Navigate / search

From third world to First: Singapore and the Asian Economic boom(Part 1)

When Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew took over the Position of Prime Minister in 1959 when the Capital GDP of the Island state of Singapore was USD $400.He stepped down from the position in 1990 when the capital GDP had grown to US $ 22,000

What made this tremendous change for the country in 30 years?Learning the role of political leadership in economical and social improvement of the country is what this review is all about as narrated by himself in his eye opening book.

The concept of Character of the Nations is an interesting study area in the evolving study of International Studies. The process through which nations acquire their unique identities in a competitive world must be of great fascination to every student in this field.

This paper traces the illustrious journey of the nation state of Singapore in the words of the most significant of its architects, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Yew took over the position of Prime minister in 1959 when the per capita GDP of the island state was US $ 400.He stepped down from the position in 1990 when the per capita GDP had grown to US $ 22,000.

In 1965, Singapore was unwillingly hurled out of a union with Malaysia following strive between the dominant Malay people and the people of Chinese descent who occupied Singapore province. The Malaysian authorities at that time had expected that Singapore would come back begging for incorporation into the union as a client state.

That did not happen. The marshy island of 640 square kilometres that was once a British colonial trading post took the challenge in its stride to build one of the most successful Asian metropolis. Fast forward to 2013 and Singapore boasts of the world’s number one airline, best airport and the busiest seaport. Singaporeans pride themselves in the world’s fourth highest per capita real income.

The foreword to the book is written by Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, the former Secretary of State to the United States of America. Kissinger quickly recognises the folly of western nations in ignoring historical and cultural factors in imposing their values on emerging nations. He says that assuming that politics and cultures will get homogenized just because we have ensured uniformity in technology could be unrealistic.

He also recognises the contribution that strong and capable leadership can make towards shaping the destiny of a nation. Kissinger notes the fact that the success of Singapore is the realisation of a dream come true of a man who chose to continue believing in the beauty of his dream even when circumstances pointed otherwise.

Yew describes the history of his country paying great attention to detail. According to him, Singapore was “not a natural country but man-made, a trading post the British had developed into a nodal point in their worldwide maritime empire. During the Second World War, Singapore fell to the occupation of the imperial Japanese army in 1942.The British recaptured the island in 1945 following the surrender of Japan. The island state was granted self independence by Britain in 1959. In 1963, Singapore declared independence from Britain and joined Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form the Federation of Malaysia.

The union with Malaysia was an unhappy one. Many of the bills sponsored by Singapore in the parliament were blocked. In 1964, race riots broke out in Singapore and in 1965, the Malaysian parliament voted to expel Singapore from the union. The main bone of contention had been that Singapore stood for the establishment of a multi-racial society while the Malay wanted to create Malay dominated Malaysia by preserving special privileges for the Malay people.

Lee Kuan Yew, leading the People’s Action Party (PAP) became the prime minister of the state from 1959 to 1990 and is credited for much of the success that the country has recorded.

Albeit indirectly, Yew attributes much of his success to the success and companionship offered to him by his family. A large portion of the book describes his relationship with the family and how the family interacted with the state during his long career in public service. He describes his wife Kwa Geok Choo as “a great source of strength and comfort” . Regarding the upbringing of their three children, Hsien Loong, Wei Ling and Hsien Yang, Yew explains how the couple decided to forego the comfort of his official residence so that the children would not grow up in “such grand surroundings.” Doing so would have made the kids develop an unrealistic view of the world.

The children were left to decide the careers of their own choices only with the slight intervention of the mother when Ling was about to choose to become a vet. The mother guided her to take up medicine and grew up to become a paediatric neurologist.

Yew gives succinct details of how his son Loong grew to become the current prime minister of Singapore. He goes further to refute any claims of nepotism on his part and illustrates how Loong won the leadership of the country out of his own merit.

It is evident that Lee Kuan Yew is strongly influenced by Confucian values. Confucian values, as he explains place the interests of the community higher than those of individuals. This he believes is one of the greatest differences between the Eastern and the Western civilizations.

The values do not just explain Yew’s strong attachment to his own family. They permeate every aspect of society. For example, Yew defends his decision to retain detention without trial in the laws of Singapore on the basis of Confucian values. He explains that according to Confucian values, he had a responsibility to place the interests of the community above those of the individual. He accordingly had to act firmly against communist subversives against whom it was impossible to get anyone to witness against in open courts.

Another of the Confucian values that he emphasises is the importance of order. He believes that freedom as propagated from an American viewpoint leads to the breakdown of public order and this is evidenced by the wide spread use of drugs, gun violence, use of vulgar language in public, consumerism and vagrancy as seen in American societies. In contrast, Confucian doctrine teaches a culture of hard work, thrift, and respect for elders and “for scholarship and learning”. He explains that to preserve the peoples moral and social values, the government had reinforced the inherited values of honesty, respect to parents, hard work and thrift, and loyalty to country and friends. They had as well punished the “dark side of Chinese Confucianism” namely nepotism, favouritism, and corruption.

According to Yew, there is such a thing as “evil” and an understanding of the moral and ethical basis of a society can be a pointer to its stability. Yew harshly criticises the thinking among some American scholars that the American society has advanced to such a level where everyone were better off if they were allowed to do their thing their own way.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index has persistently named Singapore as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. The Institute of Management Development’s World Competitiveness Yearbook 1997 ranked Singapore as the least corrupt nation in Asia scoring 9.18 out of a score of 10 points for a perfect country without corruption.
Yew attributes this distinction to two factors: the Confucian values espoused by the majority of the population and strong non-compromising anti-corruption laws. He says that even if Confucianism would expect a man to be dutiful to friends and to family, the presumption is that the help would come from his personal and not official resources.
He intertwines this theory by adding the importance of the influence of colonization by the British, noting that the British influence may have enabled the city state to introduce good checks and balances into their systems. He also notes that Hong Kong, also a former British colony has low levels of corruption. In these countries, corruption and cronyism is minimised because public servants are referees and not market participants. They exercise their authority as a trust of the public.

Singapore’s anticorruption laws can be said to be draconian. The principal agency charged with the task of eradicating corruption in Singapore is the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). Yew explains how the CPIB was empowered gradually particularly through legislation that gave powers to investigators to arrest, search and investigate bank accounts, bankbooks of suspected persons, their children, their wives and their agent. In 1960, courts were allowed to treat proof that an accused was living beyond his or her means or had property his or her income could not afford as corroborating evidence that the accused had accepted or obtained a bribe. The CPIB was accommodated in the Prime Minister’s office. In 1989, the maximum fines for corruption were increased from S$10,000 TO S$ 100,000.

TITLE: From third world to First: Singapore and the Asian Economic boom.
AUTHOR: Lee Kuan Yew.
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins Publishers.
NO. OF PAGES: 729.

There are more to learn in Part two.

Leave a comment


email* (not published)