26 March 2015
The passing of Lee Kuan Yew is most definitely a passing of an era. He was so synonymous with the city state that he led for so long that it feels that with his death somehow the identity of Singapore has changed as well.
Was he a successful leader? Without a doubt that economically he was the most successful leader in South East Asia. No other country has developed at the rate of Singapore. It is now a completely developed nation; any claims that it is a “newly developed” country is merely international diplomatic gamesmanship. Its health facilities, education system, public transport and government agencies are amongst the best in the world. And the almost complete lack of corruption is amazing to behold. Anyone can see that Singapore sits more comfortably amongst Western European countries in terms of wealth and prosperity than it does amongst its poor South East Asian cousins.
However in terms of human rights and democratic practices, they are far more at home here!
Apart from being the man who masterminded Singapore’s incredible economic development, Mr Lee was also one of the three “strongmen” of South East Asia (the other two being Suharto and Mahathir Muhamad) who ruthlessly put down any opposition to their rule. They dismissed all notions of a liberal democracy with the excuse that development comes first. Together with Mahathir, Lee was a proponent of the “Asian Values” concept which mistakenly presumes that Asians somehow are not concerned about civil liberties. Of course this “philosophy” was little more than an excuse to ensure their grip on power.
Today we can see that this idea of Asian nations somehow being exempt from human rights is a concept that leads to great problems. Without the checks and balances of a real democracy corruption becomes rampant. The Indonesians were so fed up with it that they had their “reformasi” which ultimately got rid of Suharto and has changed their nation (at least politically) beyond recognition. In Malaysia we are now feeling the fallacy of the “Asian Values” argument as we live with corruption and incompetence but without any real way of changing it (at least not yet).
Yet Singapore is different. Like I said earlier corruption is virtually non-existent and the country cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to be run incompetently. Therefore was Lee Kuan Yew correct?
Many say no, with commentators pointing out that Singaporeans are unhappy. Is this true?
If one looks at the UN’s happiness index, Singaporeans are sort of in the middle of the road. They are neither very happy nor are they very unhappy. Therefore that data does not prove very much. What is more telling are the polls conducted within Singapore itself which show that a huge number of them (more than half in some surveys) would leave the country if they could.
Due to its incredible wealth, this desire to emigrate can’t be for merely economic reasons. There has to be something more than that. I propose it is perhaps the sense of being stifled, of having no real voice, of being stuck in a system that one is powerless to change. In short the intangible qualities of life that provide people with a sense of controlling their own fate; of being free to pursue their own happiness.
I may be wrong of course, I am not Singaporean. But it cannot be denied that so many of them simply don’t want to be there. The lesson here is that as successful as Mr Lee was, and it would be churlish to deny it, that old adage still rings true; money is not everything.