Lee Kuan Yew died last Monday, March 23. He served as Prime Minister of Singapore, my home country, from 1959 to 1990, and then remained in the cabinet until 2011. His death was met by an outpouring of grief in Singapore — a week of national mourning was declared, and more than half a million people stood in line for up to 10 hours to pay their last respects. His state funeral on Sunday was attended by dozen of world leaders. In President Obama’s statement on his death, he called Lee “a true giant of history … one of the great strategists of Asian affairs.”
Yet given all this, and in spite of Yale’s engagement with Singapore through Yale-NUS, most Yalies know little about the country or its former leader. To quote one of my friends, “This is embarrassing, but I never heard of Lee Kuan Yew until he died.” However, I believe that Lee’s successes and failures offer many important policy lessons for us all.
Lee Kuan Yew was arguably the founding father of modern Singapore — our equivalent of George Washington, as I very roughly explained to one of my friends on Monday. Lee played an outsized role in the development of this former British colony: a 250-square-mile island with no natural resources populated by immigrants from all over Asia with little shared history. Under his watch, the country defied odds and became one of the world’s great success stories. Singapore’s real GDP per capita increased tenfold from 1960 to present day; it now has a higher Human Development Index than Japan and the U.K.
Lee was, first and foremost, a pragmatist. He believed in doing whatever was necessary to ensure the country’s continued development and growth. This meant cutting taxes, reducing or eliminating trade barriers, providing subsidies and tax rebates for foreign investment and investing in a highly-educated and skilled workforce. He instituted the teaching of English as a first language not only to provide a common language for various immigrant groups, but also to equip the workforce for manufacturing and industry. For the same reason, science, technology, engineering and mathematics were emphasized in schools long before the acronym became popular.
This pragmatism extended into social policy as well. To increase the birth rate the government created what was effectively a state-run matchmaking agency for young adults. To promote social graciousness, the government launched an inordinate number of advocacy campaigns, as well as fines for graffiti, littering and spitting. And in perhaps the country’s most infamous example: Because gum was blocking subway doors and leading to train delays, the government banned it outright. These measures of social engineering are arguably rather authoritarian, but in Lee’s words, “We would have been a grosser, ruder, cruder society had we not made these efforts.”
Lee believed firmly in meritocracy, in allowing the best and the brightest to succeed and in having the most capable people in government. To this end the government invested heavily in education, recruiting teachers from the top third of high school graduates. The government provided scholarships for its best students — often from humble backgrounds — to study in universities. These students were then placed in top positions in the civil service and paid high-enough salaries to avoid corruption and retain talent. These practices, which continue today, led to the development of strong government institutions. In the words of Tommy Koh, Singapore’s former ambassador to the U.N., Lee’s foresight ensured that “his passing will have no negative impact on the future of Singapore.”
Of course, this pragmatism could go too far. Lee believed that given Singapore’s small population, it did not have enough talent to support more than one political party. He also argued that the government knew what was best for the country and could not afford to give into populist measures and politics. This led to the muzzling of opposition politicians and critics, often through the use of libel suits based on strict defamation laws, as well as 50 years of one-party rule. In recent years, Singaporeans have begun to push back against the government, resenting its perceived arrogance and high-handed approach to governance. In 2011, this resulted in the government’s worst-ever election result, winning only 60 percent of the popular vote. Lee resigned from the cabinet shortly thereafter.
For America and the rest of the world, Lee Kuan Yew’s approach to governance can provide us with many instructive lessons. In his choice of pragmatism over ideology, Lee showed how a relentless belief in doing what was best for the country instead of what was popular brought Singapore to where it is today. Similarly, his meritocratic approach in education and governance gives other countries much to learn from and emulate. Lee Kuan Yew was truly one of the great leaders of the 20th century, and as a Singaporean, I say: Thank you, and rest in peace, Mr. Lee.
Martin Lim is a freshman in Berkeley College and a copy staffer for the News. Contact him at email@example.com .