Singapore in the Post-Lee Kuan Yew era

Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, entered politics soon after his return from legal studies in England in 1950. With colonial Singapore going through political turbulence in the 1950s, Lee was adviser to many trade unions that were then embroiled in conflicts with the colonial authorities or large colonial corporations. He has dominated Singapore politics for sixty years.

Becoming Prime Minister and Transforming Singapore

In November 1954, with like-minded socialist-oriented colleagues, he formed the People’s Action Party (PAP) in a coalition with the left-wing groups, mostly Chinese-educated, who were strongly influenced by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Lee became the PAP’s Secretary General. In June 1959, the PAP won the general elec - tions resoundingly and Lee became Singapore’s prime minister, a position he would hold for the next 31 years. He continued to remain in the government until 2011, first as a Senior Minister and later as a Minister Mentor.

After the general elections in 2011, Lee remained a parliamentarian, until his death on 23 March 2015. In other words, he was one of the longest serving parliamenta-
rians in the world. That partly explains the exceptionalism of the man and the state he came to dominate. From the mud flat and swamp in the 1950s, Singapore was transformed into a metropolis city-state, with one of the highest per capita income and standards of living. Today, its education system is world-class with the National University of Singapore ranked among the top 20 in the world.

It is also one of most attractive states for migration and investment. This has, however, come at the cost of increasing income disparities, political control through soft-
authoritarianism and in the last decade or so, suffering backlashes from its generally open door policy towards foreign migrants.

Post-Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore

Post-Lee Singapore is unlikely to escape from Lee’s Singapore that was carefully crafted in the last fifty years since independence in August 1965. The achievements and shortcomings of what is Singapore will greatly inform on the kind of Singapore one can expect in the near future. Sure enough, Lee succeeded in building a nation out of disparate people. In the 1950s, the successful nation building has taken place with colonial-oriented Malays, Chinese and Indians even though this is still a work-in-progress.

From Weakness to Strength

Lee succeeded in building a rich state and people. Singapore has minimum debt exposure, high reserves and immense all-round wealth. Added to this, Singapore to-
day boasts of a worldclass infrastructure in almost every sector, with it becoming a key regional and global aviation and marine hub. It also has one of the most highly educated people. From a relatively weak and defenceless state, through diplomacy and investment in military hardware, Lee also left behind a strong and secure nation. It has one of the best air forces in the region, backed by a small but highly modern army and navy.

Unlike many developing countries, Lee’s legacy must also include that he bequeathed to the next generation a highly disciplined and able political party that has re-
mained united to this day. In fact, one of Lee’s major learnings of Singapore’s modern history is that the biggest enemy of the ruling People’s Action Party has been the PAP itself. Finally, what Lee succeeded in crafting was a highly outward-looking people, craving to learn and excel, and a highly competitive people which has become part of the Singaporean national DNA today.

Over and above these successes, there is no running away that after more than fifty years, a different Singapore has also emerged. For many, the modern day problems stem from successes rather than failures, say due to availability of higher education, access to the internet, etc. This for many is Singapore’s classic Maslowian dilemma of ‘higher needs’. Yet, this is not the full story. There has been growing discontent over rising property prices, widening income and wealth gaps and the ‘mother of all issues’, the influx of foreigners who are often blamed for many of Singapore’s plights today.

How to address these issues in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era will also help to fashion the type of Singapore that emerges in the near future. In August 2013, Lee Kuan Yew was publicly asked the question whether Singapore will be around in 100 years. His answer: “I am not so sure. America, China, Britain, Australia - these countries will be around in 100 years. But Singapore was never a nation until recently”. To make his point even clearer, he made it known that he more worried about potential political changes at home, Lee said, “I am absolutely sure that if Singapore gets a dumb government, we are done for. The country will sink into nothingness”.

Whether Lee Kuan Yew’s prognosis is correct or simply alarmist, the point is, this is essentially the key question about post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore. The chances are, Singapore will continue in its way of doing things and continue to believe in the ways that things were done in the past. As Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister and the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew said at Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral, “we come together to pledge ourselves to continue building this exceptional country”. As the broad-based right policies politically, economically, socially are in place, these will be largely continue to ensure not only Singapore survives but thrives exceptionally well.

A Country on Autopilot?

Singapore has a functioning political, economic and social system. The country can almost be on autopilot. Singapore is unlikely to slide into chaos. This is due to Lee Kuan Yew’s abiding legacy of the rule of law. However, for many critics, Lee Kuan Yew’s rule of law was tantamount to browbeating his political opponents into sub-
mission even though this had already become a thing of the past. Yet, there is no running away that changes are also in the midst and these will have to be embraced.

In a way, Singapore has also always been about change. As a small state, devoid of resources, a hinterland and a large population, Singapore has survived well by adap-
ting to change and this will continue. In a way, with the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, the PAP and Singapore have lost an extremely powerful and charismatic figure. Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy has been to focus on building a strong team even though there may not be a powerful magnetic figure like him. With the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore irreplaceably also lost a strong international figure who placed Singapore on the world map.

This will be a loss that cannot be replaced and will definitely affect Singapore’s future. In a way Singapore’s grinding political changes of recent years may be hastened and fast-forwarded. Wittingly or unwittingly, Singaporeans can brace themselves for a rebalancing of political power within the republic, with the opposition making fur-
ther gains even though no one expects the ruling PAP to lose power. The lackluster performance of the opposition, espe cially the Workers’ Party, the leading opposi-
tion party, does not give much opportunity of major shifts in the Singapore political terrain.

The other related key question will be whether the PAP will be able to maintain its internal unity or will factionalism inflict it as it has many political parties once a strong-
man leaves the scene.

Conclusion

Lee Kuan Yew departed from Singapore, leaving a strong superstructure politically, economically and social-culturally. Yet, there is no way of avoiding changes in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era even though the type of changes and challenges remain to be seen especially in the political arena which will become clear in the coming gene-
ral election that must be held by January 2017. Whatever happens, presently, Singapore’s approach is a simple one – ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

Some of the changes that can be expected are – a more left-of-centre shift with focus on welfare programmes and addressing head-on public issues like housing short -
age, rising healthcare costs and breakdowns in the transport system. Other than that, there will be likely greater political openness, though gradually calibrated with increasing accountability, transparency and willingness of engaging the public on key issues.

Dr. Bilveer Singh

Dr. Bilveer Singh has taught at the National University of Singapore for 35 years. He is also attached to the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and is the current President of the Political Science Association, Singapore.