Lee Kuan Yew leaves behind an ambiguous legacy in Singapore

Singaporeans mourn Lee Kuan Yew. Image: Getty.

This week, we're looking at different perspectives on Lee Kuan Yew's governance of Singapore. Yesterday, we looked at Lee's positive impact on the city-state's economy. Today, we examine the more questionable aspects of his legacy. 

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, died last month at the age of 91. His passing will come as no surprise given his health had worsened in recent times, but it will come as a shock to the Singaporean people nevertheless.

No leader of modern times has been more closely associated with a single country’s fate than Lee. For Singapore’s entire existence as an independent state, Lee exerted a profound direct or indirect influence over the nation and its citizens. Even in retirement as the “minister mentor”, he cast a long shadow from which Singapore has yet to fully emerge.


Despite Lee’s relatively modest background, his intellect and self-confidence distinguished him even while at Raffles College. His education was interrupted by the Second World War and the profoundly shocking, ignominious defeat of the British at the hands of the Japanese. Lee made the pragmatic decision to learn Japanese and work for the occupying forces.

After the war, Lee managed to win a scholarship to Cambridge, where he also met his wife. On his return to Singapore, Lee became immersed in local politics and established the People’s Action Party (PAP), which was originally imbued with a brand of Fabian socialism Lee had acquired in Britain. Lee’s pragmatism was once again in evidence when he briefly allied himself with the Malaysian Communist Party in what he described as a “marriage of convenience”.

As the leader of an increasingly dominant PAP, Lee was at the centre of the on-again, off-again federation with Malaysia. While Lee saw federation as a way of accelerating the end of colonial rule, the Malays eventually baulked at the prospect of including Singapore’s large ethnically Chinese population in the federation. Singapore was expelled and the future looked grim for the small, impoverished, unexpectedly independent city-state.

No doubt Lee played a large part in the subsequent developmental “miracle”, which saw Singapore ultimately achieve some of the highest living standards in the world. And yet Singapore was also in the right place at the right time. The reason Singapore exists at all is because of its place as a natural trading hub in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes. There were immense natural advantages to be exploited as the rest of Asia began to take off.

It is not obvious that the paternalistic, authoritarian, semi-democratic model that Lee built will survive his passing

Singapore’s remarkable economic success story has attracted enormous attention – perhaps more than is merited for a small city-state with a unique and unrepeatable history. Lee was never shy about suggesting why he thought Singapore had prospered, however: far-sighted leadership and guidance from an elite group of incorruptible technocrats and hard work by a grateful population.

By contrast, much of the West was becoming work-shy and decadent. This was one of the reasons Lee famously thought that Australia would become the “poor white trash” of Asia.

Lee’s ideas about the superiority of the Singaporean model came together under the banner of “Asian values”, which he did more than most to champion. Lee’s enthusiastic adoption of Chinese culture, language and some of the principles of Confucianism provided a template for Singapore’s domestic development and a way of explaining the region’s overall development to the rest of the world.

Asians work hard and respect authority, the story goes. This is a convenient combination for any leader not enamoured with individualism or Western-style democracy.

The implausibility of the Asian values story was dramatically undermined by the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the PAP’s political dominance remained undiminished. On the contrary, Lee pioneered new ways of defeating political opponents: a compliant judiciary was used to sue political opponents for defamation.

An equally obliging media did little to hold government to account. Even more effectively, perhaps, Singaporeans who contemplated voting for opposition parties were none-too-subtly reminded of the possible cost of being deprived of government funding in their electorates.

Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, is Singapore’s current prime minister. Image: Gobierno de Chile.

But as in so much of the world, inequality is on the rise in Singapore. Social and ethnic tensions are growing as a consequence. It is not obvious that the paternalistic, authoritarian, semi-democratic model that Lee built will survive his passing. Young Singaporeans may not be as willing as their parents were to make the implicit trade-off between economic development and political liberty that seemed a feature of the Lee era.

And yet given that Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current Singaporean prime minister, it is also possible that an enduring dynasty may be in the making.

Many Singaporeans will no doubt be genuinely saddened to see such a dominant figure depart the stage. They have, after all, never known a time when Lee wasn’t exerting an influence over every aspect of their lives – even who they spent their lives with, in some cases. Surely only Singapore would have come up with a government-sponsored dating agency for the nation’s brightest and best?

But it is not just Singaporeans who will mark Lee’s passing. Lee’s memoirs were adorned with endorsements from the likes of Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and George W. Bush, confirming his status as the Asian oracle and a champion of right-wing politics. Lee quite literally helped put Singapore on the map and its subsequent influence far outstrips the tiny island’s geopolitical significance.

That China’s leaders are now also seeking to learn from Singapore may prove to be Lee’s most enduring legacy – if the lessons are transferable. Whether we would want them to be is another question.

Mark Beeson is a Professor of International Politics at University of Western Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.