With barely more than 4 million citizens, the tiny state of Singapore in Southeast Asia would hardly qualify as a template or role model for anything or anybody. Even clockwork-like Switzerland seems a relative superpower at 7.5 million in populace. Why would anyone care one way or the other what Singapore’s first prime minister thinks or says or criticizes?
But people, curiously, do. Perhaps this is because, in a world of conflicting values, global warming, failing states and thoughtless leaders, a clear-headed and usable sense of certainty is in frighteningly short supply. And so when someone can provide it with reason and assurance, people’s ears perk up, minds open up and a star can be born.
By many estimates, Lee Kuan Yew — the founder of modern Singapore, but now a backstage eminence in the government — is a giant of our time, despite achieving nothing more than masterful management of a country a fourth the size of Shanghai, which is but one city in China.
In 1965, the historical port of Singapore was not much to brag about. Five decades later, it’s a glittering gem of a modern state, with a high-end economy, low levels of crime and a state ideology of show-me pragmatism and kindergarten-to-grave personal discipline that sets it wildly apart from its neighbors in the region. But Lee is controversial precisely because he has been so overtly strong-willed, seemingly self-assured and — worst of all to critics — so annoyingly successful.
His legacy to future generations of Singaporeans seems fairly clear. What’s less clear is whether this 84-year-old man has left anything of an intellectual estate to the world outside of his beloved little country. If he has, it’s a profoundly provocative legacy. It suggests that the results of government are far more important than the style or form of government.
It enshrines pragmatism over ideology, results over intentions, and priorities over process.
The implications for fundamentalist evangelists of democracy are gravely unsettling. For what does it gain the citizen to have a vote if she or he cannot feed, clothe and house the family — and if it’s a system wherein vested lobbying interests subvert the people’s votes for private gain? What is the value of democracy if its result is poverty and hopelessness? Do citizens feel better about their future if they can honor the sainted memory of Thomas Jefferson but cannot climb out of abysmal debt and despair?
For extremely critical Westerners, imbued with individualistic ideology, Singapore is a state of “patrol, control and condemn.” People who chew gum (the law was recently amended) faced the horrific punishment of bodily caning (a punishment inherited from the colonial British). Such simplistic snapshots have been, perhaps until recently, the country’s entire image in the United States.
But as societies flounder and flail, people wonder if there is a better way to cope in this roiling age of globalization. Sure, no one wants to endorse materialistic Mussolini authoritarianism, for obvious reasons; but a glance at so-called Asian democracies such as the Philippines triggers doubts as to whether American-style democracy is the best medicine for seriously ailing states.
But are authoritarian figures like Lee really an answer? Certainly the great Thomas Hobbes, 17th-century philosopher, was in no doubt: Many societies without someone like a wise Lee hovering over things would never rise above unmitigated disaster and at their worst, would remain or degenerate into something like this: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Plato himself greatly preferred to be ruled by educated and wise philosopher-kings rather than demagogic, craven and pretentious proconsuls of the people.
The hitch, though, is in the details: Is the philosopher-king under discussion a dummy, a demagogue or a truly wise man?
Those who argue that Lee Kuan Yew is a special historic figure say he is the latter. That his decades of stewardship of Singapore have been justified by the amazing results achieved for the people that he has served and ruled.
Again, Singapore templates for no other place on earth, perhaps. But as the world wonders whether good governance is truly possible in societies that ignore the general interest because they are hostage to the special interests, the Singapore way stands out as another way at looking at political life through a clear lens.
Tom Plate is a professor of communications and public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles. He recently interviewed Lee Kuan Yew.