Maker of Singapore Who Traded Riches for Curbs

Published: 24th March 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th March 2015 12:14 AM   |  A+A-

Lee Kuan Yew, the statesman who transformed Singapore from a small port city into a wealthy global hub, has died aged 91. The city-state’s prime minister for 31 years, he was widely respected as the architect of Singapore’s prosperity. He oversaw Singapore’s independence from Britain and separation from Malaysia. After the split in 1965, he pledged to build a meritocratic, multi-racial nation. But tiny Singapore, with no natural resources, needed a new economic model. “We knew that if we were just like our neighbours, we would die,” Lee told The New York Times in 2007. “We had to produce something which is different and better than what they have.” And he lived up to his pledge.

However, the path he took to make Singapore different and better involved measures that would not be approved of by proponents of civil liberties. For instance, the sale of chewing gum was banned, graffiti was punishable by caning and long hair was prohibited for men, which made at least two rock groups—the Bee Gees and Led Zeppelin—cancel shows. Lee was also unapologetic about detaining people “without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins”.

Little wonder, he was not an admirer of Indian democracy. He once said there was “too much” democracy in India. His critics in India and elsewhere hit back by saying his authoritarianism could work only in a “departmental store” like Singapore. The charge was substantial, for Lee even tried to “enhance” Singapore’s genetic potential by encouraging graduates to marry and have children. The media was muzzled and the opposition hounded by legal action. But, for Lee, the plus was that Singapore became one of the richest nations on a per capita basis.


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