Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015): Singapore’s State maker remembered

March 23, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew was one of the influential State makers of the 20th Century. A case could be made that he conceived and brought about a prosperous and peaceful future for Singapore.

I became interested in the culture of Singapore some years ago, after taking part in the celebrations of its national day. After three decades in power, Lee Kuan Yew had handed over control of the State he had helped create. In the process he was showing dynastic aspirations.

Dynastic aspirations

It was being rumoured at the time, correctly as it turned out, that Prime Minister Goh, who succeeded him, was a transition figure who was to be replaced by Lee’s son. Informally we were also given to believe that Lee would remain the power behind his son’s actions.

Tickets for a celebration

It had been hard to get tickets for the celebrations at the old National Stadium in Kalang Leisure Park, close the Changi airport close to where the new and impressive modern sports stadium was later built.

Our tickets had came from a Singaporean friend who had seen enough ceremonies to make them less valued for him. Well worth seeing it all for the first few times, he reassured us.

We reached the stadium by subway, another of Singapore’s marvels. Allegedly, it was maintained in those days in pristine condition through President Lee’s regime of corporal punishment handed out to any litter-making individual. Westerners tended to admire the results, if not the means of achieving them.

Pre-conceptions

I had preconceived beliefs that we were going to observe a demonstration of State orchestrated loyalty. What happened was enough to unsettle such assumptions. To be sure there was the orchestration. Everyone was issued with a goodie bag, complete with a national flag to wave, an a small torch with coloured tissue paper over the business end,

There were the obligatory displays of military music, and marching discipline. Jet fighters roared low over the stadium, trailing slipstreams in the national colours. We tried to join in the passionate singing of the national anthem. Later, as night fell, the torches helped produce an equally impressive light-show in the national colours.

Unexpected experiences

What was unexpected was a warmth and mood of enjoyment throughout the lengthy event which seemed spontaneous and genuine. This was not evidence of a State operating under dictatorial edict.

At the time, the charismatic President had already become a mythic figure, a State-maker in the mold of Nelson Mandela. Much later, Lee attributed the role of ‘China’s Mandela’ to Xi Jinping, a judgement not shared by Time magazine.

Today, the appreciation of Lee’s period as all-powerful State maker is more balanced internally. His contribution towards the creation of the modern hi-tech, highly educated little country is recognized. But opposing views can be expressed publicly.


Singapore’s growth presents a leadership challenge

February 19, 2011

Singapore is rightly proud of its economic gains as one of the original Asian ‘little tigers’. Now it turns to the social problem of the minority of its people left behind through decades of successful growth

The growing wealth of Singapore has produced social inequalities that are worrying the Government. Inflation also is threatening to compound the political challenge. Political stability, even with its one-party dominance has become a concern.

Mariko Oi in Asia Business Report for BBC World News explored the story [Feb 2011] using a few well-chosen statistics

Singapore’s economic success and role as a regional financial centre have amplified the problem. Wealth has been created so quickly that it is easy for people to get left behind. The economy almost doubled in size in the 10 years to the end of 2008, Department of Statistics figures show. The average monthly income increased by 40% over the same period. However, the average monthly income for the bottom 20% of Singaporean households fell by 2.7% over the same decade.

Singapore’s inflation rate hit a two-year high of 4.6% in December [2010], and the central bank has warned that prices may rise at a faster pace in coming months

The government has been looking at ways of narrowing the country’s income gap and in 2007 introduced the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) scheme. As a result, some 400,000 Singaporeans now receive financial support from the government. Top government adviser and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said last month that economic growth must benefit all members of Singapore’s community. “Otherwise,” he warned, “our community may be divided by differences in income levels within it.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is scheduled to call a general election within a year. His People’s Action Party has ruled the city-state since independence in 1965 and it is widely expected to win most of the seats. But with many of Singapore’s poorer citizens facing tougher times, the government will be watching to see if they bring any of their worries to the ballot box.

Locally-based analyst Chris Howells believes that the Government is taking a prudent approach to the issue and that the budget will not overheat.

While dishing out more than S$13 billion to households and businesses, this year’s Budget is unlikely to lead to an overheating of the economy. That is because the Government is adopting a cautious fiscal stance, forecasting a slight overall Budget surplus of S$100 million for this year, after a much smaller-than-expected Budget deficit of S$300 million last year, compared with an originally anticipated S$3 billion shortfall.

Singapore’s economic growth is expected to be between 4 and 6 per cent this year, slower than last year’s record expansion but above the country’s estimated trend growth of 3 to 5 per cent for the next 10 years [reporting Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in his Budget speech].

So for this year, the Budget has been positioned to avoid stoking the flames of inflation. “I would say that this indicates a very cautious Budget in the sense that there are no bold and drastic measures being introduced by the minister and the focus is very much on improving productivity over the next 10 years,” said Mr Tay Hong Beng, head of tax at KPMG in Singapore.

To go more deeply:

Government statistics
Workfare programme
Singapore’s shopping experience