyer, after pursuing his higher education at the Cambridge University, in 1949 with the sole aim of ensuring Singapore governed itself. In 1954, Lee entered politics by forming the People’s Action Party [PAP]. Lee forged a merger with Malaysia in 1963, in an attempt to force the British colonial rule to relinquish its hold on Singapore. The merger succeeded in ensuring the British left, but serious other issues arose with Malaysia, mainly due to the difference in culture. This led to Singapore absolving its merger with Malaysia and for the first time, in 1965, they became an independent state. Thereon from 1965, with overwhelming parliamentary control, Lee oversaw the nation’s transformation from a relatively underdeveloped colonial outpost without natural resources into an Asian Tiger economy. In the process, he forged a widely admired system of meritocratic, clean, self-reliant and efficient government and civil service.
Due to the important role Lee played in developing the country, the succeeding prime ministers of Singapore appointed him as Senior Minister in 1990 by Goh Chok Tong and a Minister Mentor in 2004 by his son Lee Hseing Loong, making him one of history’s longest-serving ministers with successive ministerial positions for over 50 years. Lee was a member of the Cabinet of Ministers until 2011 and a Member of Parliament until his demise.
The Singapore Story
“There was no secret, we had no choice but to take chance and sail into rough waters”- Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew is admired for being the only leader known to bring an entire country from third world to first world status in a single generation. Many Singaporeans from his generation narrate stories about his rule and his model. Many are of the view that had he not implemented the policies in the stringent manner he did, Singapore could not have reached the first world status it is in today.
Former Prime Minister Lee implemented policies now know as the ‘Singapore model’ that transformed the former British colonial settlement into a tidy, gleaming metropolis. He has stated it “Was a mix of semi-authoritarian, one-party rule; meticulous urban planning; laissez-faire economic policies; low taxes; and heaps of imported foreign talent.” In addition to the positive economic changes, citizens also had to deal with harsh laws and the loss of personal freedoms and government intrusiveness — like muzzling political dissent and issuing fines for failing to flush public toilets, a complete ban on chewing gum, which is still in place even today. This was in exchange for order and prosperity which was a trade-off broadly accepted by a generation of Singaporeans who saw their country’s living standards rocket beyond those of its neighbours.
The Singaporean model also identified problems and addressed them at the root. For example Lee stated, “If Singapore had a drug problem they would pass a law which says that any customs officer or policeman who sees anybody in Singapore behaving suspiciously, leading him to suspect the person is under the influence of drugs, can require that man to have his urine tested. If the sample is found to contain drugs, the man immediately goes for treatment.” Most governments and western nations would not agree with this type of behaviour and it is not a model that can be easily practiced in this globalised world.
“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today.” – to the Strait Times in April 1987
Another feature of Lee’s model of developing Singapore was to identify a unique model that best fits the country. He was of the view that one cannot implement a model or strategy that has been successful in one place to another. It does not work that way, especially with the east and west countries. We need to understand the cultural differences between societies and enact policies accordingly. Lee stated, “In the East we start with self-reliance. In the West today it is the opposite. The government says give me a popular mandate and I will solve all society’s problems.” According to Lee it is very difficult to implement policy in a top down manner and it has to come from the grassroots upward.
“What I fear is complacency. When things become better, people tend to want more for less work.” During a speech in 1970
In this context, one cannot underestimate the value of culture upon a country. The cultural background of the people has an intrinsic role in the life of man and how the economy works. For example, the eastern cultures believe in hard work and savings, learning and scholarship and this is something that is not as common in the western world. Due to this knowledge and understanding the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement hailing him as “a uniquely influential statesman in Asia and a strategist embodying oriental values and international vision.” Lee was known to have valued culture in developing his nation. He knew what worked best for his people, because he observed how his people behaved according to the culture.
Another lesson that can be learnt from the Singaporean model is that if one is to build a country and its economy, one must first establish law and order in society. For Lee, the importance was the basics and the roots. He always emphasised on the importance of the individual. He always looked at the individual in the context of his family, friends and society. The Singaporean model was about eradicating elements that threatened the social order such as guns, drugs and violent crime as they are all part and parcel of the other. When society is violent, it trickles down to schools and the children. This has to be corrected as with violence in schools, education will not be successful. When this happens ones has to educate rigorously and train a whole generation of skilled, intelligent, knowledgeable people who can be productive. And this kind of behaviour has a toll on the government and the economy.
