Singapore: End of an era – Lee Kuan Yew dead at 91

Singapore: End of an era

The death of Lee Kuan Yew, former long-serving Prime Minister of Singapore, is of significance for the Caribbean if only for the reason that he first attained office at about the same time as many of the original democratically elected leaders of the countries of this Region, constituted largely of very small states, also commenced their periods of governance. Many of them and their successors lived to see Singapore attain a state of economic wealth well beyond that of the countries of our area.

Lee Kuan Yew first became Prime Minister of his country when, in 1959, it was still a dependency. But with Singapore’s expulsion from a British-created Federation of Malyasia which, like many of our then British Caribbean leaders, he favoured as a potentially beneficial arrangement for small countries, he became Prime Minister of an independent Singapore. This event, which he did not favour, occurred in 1965. 

By that time, Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago and Alexander Bustamante of Jamaica had become Prime Ministers of their independent countries, Errol Barrow of Barbados had committed himself against a Federation of the Eastern Caribbean islands and in favour of independence, and but for the then prevailing situation in Guyana, that country would have followed suit before 1966.

The people of this Region, not long after these occurrences, have become accustomed to being reminded of the contrast in the fates of many of our states vis-à-vis that of Singapore. The country, as is now easily acknowledged, achieved an economic status paralleling that of the large and powerful countries of the world; and our people have often been reminded that the fate of their countries, vis-à-vis that of Singapore, cannot be attributed to their small size or the impenetrability of large country markets – the most recent fall-guys for our current economic disorders since the establishment of the WTO agreement.

In continuing discussions in our Region as to why and how Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore was able to attain its current level of economic growth, per capita income now reaching US$50,000, without land permitting the mining of minerals or enough space to encourage large-scale agriculture, much has been made of a certain authoritarianism in Lee Kuan Yew’s governing style. But with our own knowledge of political events, here and in the wider Caribbean, we can hardly allow ourselves the comfort of settling for this kind of explanation.

In fact, in the face of the odds against a small country in the vicinity of then somewhat hostile neighbours like the remaining Malaysia and Sukarno’s dictatorial Indonesia, countries well-endowed with both land for agriculture and mineral exploitation, Lee Kuan Yew took a different course. He conceded that his admittedly somewhat autocratic style was a fact, but recognized that as a small country Singapore could not shut its people off from information and an open economy, in contrast to what was then going on in both China, the land of his ancestors, or in neighbouring Indonesia.

Instead, he insisted on what might be called a collective discipline – on the basis of what was subsequently described as managed democracy – to be exercised by the population, as permitting a continuing commitment to the acceptance of high levels of Western investment. And for him, this latter could only be substantially permissible on the basis, first, of a high level of education and skills intended to ensure the production of goods, and increasingly services, desired by the wealthy metropolitan countries; and consequently, secondly, on developing a population that was readily adaptable to changes in demand from those countries.

Lee Kuan Yew’s second challenge was to ensure that the hostile geopolitical conditions under which his country became independent would not, for long, be sustained. His diplomacy ensured his country remaining in the Commonwealth, anachronistic as some might have felt this institution to be. For he recognized that with potentially hostile neighbours like Sukarno’s Indonesia, and a Malaysia on which Singapore necessarily maintained a certain dependence, a wider institutional sphere of diplomacy was a fundamental requirement for the resolution of potentially threatening issues.

As the years went by, what was often criticized in the Western world as a deviation from the norms of Western democracy, became, perhaps unexpectedly, another diplomatic asset to Lee Kuan Yew, and therefore Singapore. For with the physical decline, and subsequent death, of Mao Zedong, the Chinese leadership, now anxious to be major participants in the global economy, took an interest in what they perceived to be Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore model of free enterprise linked to a controlled political environment.

This was signalled by the visit to Singapore in 1978, of Deng Xiaoping, the effective successor of Mao Zedong, visibly inspecting and reviewing the Singapore experience of opening the economy to free enterprise. This, as became obvious in later years, permitted what is today recognized as a decisive modernization of the Chinese economy, liberalizing its former so-called, command economy.

The consequence was, as the years went by, a significant diplomatic relocating of Singapore, or we might more specifically say, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, as a significant diplomatic entity and interlocutor, small as it is, in Asian affairs; though Lew Kuan Yew, a person with distinct opinions on global affairs and the actions of nations in other regions of the world, would hardly have been under any illusion as to the country’s real global influence.

The recent comments by Prime Minister Kenny Anthony of St Lucia, aligned with the death of Lee Kuan Yew, should induce some contemplation on the part of Caribbean leaders, as to what are the real and fundamental elements permitting economic growth, and a consequent elevation of this Region’s status in today’s changing global economy. Put against that challenge, the continuing fiasco, indicating a state of regional disorder, as to who should be put up for the post of Commonwealth Secretary General pales into insignificance.

Lee Kuan Yew had no illusions about the dependent character of Singapore in the networks of the international capitalist economy. He responded to this economy as it adapted itself, and lived to see the People’s Republic of China, the place of his national and cultural origins, do the same, a factor which we can be sure, he saw as enhancing the security of his own country’s economy into the future.

Is there room for emulation in this part of the world, or will we continue to insist that we can dismiss Lee Kuan Yew’s achievements on the basis that he ran a small autocracy?

Lee Kuan Yew    [From Wikipedia]

Lee Kuan YewGCMGCH (born Harry Lee Kuan Yew, 16 September 1923 – 23 March 2015) was a Singaporean politician. He was the first Prime Minister of Singapore, governing for three decades. His emphasis on rapid economic growth, support for business entrepreneurship, limitations on internal democracy, and close relationships with China set the new nation’s policies for the next half-century.[1] He is recognised as the founding father of modern Singapore, and the only leader known to bring an entire country from third-world to first-world status in a single generation.

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