How did a sleepy little island transform into a high-tech powerhouse in one generation? It was all in the plan.
By Mark Jacobson
Photograph by David McLai
If you want to get a Singaporean to look up from a beloved dish of fish-head curry—or make a harried cabdriver slam on his brakes—say you are going to interview the country's "minister mentor," Lee Kuan Yew, and would like an opinion about what to ask him. "The MM?Wah lau! You're going to see the MM? Real?" You might as well have told a resident of the Emerald City that you're late for an appointment with the Wizard of Oz. After all, LKY, as he is known in acronym-mad Singapore, is more than the "father of the country." He is its inventor, as surely as if he had scientifically formulated the place with precise portions of Plato's Republic, Anglophile elitism, unwavering economic pragmatism, and old-fashioned strong-arm repression.
People like to call Singapore the Switzerland of Southeast Asia, and who can argue? Out of a malarial swamp, the tiny island at the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula gained independence from Britain in 1963 and, in one generation, transformed itself into a legendarily efficient place, where the per capita income for its 3.7 million citizens exceeds that of many European countries, the education and health systems rival anything in the West, government officials are largely corruption free, 90 percent of households own their own homes, taxes are relatively low and sidewalks are clean, and there are no visible homeless people or slums.
If all that, plus a typical unemployment rate of about 3 percent and a nice stash of money in the bank thanks to the government's enforced savings plan, doesn't sound sweet to you, just travel 600 miles south and try getting by in a Jakarta shantytown.
Achieving all this has required a delicate balancing act, an often paradoxical interplay between what some Singaporeans refer to as "the big stick and the big carrot." What strikes you first is the carrot: giddy financial growth fueling never ending construction and consumerism. Against this is the stick, most often symbolized by the infamous ban on chewing gum and the caning of people for spray-painting cars. Disruptive things like racial and religious disharmony? They're simply not allowed, and no one steals anyone else's wallet.
Singapore, maybe more than anywhere else, crystallizes an elemental question: What price prosperity and security? Are they worth living in a place that many contend is a socially engineered, nose-to-the-grindstone, workaholic rat race, where the self-perpetuating ruling party enforces draconian laws (your airport entry card informs you, in red letters, that the penalty for drug trafficking is "DEATH"), squashes press freedom, and offers a debatable level of financial transparency? Some people joke that the government micromanages the details of life right down to how well Singapore Airlines flight attendants fill out their batik-patterned dresses.
They say Lee Kuan Yew has mellowed over the years, but when he walks into the interview wearing a zippered blue jacket, looking like a flint-eyed Asian Clint Eastwood circa Gran Torino, you know you'd better get on with it. While it is not exactly clear what a minister mentor does, good luck finding many Singaporeans who don't believe that the Old Man is still top dog, the ultimate string puller behind the curtain. Told most of my questions have come from Singaporeans, the MM, now 86 but as sharp and unsentimental as a barbed tack, offers a bring-it-on smile: "At my age I've had many eggs thrown at me."
Few living leaders—Fidel Castro in Cuba, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe come to mind—have dominated their homeland's national narrative the way Lee Kuan Yew has. Born into a well-to-do Chinese family in 1923, deeply influenced by both British colonial society and the brutal Japanese occupation that killed as many as 50,000 people on the island in the mid-1940s, the erstwhile "Harry Lee," Cambridge law degree in hand, first came to prominence as a leader of a left-leaning anticolonial movement in the 1950s. Firming up his personal power within the ascendant People's Action Party, Lee became Singapore's first prime minister, filling the post for 26 years. He was senior minister for another 15; his current minister mentor title was established when his son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004.
Lee masterminded the celebrated "Singapore Model," converting a country one-eighth the size of Delaware, with no natural resources and a fractured mix of ethnicities, into "Singapore, Inc." He attracted foreign investment by building communications and transportation infrastructure, made English the official language, created a superefficient government by paying top administrators salaries equal to those in private companies, and cracked down on corruption until it disappeared. The model—a unique mix of economic empowerment and tightly controlled personal liberties—has inspired imitators in China, Russia, and eastern Europe.
To lead a society, the MM says in his precise Victorian English, "one must understand human nature. I have always thought that humanity was animal-like. The Confucian theory was man could be improved, but I'm not sure he can be. He can be trained, he can be disciplined." In Singapore that has meant lots of rules—prohibiting littering, spitting on sidewalks, failing to flush public toilets—with fines and occasional outing in the newspaper for those who break them. It also meant educating his people—industrious by nature—and converting them from shopkeepers to high-tech workers in a few decades.
Over time, the MM says, Singaporeans have become "less hard-driving and hard-striving." This is why it is a good thing, the MM says, that the nation has welcomed so many Chinese immigrants (25 percent of the population is now foreign-born). He is aware that many Singaporeans are unhappy with the influx of immigrants, especially those educated newcomers prepared to fight for higher paying jobs. But taking a typically Darwinian stance, the MM describes the country's new subjects as "hungry," with parents who "pushed the children very hard." If native Singaporeans are falling behind because "the spurs are not stuck into the hide," that is their problem.Read more.