Former Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, 87, announced yesterday in an unexpected press release that he was retiring from his cabinet position of Minister Mentor.
Born 1923, Lee became the first Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959. He is widely credited as the architect behind Singapore's remarkable transformation from third-world country to first in just under a generation. In 1990, he stepped down as Prime Minister, but continued to wield outsized influence on government as a cabinet member, first as Senior Minister and later as Minister Mentor. Despite repeated clarifications that he only holds an advisory position, Lee is still believed to hold sway over many executive decisions.
Speaking to reporters yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is also Mr Lee's son, called the decision a “major event” for Singapore. He told journalists he has not yet decided whether to accept the resignation, but will likely give his answer by Monday.
If indeed Lee Kuan Yew's resignation is accepted, and signs are that it will be, it would mark the end of a career in government for the world-renowned statesman. He has spent 52 years in the cabinet, only 7 years shorter than the current reign of Queen Elizabeth II. He was the world's longest-serving Prime Minister when he stepped down in 1990.
With over half a century of service in government, Lee leaves behind a legacy so long and casts a shadow so large that his actions and accomplishments in office have yet to be fully evaluated by many Singaporeans themselves.
Oversaw Huge Increase in Living Standards
As Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew presided over an exponential increase in Singapore's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from US$704 million in 1960 to US$38 billion in 1990. This figure currently stands at US$222 billion, or over 300 times its level in 1960. Adjusting for cost of living differences, Singapore's GDP per capita was ranked 3rd globally by the International Monetary Fund in 2010.
Few countries have grown so rapidly, and Singapore's economic success has been widely hailed by international observers. The city-state Lee inherited in 1959 was very different from the Singapore of today.
The streets are now sparkling clean, and the city runs like clockwork. Singapore is a leading financial center, and boasts an impressive skyline that is easily recognizable. Among other things, Singapore's public transportation and education systems are consistently rated highly in international rankings. Singapore is also known as a clean and green city, and at least some of this can be attributed to Lee's tough stance against chewing gum and littering. In 1994, Lee was awarded the Ig Nobel prize, a tongue-in-cheek award given out by genuine Nobel laureates, for “his thirty-year study of the effects of punishing three million citizens of Singapore whenever they spat, chewed gum, or fed pigeons”.
Southeast Asia has developed considerably over the past half-century, but Singapore has leaped even further ahead of her much larger and well-endowed neighbors. It is testament to the combined effort of all Singaporeans, under the ertswhile stewardship of Lee and his team, that the country now stands as an oasis of prosperity, orderliness and efficiency, almost as an oddity in contrast to the region. Singapore is considered one of the world's great cities, comparable to New York, London and Hong Kong.
Lee is also credited for having built up Singapore's national defense from scratch, establishing an armed forces that is capable of projecting strength into the region. He instituted mandatory National Service in 1967, and is known for being an ardent proponent of defense spending.
Another of Lee's significant contributions is his establishment of the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) of Singapore in 1981 to manage Singapore's foreign reserves. The exact size of Singapore's reserves is not known, but it is estimated to be one of the world's top ten largest in size. These reserves have allowed Singapore to defend her currency and maintain exchange rate stability even during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-8. It is not known if Lee will also relinquish his current position as Chairman of government-owned GIC after retiring from the cabinet.
Lee Kuan Yew leaves behind a culture that prizes meritocracy and has no tolerance for corruption. He introduced legislation to strengthen the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), and more controversially, proposed in 1994 that the salaries of ministers and top civil servants should be linked to top professionals in the private sector to maintain a clean and honest government. Lee currently draws an annual salary of over US$3 million.
In the 2011 Corruption Perception Index compiled by Transparency International, experts at ten independent institutions including the World Bank and Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Singapore the least corrupt country in the world.
Muzzled Political Dissent
Lee Kuan Yew says a major reason for Singapore's economic achievements is its political stability. He attributes much of this to the dominant role of the People's Action Party (PAP), which he co-founded in 1954.
Despite the praise lavished on Mr Lee for his economic accomplishments, many have criticized his approach against political dissent.
Lee is an ardent defender of the Internal Security Act, introduced in 1948 during the Malayan Emergency in response to a communist uprising. Under the Act, the police could arrest and detain anyone indefinitely without warrant for having acted, or being likely to act, in a way that would threaten security. Lee Kuan Yew's government has been accused repeatedly of using the Act to clamp down on political opposition.
In one of the most dramatic political fall-outs in Singaporean history, Lee Kuan Yew accused Lim Chin Siong, with whom he co-founded the PAP, of being a Communist, and detained him in the notorious Operation Coldstore in 1963. Lim was only released in 1969 after he agreed to renounce politics.
Under Lee's watch, Singapore also held the distinction of having one of the world's longest-serving political prisoners. Chia Thye Poh, now 70, was arrested in 1966 under the Internal Security Act and was detained for a total of 32 years, 5 years longer than Nelson Mandela.
