Imagine a country in the 20th century that went from a per capita income of $500 to one of $50,000 in 30 years. Imagine further that the country had no natural resources and was roughly 150 times smaller than Alabama.
What would we think about a leader who achieved such spectacular results?
Meet Lee Kuan Yew, who would have been 100 this month. From 1959 to 1990 he served as Singapore’s prime minister and was largely responsible for bringing this third world country into the first world. A visionary leader who contemplated greatness for his country that few could imagine, he refused to accept the low expectations of his people's capabilities, embarking on a mission of almost unachievable goals.
When Lee (in Singapore last names come before given names) accepted the mantle of political leadership, the world bequeathed to him was not stable, secure, or certain. Singapore was a city-state with a strategically located port where ships from all over the world docked, but that seemed to be its only natural asset.
Far from homogeneous, Singapore's people were ethnically diverse with a stratified community of various faiths and cultures, with little historical memory. Other than the business of trade, the country had no unifying or organizing principle for political cohesion.
However, Lee, who trained as a lawyer in Cambridge with a smattering of additional education from the London School of Economics, created a political party that focused on a peaceful transition to home rule within the British Empire. Politically, he never sought independence but saw Singapore as part of a larger state, merged with other, smaller countries that were former colonies in his region.
Initially, this concept worked, and for at least a few years, Singapore was part of Malaysia. But, with boundaries artificially defined and few commonalities between the people, Singapore was not a great fit as part of an emerging country.
Within the combined territories that comprised Malaysia, there were many ethnic-based factions fueled by competing Cold War ideologies. Singapore became infected with racial strife leading to riots stirred up by Malaysian ethnic rivalries.
To stop the bloodshed, Malaysia decided to expel Singapore, inadvertently making Singapore the first country to achieve independence. Thus, against its will, Singapore was foisted, kicking and screaming, into nationhood.
No one was sure how a large city could maintain a separate independent state in a rough neighborhood. But for Lee's leadership, Singapore could easily have become a pawn in the larger Cold War or a satellite in the Chinese sphere of influence.
But Lee had a different vision. Although devastated by Singapore's expulsion, he embraced the opportunity, creating a vision for Singapore that would set in motion prosperity unimaginable to anyone – except for Lee Kuan Yew.
Realizing the vulnerabilities of the new country, Lee sought Singapore's diplomatic recognition. He applied for entrance and was accepted into the United Nations. Largely dependent on other countries and with no minerals or other resources, he entered treaties with surrounding nations. He also imposed conscription to rapidly build up a defense force.
Removing all Communist elements from his government, Lee supported President Johnson's policies in Vietnam, placing his small city-state on the world stage within a few years of independence.
Economically, Lee realized he must create employment opportunities for his citizens. Knowing that work and a high standard of living were key to his independent country's growth and development, he created an economic policy providing incentives for foreign investments. He built factories and provided job training. Embracing the British legal system he adopted the common law so that foreign investors would know with certainty their rights would be protected against any nationalization. This stability, along with a low tax base and a highly skilled but cheap labor force, expanded Singapore's economy to new heights.
As prime minister, Lee ran a squeaky-clean government with zero tolerance for corruption. One means to prevent corruption was to pay government employees a high wage, so there was no incentive to supplement a government salary with bribes.
But the economic growth came at a cost. Even while embracing a market economy to efficiently allocate resources, the people of Singapore were not given the rights Lee observed during his time in Britain. Censorship of the press was practiced to prevent criticism of government policies. Singapore also strictly enforced its criminal laws with public corporal punishment for littering or execution of anyone found guilty of trafficking in narcotics. When questioned about the severity of these laws, Lee's supporters pointed to the cleanliness of the city and the lack of serious crime.
Several human rights groups objected to Singapore's human rights violations, but that did not stop foreign investment in the manufacturing sector, financial services, and international trade. Businesses liked the stability of the government but were also drawn to the work ethic of the people.
When asked why Singapore experienced such dynamic growth, Lee named “manpower resources” as the most critical factor to achieving national competitiveness, which he believed was exhibited in creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and good management.
Retiring from government in 1990, Lee continued to serve in an advisory role, becoming a commentator about leadership, economic development, and the power of ideas. His legacy as a visionary leader grew after his death in 2015, and his accomplishments are studied and cited as authority for creating a dynamic economy from scratch.
One quote worth highlighting as we remember Lee Kuan Yew on his birthday is as follows: "A nation is great not by its size alone. It is the will, the cohesion, the stamina, the discipline of its people and the quality of their leaders which ensures it an honorable place in history."
Will Sellers is a graduate of Hillsdale College and an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama. He is best reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
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