By Ernest Z. Bower
Early this morning, the founder and spiritual leader of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, passed away with his family, citizens of Singapore, and people around the world literally and figuratively at his bedside, wishing him peace and contemplating his legacy. A seven-day period of mourning has begun during which Singaporeans will contemplate his life and his leadership and think about what’s next for their country.
In fact, Lee’s passing may have been well-timed, perhaps appropriate for a man who literally micromanaged the rise of one of the world’s most spectacular nations. Singapore will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence this August, and those celebrations will now be a national tribute to the life of the man who carved his country from rock into a transformative global city whose influence far outstripped its diminutive size.
Lee was one of Southeast Asia’s “great men,” or tough leaders who tacked on the violent winds of the Vietnam and Cold wars to turn their nascent, post-colonial nations from commodity-based economies to newly industrialized dynamic centers of global supply chains. Along with counterparts such as Suharto, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Mr. Lee centralized power, drove economic development and carefully managed the development of his country. The results, particularly in Singapore – perhaps due to Lee’s iron determination, but also its small size – have been breathtaking: industrial development, urbanization, banishing poverty (in most cases), and enhancing education.
One of the result of these successes is a very large and increasing confident middle class – the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates ASEAN’s middle class will grow from 200 million to over 1 billion by 2030 – that will inevitably challenge the paternalistic, top-down, and centrally controlled governance models Lee adopted to drive his country to its current state of development. It is this transition that has many Singaporeans quietly very anxious about Mr. Lee’s passing. They are not only losing their decisive founder, they also recognize that Singapore will never be the same from this day forward.
Instead of having an undeniable father to say “yes” or “no,” Singaporeans will now use the training and education they received from Lee’s efforts to improve their lives and make more consensus-based decisions. Singapore could gradually move to a political regime where competing parties and leaders argue to convince a nation that their ideas are best.
The beginnings of this shift actually happened before Lee passed this morning. In 2011, the opposition Worker’s Party won 6 of the 87 seats in Singapore’s Parliament. To outsiders, this would seem like a continued, near total domination by Lee’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), but for Singaporeans, it felt more like the start of a political paradigm shift. The PAP was indeed rattled. That trend is likely to continue, and it will not be easy for Singapore.
Some of PAP’s leaders may pine for the old days, but hopefully they won’t pursue the path of their counterparts in Malaysia, where the ruling United Malays National Organization party seems to be trying to turn the clock back, betting on an ultra conservative approach.
It is more likely that over time, PAP’s well-educated and globally focused leaders will find there is new room to breathe and innovate in the new political space of the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. These leaders, including Lee’s son, current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, will find Singapore becoming a more “normal” country where key policies will have to be built more on national consensus and less on a genius’ view of a world-beating development plan. This will slow Singaporeans down a bit and make their regional and global geopolitical role more nuanced, but it is an evolution rather than a descent into chaos.
Singapore is right to honor and thank Lee Kuan Yew. His successes have prepared them to thrive, and their accomplishments will be his enduring legacy.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.