Singapore 2.0: Changing Dynamics with the Death of Lee Kuan Yew

By ERICA SLOAN

Although Singapore has been granted a geographic advantage—the small nation is surrounded by water—allowing its economy to boom through free trade and an open port, the nation could not have achieved its current extremely prosperous status without its primary driving force: Lee Kuan Yew.  Yew was the first Prime Minister of Singapore, from 1959, when the nation gained independence from Britain, until 1990.  He died peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital at 3:18am on March 22nd.

The nation’s transformation into a remarkably efficient international financial center (named by the World Bank as the easiest nation with which to do business for 11 consecutive years) can be attributed to Yew’s “Singapore formula.”  To combat the country’s lack of natural resources and potentially volatile ethnic mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians, Yew concentrated on “centralized power, clean government and economic liberalism along with suppression of political opposition and strict limits on free speech and public assembly,” according to the New York Times.  Although these practices can be easily criticized as being undemocratic, the booming economy has mostly insulated the nation from mass protests by the public.

The core of Lew’s philosophy rests on “Asian values,” which embody the Confucian ideals of respect for authority, hard work, thrift, and, most crucially, the belief that the community is more important than the individual.  In keeping with this mindset, Lew and his party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), historically urged Singaporeans to make personal sacrifices for the collective good—a tactic that has generated an unprecedentedly low level of corruption within a culture of fear.  Even so, residents of Singapore have been notoriously preoccupied with achieving a comfortable lifestyle, defined in relation to the Five C’s: cash, condo, car, credit card, country club.

Lew was followed in 1990 by handpicked predecessors, the most recent of which is his eldest son Lee Hsien Loong, who began his term in 2004; it is no surprise that the governing style of Singapore has changed little since Lew’s resignation, and he remained a hugely influential public figure until his death.

Although there were protests displaying anti-PAP sentiment last fall in the Speaker’s Corner of Hong Lim Park (the only public area where protest is allowed in Singapore), the relatively low turnout, lack of organization, and interruption of a YMCA charity event made them insignificant.  Even so, in an increasingly globalized world, where democracy has been heralded as the panacea for both economic success and the freedom of the people, Singaporeans have begun to see the potential of this alternative.  Various opposition parties including the National Solidarity Party, Singfirst and most prominently, the Singapore Democratic Party are calling for equality of the people and a system of checks and balances in government.  In the wake of Lew’s death, there is greater potential for a readjustment of the system if the people rally behind this new cause.
Unfortunately, the people’s ability to truly affect any change or progress has been quickly halted as protests were indefinitely banned at the sole location where they were previously allowed, in the hours following Lew’s death.  The National Parks Board declared the area a community center for honoring the late Prime Minister in accordance with the state, which decided upon seven days of national mourning culminating in a funeral.  It seems almost too convenient that in a period of change inherently provoked by the death of a longtime leader, the Singapore administration would choose the one area marked by free speech to occupy with a Lee Kuan Yew memorial.  Any substantial progress toward a democratic government in Singapore may have to wait until the people have moved on from Yew and fully realized the extent of their oppression.

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