Restricted Press Freedom
In contrast to her economic openness, Singapore has languished in terms of press freedom. She is currently ranked 136th in the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
In 1974, Lee introduced the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which requires that no newspapers be published without a permit. This permit is granted, refused or revoked upon the government's discretion. Furthermore, it limits the issuing and transferring of management shares of newspaper companies to only individuals who have been approved by the government.
The media industry underwent rapid consolidation after the Act was introduced, and many newspapers critical of the government merged or folded. There is currently only one dominant print media company in Singapore, Singapore Press Holdings, and its present Chairman is former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan. Tan was also a cabinet minister during Lee's term in office.
Moved Party Rightwards
Lee Kuan Yew served as the PAP's Secretary-General from 1955 to 1992. Even today, Lee remains a member of the party's influential Central Executive Committee and it is not known if he plans to leave the committee.
As leader of the PAP, Lee engineered a dramatic U-turn in the party's political leanings. When it was first established, the PAP formed an alliance with the pro-Communist trade unions and rode to power on the backs of the labor movement. Indeed, the PAP was a member of the Socialist International till 1976.
Under Lee, the party then abandoned its labor base and drifted progressively to the right. In 1968, the Singapore government passed the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act of 1968, which curtailed workers' right to strike. The National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) is now the only major union in Singapore. Over the years, the union's influence has been diluted and it has been virtually co-opted into a part of the PAP and the government, with Cabinet Minister Lim Swee Say, deputy Secretary-General of the PAP and member of the PAP Central Executive Committee, currently heading the NTUC.
Instead of championing workers' rights, Lee moved his party towards advocating business-friendly policies, and made cutting taxes and increasing investment a key plank of his growth strategy for Singapore. He resisted calls for providing more social welfare programs for needy citizens to fall back on.
In “From the Third World to the First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000”, Lee wrote that “people in Hong Kong depended not on the government but on themselves and their families... The drive to succeed was intense; family and extended family ties were strong. Long before Milton Friedman held up Hong Kong as a model of a free-enterprise economy, I had seen the advantage of having little or no safety net.”
Lee is also an admirer of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was one of the most economically conservative politicians of her time.
Achieved Resounding Electoral Successes
It is undeniable that Lee Kuan Yew has been immensely popular with the electorate throughout his political career. Lee has never lost a parliamentary election. In his constituency of Tanjong Pagar, which he has represented since 1955, his lowest vote-share was 58.9% in the 1963 Legislative Assembly elections, and his highest was 94.3% in the 1968 parliamentary elections.
Lee has strengthened the PAP, and led it to become the dominant party in the local political scene. When Lee was elected with 78% of the votes in the 1955 Legislative Assembly elections, he was only 1 of 3 elected PAP legislators in a legislature of 25. However, when Lee was returned unopposed in the 2011 elections, the PAP captured 81 seats out of 87.
For better or for worse, Lee Kuan Yew has changed the face of Singaporean politics. He has said repeatedly that he will not tolerate divisive racial politics in the context of Singapore's multi-racial populace. The current political sphere in Singapore is largely free of such racial politics, and the level of partisan politics is lower compared to countries such as the United States. Lee has also reformed the political system, introducing the concept of Group Representation Constituencies in 1988. Lee maintained that this was necessary to ensure minority representation in Parliament, but critics have painted it as a ploy for the one of the longest-ruling parties in the world to further consolidate its grip on Singapore.
For the History Books
Singapore's success story is closely intertwined to the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew. It can be argued that without him, Singapore might not be the bustling, prosperous metropolis it is today. The standard of living has risen dramatically for ordinary Singaporeans, and corruption has been largely eradicated. Singapore is the envy of many from around the world today. Lee was also responsible for leading the PAP to resounding electoral successes and overseeing its rightward shift.
But the price of Lee's leadership was also the muzzling of political dissent, the restriction of press freedom, and the curtailing of union rights. Lee Kuan Yew may be finally stepping down from the Cabinet, but he remains a controversial figure. Lee has spent more than half his life in government, and his contributions must be seen in the light of his political actions, and vice-versa.
There is no doubt that Lee possesses a brilliant mind and incredible foresight. The international media regularly interviews him on issues of foreign and economic policy. Foreign diplomats and international leaders also call on him whenever they visit Singapore.
Describing his role, TIME magazine wrote in 1999 that “Lee now basks in the wisdom of seniority, a latter-day Doge whose views continue to be sought by statesmen and commentators who travel from all over the world to pay court to him in Singapore.”
Indeed, this is still true today, and sometimes one can't help but wonder: what if Lee Kuan Yew had been the President of the United States or the Premier of China instead? For despite his accomplishments, Singapore remains a tiny country that only registers as a small dot on the world map. And though Lee Kuan Yew has definitely been an influential Asian leader and the single-most important person in Singapore's short history, it is almost certain that his achievements will only merit him, if at all, a passing mention in the world's history books for generations to come.