SINGAPORE — When his ruling party won all but
two of the 84 seats up for grabs in parliamentary elections nine years
ago, Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, declared: “Please do
not assume that you can change governments. Young people don’t
Fast forward to today, and things are changing in this high-tech city-state.
For one, people here are facing the prospect of a Singapore without Lee.
91, the elder statesman was hospitalized with pneumonia at the
beginning of February and placed on a ventilator. The office of Prime
Minister Lee Hsien Loong — Lee’s eldest son — said Tuesday that his
condition had worsened due to an infection. On Wednesday, it said he had
deteriorated further and was critically ill in the intensive care unit.
Lee has been ill before and rebounded, there is a sense here that this
time is more serious and that Singapore might, on the 50th anniversary
of its independence, be marking another historic moment.
becoming the Southeast Asian island’s first prime minister in 1959, Lee
oversaw its independence from Britain and Malaysia, then used a
far-sighted economic vision and an iron fist to transform Singapore from
a third-world colonial trading post into a glittering, multicultural
This was done by encouraging business with easy
regulations and low taxes, and by using big government to look after
citizens. But progress was made at the expense of civil liberties, with
the media stifled — often through libel suits — and political dissent
Although his three-decade reign as prime
minister ended in 1990, he held advisory positions until four years ago
and has continued to exert his influence both through his son, who
became prime minister in 2004, and his People’s Action Party, which has a
stranglehold on the parliament.
“Just like all the great men who
built Southeast Asia in the postcolonial period, Lee Kuan Yew is a
presence for as long as he breathes,” said Ernest Z. Bower, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
is now looking for change and evolution,” Bower said, “but they’re not
sure. I think there’s a little bit of fear and anxiety about all of
Even Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, acknowledges that Singapore is at an “inflection point.”
older people here remember what life was like before the transformation
and have been willing to put up with the restrictions, people in their
20s and 30s increasingly are not.
“Previous generations had all
their necessities taken care of and were happy with [Lee] when he was
prime minister,” said Abdul Kadir bin Ibrahim, a Singaporean in his 50s
who runs a clothing store in the Arab Street district.
younger generation is more outspoken, he said. “Most of them are highly
educated, and they come from families where they have not had to
struggle to survive, and they have been more exposed to the outside
world, so it’s inevitable that there will be some change.”
Tan, a local journalist, is one of those younger Singaporeans who has
mixed feelings about the anticipated demise of a man he called a
“We simultaneously love and hate, respect and despise, cherish and abhor, the man,” he wrote in a recent column.
“We are thankful for our decades of economic progress, but we wonder
whether it was really necessary to sacrifice our freedoms. We are
grateful for the stability and security, but we wonder whether we can
maintain it without a strong civil society.”
can honor their founding father by “asking tough questions, making hard
choices, and imagining a different Singapore,” Tan said.
An opportunity to vote for a different Singapore is approaching.
the last general elections in 2011, the ruling party lost six of 87
parliamentary seats — a result that was considered an omen of change.
The opposition is expected to win more seats in elections to be held
Political changes are being accelerated by economic
ones as income disparities have widened. The number of billionaires is
rising, while a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line
and increasingly struggles to afford the basics.
also a pressing issue. Foreigners comprise a third of Singapore’s
population, and while many are working in construction and household
jobs that educated Singaporeans do not want to do, there is a growing
sense that they are also taking more coveted jobs from Singaporeans.
government — perhaps with one eye on the similarly glittering,
commercial island of Hong Kong, where calls for greater democratic
representation resulted in protests last year — has seemed more willing
to create some space for civil society.
Gillian Koh, a senior
research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies of the National
University of Singapore, notes that ground-up activism has resulted in
tangible changes in recent years, such as the reform of the death
penalty, the strengthening of harassment laws, and a major recalibration
in social support policies.
The government’s responsiveness to
concerns raised by civil society and citizens’ activism may mitigate the
appeal of opposition politics, she said.
efforts to engage civil society have resulted in policy changes and a
more participatory governance equation. Even if there is political
diversity, this could temper what traction opposition politicians might
have,” Koh said.
But the departure of Lee could also have
implications for the United States. Although Singapore is not a treaty
ally, Washington has for decades relied on Lee to interpret events in
Asia for it.
“Every president since Nixon has valued his counsel
as a person who has been the world’s premier China watcher,” said
Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government
and the co-author of a book on Lee, whom he calls “the grand master.”
a person who can understand China and its leadership and its choices
from the inside,” Allison said. “There’s no person who could play this
role, helping Chinese leaders really understand something about the U.S.
and helping American leaders really understand something about China.”
some analysts note that the Obama administration has lessened
Washington’s reliance on Singapore. While Lee used to visit the White
House almost every year, his son has been there only once during
President Obama’s tenure.
This is partly due to better relationships with other Asian countries — and better intelligence about China.
But Allison said it would be foolish for Washington to distance itself
from Singapore as the “Thucydidean challenge” of competing with a rising
China becomes greater. (Thucydides ,the ancient Greek historian and
political realist, believed that relations between nations were based on
power, not justice.)
“I would say that we need someone like Lee
Kuan Yew more than ever because, coming from a small, very successful
city-state, he can look to either a Chinese or an American like an
independent, wise counsel,” Allison said.
By Anna Fifield
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