Singapore’s former prime minister, long considered the founding father of the country, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away early morning on March 23, signaling the end of an era for Singapore.
The strongman, who has ruled Singapore since its founding, held the positions of Senior Minister and Minister Mentor after he stepped down as Prime Minister, making him one of the longest serving national leaders of the 20th century. He has been admired by many worldwide for his particular brand of leadership in regional affairs, nation-building and development, turning Singapore from a British colony into a global economics hub, while taming an ethnically mixed population consisting of Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay speakers. Under his rule, Singapore’s GDP per person rose from $500 to $50,000, a hundred-fold increase.
On the other hand, Lee believed strongly in ideals that ran counter to Western democracy and human rights. Lee instituted strict ethnic quotas in public housing, and draconian criminal punishment. His party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has held overwhelming majority for as long as Singapore exists, while dissent and free speech were curtailed and decimated. In 2011, the PAP won 60% of the popular vote but 90% of the seats, which was actually its worst performance in history. Lee himself has been quoted often as a witty anti-democrat, who built a rich, autocratic state envied by other dictatorships throughout the world, not least of which is China.
So apparent is Lee’s ability to lead policies for great financial prosperity in Singapore that many wonder, under a fast growing economy, why has not the momentum of democratization happen in Singapore as it did in the other two other Asian Tigers of Taiwan and South Korea? Lee himself responded with his defense of so called “Asian Values”, which prioritize social stability above all, and see democracy as a source for chaos.
In fact, as Taiwan’s President Ma visits Singapore on an unprecedented trip to a state which diplomatically recognizes the Peoples Republic of China, many leaders in Taiwan look to Singapore’s economic statistics and political system with envy. However many in Taiwan also criticizes Singapore’s one-party rule, as Taiwan itself was not so long ago ruled by a similar strongman focused on growth and now faces pressures on its young democratic system.
Already, commentary on Lee’s legacy have flooded online discussions while Singaporeans mourn the lost of a leader without whom they have never lived. Two paths now appear before Singapore: the first one hopes that there will be many more leaders like Lee to sustain his contributions to Singapore; the second view calls for a transitional opportunity for the society. Signs seem to be pointing to the latter, with the Lee family unlikely to hold onto power past Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister. The demographics are shifting quickly towards a more aged population, with more pressure to allow a larger influx of immigrants. While having the most millionaires per capita in Southeast Asia, Singapore also has the most disparity of wealth. Younger generations of Singaporeans, who now enjoy a life of affluence, will tolerate less trading freedom for promises of further economic growth.
Whether they love him or hate him, Singaporeans all have had a common memory with late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. It is now also up to them to decide whether to follow in the steps of his ideological legacies, or leave them in the past, and sail with the wind (an analogy that Lee Kuan Yew himself used), to take Singapore to her next destination.

(Feature photo of Lee Kuan Yew, center, on Wikicommons, CC BY-SA 3.0)


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