Obituaries, prepared long ago by news outlets for Lee’s passing, will note that Lee presided over Singapore’s economic transformation from an uncertain city on the Malaysian peninsula into one of the world’s wealthiest countries on the strength of a strong central government, a thriving market economy, strict social conformity and a bit of soft authoritarianism.
The deal that Lee offered Singapore in 1965, for the next 25 years of his premiership and the ensuing 25 years of his ‘retirement’ that saw the rise of his son, Lee Hsien Loong, as prime minister in 2004, is simple: the promise of sustained economic growth and a robust social safety net at the expense of real democracy, liberal freedoms of speech and expression and a strong free press. It also entailed a nanny state, enforced by cultural norms as much as by government diktat, that deployed housing quotas to integrate Indian and Malay minorities among the larger ethnic Chinese population, forced retirement savings, compulsory two-year military service for Singaporean men, and strict rules that imposed the death penalty on drug offenses and that nudged (or pushed) Singaporeans to be more polite, learn English, stop chewing gum and self-censor any dissent of Lee and his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
As many of Lee’s obituaries will proclaim, it’s a deal that appeared to work — Singapore today has a (nominal) GDP per capita of over US$55,000, slightly higher than the United States, and political and economic experts alike routinely use words like ‘miracle’ to describe Singapore’s rise to become one of the wealthiest, most developed countries in the world.
Central to the Singapore story was Lee himself — indeed, the first in his series of memoirs is entitled simply ‘The Singapore Story.’
But how central was Lee to the modern creation of Singapore? He’s become a beloved figure, especially in the United States in the business-school-case-study-set kind of way. It’s impossible to separate Lee’s life and his role in Singapore’s rise, but it’s not impossible to argue that Lee was shrewd, competent and… very lucky.