Few political leaders will leave behind legacies as influential as Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. But then Lee, although he governed a small city-state, is inarguably one of postcolonial Asia’s most pivotal figures. Under his stewardship, Singapore recovered from the scars of a painful divorce from Malaysia in 1965 and was transformed from a fragile nation riven with ethnic conflict into a prosperous city-state. Lee’s soft authoritarianism won many admirers, most notably in China, where Deng Xiaoping had embarked on a similar campaign to marry the economic opportunities afforded by the free market with a political system designed to perpetuate single-party rule.
Singapore’s economic success and apparent social stability have given rise to loose talk of an “Asian model” that is promoted as an attractive alternative to the untidy and sometimes debilitating challenges of democracy. But Singapore’s size — it is a city of a few million people — is an obvious counterpoint to the Singapore fantasy nurtured by many in a larger, more diverse country like India. Moreover, Lee contrived to remain a singular figure, seen as incorruptible and pragmatic, who was able to keep Singapore’s government unusually clean — something that China’s leaders, for instance, are unable to emulate.
Lee himself doubted the existence of an Asian model. Instead, he spoke of “Asian values”, arguing that there were “fundamental differences between Western concepts of society and government and East Asian concepts”. But Singapore’s fellow Asian tigers, like South Korea and Taiwan, which followed the enlightened authoritarianism trajectory, transitioned to democracy. Singapore itself faces stark questions about how to remain competitive. Given its ageing population, it is increasingly reliant on immigrant labour to fuel growth, which is causing tension with citizens who complain of depressed wages. Even in Singapore, the durability of the Singapore model is debatable.