When we Filipinos talk about Singapore, it is nearly always in the context of a broader discussion of what is wrong with the Philippines. Rarely do we talk about our affluent neighbor in order to highlight the positive in our own way of life. Singapore is for many of us the mirror of our aspirations as a people, a living example of the country we could have been, or could still be—if we had the right leaders.
I expect this unfortunate, self-lacerating habit of ours to go into full swing in the wake of the passing of Singapore’s tenacious and deeply feared founding leader—Lee Kuan Yew. Lee, who presided over the affairs of the smallest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for over three decades, was a contemporary of three other strongmen—Suharto of Indonesia, Mahathir of Malaysia, and Marcos of the Philippines.
By far, only Lee’s legacy has endured. It is difficult to argue with success. Under Lee’s autocratic leadership, Singapore transformed itself from an insignificant trading port in the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula into one of the top financial centers of the global economy. More than 7,000 multinational corporations have offices in Singapore, most of these serving as their main Asian headquarters.
From being a transshipment point for finished products and raw materials, the country has become a dynamic center for manufacturing. Unlike Indonesia, it has no oil of its own. But it is now the biggest oil-refining center in the region, and a major producer of oil rigs. Singapore remains a port—indeed, it is one of the world’s five busiest ports, and an important hub for ship repairs. Its gigantic airport is the gateway to Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
Chronically fearful of sliding back, Singapore continually reinvents itself. To boost its tourist industry, it abandoned a long-standing ethical policy against gambling by inviting the world’s largest casino operators to set up shop in their city-state. Very quietly, it has also moved into a new sector of the modern economy—the life sciences—bringing in top scientists from all over the world to work at its cutting-edge laboratories. For some years now, it has been aggressively recruiting the top high school graduates from the region, luring them with full scholarships, and offering them employment and permanent residency when they graduate. Close to a hundred thousand foreign students study in Singapore, making it Asia’s most important educational center.
Singapore’s public bureaucracy can compete with the best-run private corporations in governance and compensation. A strict meritocratic system governs recruitment into the civil service. The best and the brightest are plucked out from the graduating classes of every year, and invited to work in government. They are sent to the best schools abroad for further training. When they finish, they must come home. At one point in their apprenticeship, they are taken on an exposure tour of the region, where they familiarize themselves with the economic environment, the politics, and social realities of Southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, Singapore’s top civil servants are among the highest paid in the world.
The whole country is a technocrat’s dream laboratory. In Singapore, planners are at work daily, formulating new programs and policies, anticipating issues and complaints, and preparing the responses, long before the public has even thought of them. This view of governance as a planning exercise keeps the role of politics to a bare minimum. Virtually the only time it is allowed is during elections. Protest is a highly regulated activity; the designated place for this endangered activity is the “Speakers’ Corner.” Beyond it, you need a police permit for a public gathering of five or more people.
If you make allegations of corruption or wrongdoing against any government official, you could be held liable for libel. The late Lee Kuan Yew was known to file such cases against his critics, and to doggedly pursue them until the offending party pays a financially ruinous fine. If you criticize government programs and policies, you will be challenged to offer a better alternative; otherwise, you will be browbeaten into publicly admitting the foolishness of your views.
Yet, Singapore’s past is far from that of a society of sheep. Indeed, this tiny nation has had a glorious tradition of political dissent. Lee himself belonged to a generation of courageous Singaporeans who spoke sharply and fought fiercely against the British who ruled them until 1959. Most of those who joined Lee at the founding of the People’s Action Party were socialists. They were progressive intellectuals, young professionals and labor organizers who passionately loved their country, but did not always agree on how it should be run once it was free.
One of Lee’s implacable critics was Dr. Lim Hock Siew, a cofounder of the People’s Action Party. On Feb. 2, 1963, he and a hundred other activists were rounded up in a crackdown against suspected communists. Jailed under the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) which gave the executive the power to indefinitely detain anyone considered a threat to national security, Lim spent the next 20 years in prison, refusing an early offer of release in exchange for publicly acknowledging his faults.
The dreaded ISA remains in force until now, a grim reminder to Singaporeans and the rest of the world that this city-state’s phenomenal prosperity and stability owe as much to the vision of Lee Kuan Yew as to the repressive tools by which the government has maintained public order.
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