COVER STORY Lee Kuan Yew's model for national development
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, April 11, 2015
[Front-cover photograph: Mr Lee Kuan Yew, 2007. Courtesy of Singapore, Ministry of Communications and Information].
The death of the founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, was marked by countless expressions of grief by many of the 5.5 million people living in this city-state, as well as obituaries in newspapers and magazines throughout the world.
Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)
Born late in 1923 in what was then the British Straits Settlements, Lee Kuan Yew was aged just 16 when World War II broke out, and 18 when Japanese military forces over-ran Malaya, forced the surrender of the great British naval base in Singapore, and took thousands of British and Australian prisoners-of-war.
For a person of Chinese descent and brilliant academic background, the Japanese military administration was harsh and cruel, and gave Lee Kuan Yew an appreciation of Western values and culture, which shaped his later life.
He told one interviewer that after the war, he “emerged determined that no one — neither Japanese nor British — had the right to push and kick us around … (and) that we could govern ourselves”.
After the end of the war, he returned to studies, and eventually won a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he graduated with double first class honours.
After returning to Singapore, he practised as a barrister and, in 1954, was a foundation member of a left-wing pro-independence party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), which was a coalition between the Chinese middle-class, such as Mr Lee, and the communist-led trade union federation.
Lee said that the alliance was a “marriage of convenience”, since the pro-independence middle-class needed the mass base of the communist-led unions, while the communists needed a non-communist leadership to PAP, because the Malayan Communist Party was then illegal, and waging an insurgency against the British.
The alliance effectively collapsed when the communists staged a coup against their allies in 1957, but the then colonial government arrested the communist leaders, and Lee was again able to lead the PAP.
In elections in 1959, he led the PAP to an overwhelming election victory, and was the first Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959, while it was still a British colony.
After negotiations between leaders of Malaya, Singapore and Britain, the new nation of Malaysia was established in 1963, but the deep mistrust by the Malays of the Chinese-led PAP led to the exclusion of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965.
From that time onwards, Mr Lee set out to make Singapore the economic hub of South East Asia.
Capitalising on the British educational, legal, cultural and political institutions he had inherited, Mr Lee set about creating a unique cultural entity in Singapore, in which English became the dominant language, and the state emphasised the need for harmony between the majority Chinese population, and Malay, Indian, British and other ethnic groups.
Religious harmony was also enforced, and religious freedom has been protected by law.
Corruption was rooted out, and draconian penalties were imposed for even relatively minor breaches of law, including for spitting and littering in public.
Learning from Singapore’s experience in war, he established a strong defence force, based on conscription of all Singaporean men to service in the Singapore Armed Forces, the Singapore Police Force or the Singapore Civil Defence Force.
To transform Singapore’s economy, he was a joint founder of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and, through very generous tax concessions, set about attracting Western corporations, particularly high-tech companies like Apple, to set up manufacturing plants.
These built upon existing industries, including very large petroleum-refining plants, which supply much of Australia’s refined petroleum products including petrol and diesel, and the Port of Singapore, the second busiest in the world.
Additionally, he established Singapore’s Central Provident Fund, a compulsory comprehensive savings fund, to finance the people’s retirement, health care and housing needs.
Under the scheme, employers must contribute 16 per cent of an employee’s gross salary, and the employee must contribute 20 per cent.
Apart from addressing the country’s housing and retirement needs, it has also generated a vast capital pool which has been available for investment, and which has driven Singapore’s rapid economic growth, as well as financing many of the nation’s largest companies, including Singapore Airlines, SingTel (which owns Optus in Australia), ST Engineering and Mediacorp.
Despite many positive achievements, Lee Kuan Yew believed in coercive social engineering, particularly family planning. From the 1960s, he introduced a policy which favoured no more than two children in families. Larger families were directly discriminated against, with the loss of tax concessions and government benefits.
These measures have returned to haunt Singapore which now has one of the lowest birth rates in the world (1.29 births per woman).
Despite this, Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore from a struggling city to one of the wealthiest nations, on a per capita basis, of the world, in less than two generations.