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Lee Kuan Yew Created The World's Least-Hated Authoritarian State

Tengku Bahar / AFP / Getty Images

When Lee Kuan Yew became the prime minister of Singapore in 1959, he assumed control of an ethnically divided, impoverished territory lacking in natural resources. In his 31 years in office—followed by another 21 in advisory roles—Lee transformed his country into one of the world’s most prosperous societies, a major business and transportation hub boasting a per capita GDP of $55,000. A half-century since achieving full independence following a split with Malaysia, Singapore emerged as perhaps the world’s most successful authoritarian state.

Lee, who died of pneumonia on Monday at the age of 91, often pointed out that his accomplishment in governing Singapore were sui generis; given the island’s tiny size and modest population, they could not be replicated elsewhere. But during his decades of public life, the Singaporean leader emerged as an advocate for a paternalistic government, one that married economic liberalization with restrictions of individual liberty. Lee disavowed the idea that democracy was a virtue for its own sake.

“People want economic development first and foremost,” he said in an interview printed in his 1998 book, The Man and His Ideas. “The leaders may talk something else. You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools."

This sentiment resonates deeply in China. When the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping launched market reforms in 1978, he viewed Singapore as a positive example and frequently consulted with Lee. “Deng was inspired by the fact that people of Chinese heritage could take part in modernization,” said Ezra Vogel, a Harvard professor and author of an acclaimed biography of the Chinese leader. In the ensuing decades, the Chinese government dispatched thousands of officials on educational missions to Singapore. The Communist Party reiterated its regard for Lee in comments published upon his death.

“Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was a uniquely influential Asian statesman and a strategist boasting both Eastern values and an international vision,” Hong Lei, spokesman of China’s Foreign Affairs ministry, said in a statement released Monday.

The reference to Eastern values was not accidental. During his last decades in public life, the Singaporean regime became increasingly critical of the American-led notion that human rights—including democracy—had worldwide applicability. In an interview published in the Atlantic in 2013, Lee argued that “Americans believe their ideas are universal—the supremacy of the individual and free, unfettered expression. But they’re not—and never were.”

But Lee’s skepticism of Western values masks a reality that Singapore’s success, in large part, depended on them. Fluent in English and nicknamed Harry, he insisted that English be used as Singapore’s lingua franca, thereby uniting the country’s Chinese, Indian, and Malay populations. He also took advantage of Singapore’s strategic location near the Strait of Malacca by investing heavily in port and transportation infrastructure, skillfully positioning his country for the explosion of international trade brought about by containerization. Unlike regimes who turned inward following independence, Singapore embraced multinational corporations and welcomed foreign ownership.

“Lee understood that even though Singapore had a bitter experience of colonialism and invasion from the Japanese and British, his was a small country with no natural resources and would collapse without international investment,” said Ali Wyne, a Singapore expert and analyst at Wikistrat. “This differed from other newly decolonized countries who developed indigenously as a matter of principle, resisting multinationals as another tool of imperialism.”

Lee’s accommodation to the U.S.-led postwar economic order brought widespread prosperity to his people. But Singapore’s nanny state deprived his citizens of civil liberties that residents of democracies take for granted. Singaporeans do not enjoy freedom of speech, a free press, or freedom of assembly. Dissent is not tolerated; those who defy the ruling People’s Action Party are subject to incarceration without trial. Lee was notorious for suing publications, including the New York Times and the Economist, whom he thought maligned his regime.

For such an authoritarian system, Singapore remains remarkably free of corruption, owing, in large degree, to Lee’s willingness to pay government officials a handsome salary. But critics have accused Lee of nepotism. Lee Hsien Loong, his son, is now in his twelfth year as Singapore’s prime minister. Other children and relatives of Lee occupy important positions of power and influence. And while Singapore is no doubt a prosperous society, one whose economic and diplomatic clout far exceeds its modest size, the country’s cultural impact has been minimal.

“No great books have been written there, no scientific breakthroughs made,” wrote the British author Ian Buruma in a 1994 essay published in the Sunday Telegraph. “There is not even a decent newspaper—how could there be, when the government defines your P’s and Q’s?”

For Lee Kuan Yew, these deficiencies are a small price to pay for Singapore’s success—and, if the laudatory obituaries gracing the international media on Monday morning are any indication, many others agree. But can Lee’s achievements outlive him? Singapore’s famously tidy society has become, in recent years, less egalitarian and more pluralistic. The Singapore that Lee Kuan Yew built appears to be changing, and with it, Lee’s legacy.

“A lot of younger Singaporeans hold simultaneously contradictory views of Lee,” said Wyne. “Most of them still respect him and admire his singular contributions to Singapore, but they also wonder whether he had to be so heavy-handed.”

During his decades in public life, Lee never wavered from his conviction that he did what was necessary to improve the lives of his people. “What they think of me after I'm dead and gone in one generation will be determined by researchers who do PhDs on me, right?” he wrote in Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, his 2011 book. “So there will be a lot of revisionism. As people revised Stalin, Brezhnev and one day now Yeltsin, and later on Putin. I’ve lived long enough to know that you may be idealized in life and reviled after you’re dead.” His revilement may be a ways off yet, judging by the early returns since his passing. But if this self-selected peer group is an indication, revisions may one day be in order.