Unlike many military leaders in Myanmar and Cambodia, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore wasn’t a tyrant who brutalized or impoverished his people. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore was the longest-serving prime minister in the world for 31 years and even held advisory positions for his two successors including his son. Fortunately, Lee Kuan Yew’s 52 years serving in government guided Singapore to one of the leading financial centers and ranked third GPA per capita in the world. Many people believed that Singapore reflected Lee Kuan Yew’s principles as an efficient, unsentimental, incorrupt, inventive, forward-looking and pragmatic government.
Lee’s “Singapore model” including centralized power(one party dominant), clean government and a laissez-faire economy that was actually a soft form of authoritarianism: suppressing political opposition, free speech and public assembly, and creating a climate of caution and self-censorship. Lee concentrated on attracting investment and creating jobs but enforced some rigid laws and regulations restricting media and political freedoms and even selling of chewing gum.
As an extreme example of his control, Since 2004, the government has not allowed buying or selling any gum, and there is a $700 fine for spitting out gum on the streets. One time, an American reporter asked Lee’s opinion about a scientific research result that chewing gum may help boost people’s creativity. Lee responded, “Putting chewing gum on our subway train doors so they don’t open, I don’t call that creativity. I call that mischief-making. If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana.” Lee claimed that he wanted social peace but he never believed that democracy would work in Asia. He was immune to pressures for the political liberty in the British tradition even though he went to Cambridge University.
The commentator Cherian George described Mr. Lee’s leadership as “a unique combination of charisma and fear.” Lee was proud to describe himself as a political street fighter more feared than loved. He was a master of “Asian values”: the good of society took the first place before individuals and autonomy. In fact, people trusted Lee to keep order and bring prosperity. Lee managed to build strong working relationships with other Southeast Asian leaders. Lee made a ground-breaking visit to China in 1976 when other countries was still deeply suspicious of Beijing’s role in supporting in chaos and received Deng Xiaoping in Singapore two years later. Lee stepped down as prime minister after 31 year in 1990 and was succeeded by Mr Goh Chok Tong. He was appointed Senior Minister on Nov 28. In 2011, he stepped down from the Cabinet and died in March in 2015.
Following Lee’s retreat from government in 2011, Lee’s People’s Action Party lost 40% of the seats in parliament to the opposition in the same year. Lee’s party is not enough for young Singaporeans anymore. Especially after Lee Kuan Yew died in March, 2015, the young generation want more opportunities to speak up. One example was Amos Yee, a teenage boy who uploaded a video titled Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead several days after Lee died. Yee was arrested and convicted for a serious criminal charge but many people supported and praised him. They saw him as a free speech advocate who inclined to openly speak up against the system as a kind of hero, and worthy of praise.
Experts believe that now it is the moment for Singapore to embrace democratic principles fully because people are increasingly unhappy with one-party rule and growing income inequality. Lee’s leadership and legacy directed Singapore from old British chaotic colony to an economically prosperous country. However the problem with successful dictators is that there is no guarantee the successors are capable enough. There was only one Lee. Now Singapore may be more ready for practical pluralism.