Lee created Singapore, one of Asia’s wealthiest nations with a Gross Domestic Product [GDP] of $297.8 billion  and a GDP per capita of $55,182.48 . It is also one of the least corrupt nations ranking seventh in the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2014. Until such time society is free of corruption and on the correct path, there will not be growth in the economy of the country or an individual. The individual that is skilled must be guided in the correct path for that to occur. Lee was of the opinion that the government can create a setting in which people can live happily, succeed and express themselves, but finally, it is what people do with their lives that determines economic success or failure. However, Lee attributes Singapore’s success to the cultural backdrop of his people; the belief in thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty in the extended family and most of all the respect for scholarship and learning.
Any country can grow economically by facilitating certain changes. Each country should observe and learn from each other and see if there are models that work within one’s own. And implementing these by tweaking it to suit one’s own, will navigate the country towards prosperity.
Respecting the Confucian way of life in Singapore, Lee realised that nobody likes to lose his ethnic, cultural, religious and even linguistic identity. Therefore his policies were gently yet steadily implemented to facilitate the integration of society. An example for this would be the manner in which Lee implemented the language policy in Singapore. This was by offering every parent the choice of English and their mother tongue, in whatever order they chose. By their free choice, plus the rewards of the marketplace over a period of 30 years, Singapore has resulted with English first and the mother tongue – that of Mandarin, Cantonese and Indian – second.
By 2013 Singapore’s per capita GDP per capita PPP which stood at $78,763.4 is now higher than that of its former coloniser, United Kingdom which had a GDP per capita PPP of $38,451.7. It has one of the world’s busiest ports, is the seventh-largest oil refiner and a major centre of global manufacturing and service industries. Lee succeeded in shifting the country from poverty to a high income economy within a single generation. In 1965 Singapore ranked economically with Chile, Argentina and Mexico; today its per capita GDP is five to seven times the latters’.
Though the Singaporean model has been a huge success, it has not caught on as something most governments are willing to implement or experiment with. However, several Easter European leaders such as Viktor Yanukovych, Mikhail Saakashvili and the Russian leader Vladimir Putin are all great followers of this model. The respect his authoritarian rule of law and government and have tried to replicate it in their own territories.
Subsequent to his retirement as Prime Minister, Lee often travelled to East Asian capitals from Beijing to Hanoi to Manila providing advice on how to achieve economic growth while retaining political stability and control. It is a formula that the governing elites of these countries are anxious to learn.
Singapore and Sri Lanka
In 1956 Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew visited Sri Lanka, which was a mere nine years prior to their independence at which point he stated that Singapore should aspire to be like Colombo. Almost 60 years later, the tables have turned and now Sri Lanka is aspiring to be the modern city-state of Singapore.
At the time of independence, the Singaporean economy was met with high unemployment issues, an unskilled workforce, few entrepreneurs, no domestic savings, miserable housing conditions, militant labour unions and racial riots. They devised a strategic economic plan; developing entreport trading, export driven manufacturing and creating a service based knowledge economy. This methodology worked well for the country for since 1967, it has increased its per-capita purchasing power (PPP) over 10-fold to $78,763.4 in 2013, surpassing countries such as Japan with $38,633.7 and the United States with $53,042.0. From among developing countries, only a few have been successful in rising to the high income category after remaining in the middle income category for about 20 years. The four “Asian Tigers” – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan – are the most frequently quoted examples.
Sri Lanka only managed to harness the benefits of the initial round of market-oriented economic reforms, by graduating from the low income status to the lower-middle income status (according to the World Bank country classification) in 1998 – two decades after the liberalisation. However, one of the major constraints in promoting technology and innovation in Sri Lanka is the dearth of funding available for research and development (R&D). The total expenditure for R&D remains low at less than 0.2 per cent of GDP in Sri Lanka in comparison with nearly 1 per cent of GDP in Brazil, a little over 3 per cent of GDP in South Korea in 2008 and over 2 per cent in Singapore in 2012.
Lee Kuan Yew and his successors did not indulge in corrupt financial practices and instead they have single-mindedly pursed a vision of financial success for all of their people, not just their friends and relations. This is a lesson Sri Lanka can learn from and put in to practice if the country is to move forward towards greater economic development.
Sri Lanka has much to learn from the Singaporean model put forward by Lee and it can commence by transferring valuable knowledge on water management, urban planning, judicial governance and financial management, whilst finding the unique model – Lee emphasised on – which suits the country.
Therefore it is important that Sri Lanka take heed of Lee’s Singaporean model whilst crafting an economic strategy that understands the cultural, historical and ethnic diversity of the country. Sri Lanka must also take in to heed the natural resources she possess something that Singapore did not have in abundance. Sri Lanka must aspire to be Singapore, while taking in to account her strengths and weaknesses, thus enabling robust growth and better living standards for the people and an overall healthy nation.