Few individuals can claim to have had such an impact on the urban world as Lee Kuan Yew, the politician who oversaw Singapore's development for more than half a century. Elected as the city-state’s first prime minister in 1959, he held the office until 1990. Even after that he remained in the Cabinet for another 21 years, first as “senior minister”, then as “minister mentor”.
Lee remained an MP even after that – but old age has begun to take its toll, and on 5 February the 91 year old was admitted to hospital. Earlier today, the government released a statement announcing Lee was in intensive care. In a 2013 book, he wrote that he had signed a “do not resuscitate” order, asking doctors not to keep him alive if death seems imminent.
Lee was elected in 1959, aged just 35, as the city-state was breaking from the British Empire. By promoting education, self-reliance, and foreign investment, he set the tone of authoritarian hyper-capitalism which still characterises the city's political culture today.
On a strictly economic level this strategy worked tremendously. Its population boomed, more than tripling from 1.6m in 1959 to 5.2m in 2011, and it’s generally to be found in the top five of most world city rankings. By 2012, the Brookings Institute was reckoning Singapore as the 14th wealthiest city in the world. Ranked as a state, it comes even higher (generally 3rd or 4th), making it richer than any individual western country.
From a western liberal perspective, some of Lee’s record was rather less appealing. This from a 2013 Economist column:
Singapore imposes harsh punishments – including caning and the death penalty – for some crimes, and retains a draconian act allowing detention without trial of those deemed a threat to national security.
Another criticism concerns:
Mr Lee’s habit of celebrating an election victory not with a magnanimous word of consolation to the opposition he had just trounced, but with a lawsuit for defamation, always leading to a legal victory for Mr Lee and sometimes to bankruptcy for the loser.
Nonetheless, Lee Kuan Yew retains a reputation as the founding father of modern Singapore. This banner shows a message to his constituents in Tanjong to celebrate last week's Chinese new year.