Singapore Prepares for World Without Lee Kuan Yew

When Lee Kuan Yew entered the hospital with pneumonia last month, his latest bout of ill health revived an often muted public discussion about what this affluent city-state would become after its founding prime minister passed from the scene.

Mr. Lee, who died at 91 on Monday, has been widely credited for turning what had been a malaria-ridden British trading post into a gleaming economic success story. Singaporeans now enjoy a standard of living comparable with Japan and advanced European and North American economies, albeit without a pluralistic political system, a free press or strong dissenting voices.

But what comes next? In many ways, Singaporeans have been quietly preparing for a future without the steadying influence of the republic’s founding father.

The past four years were the first that an independent Singapore experienced without Mr. Lee in government. He stepped down from his advisory role of “minister mentor” in the cabinet in 2011, just a week after the ruling People’s Action Party recorded its worst electoral showing in five decades—a result that government officials and political observers have attributed to festering socioeconomic tensions in recent years.

Since then, Singapore’s strategy of prioritizing economic expansion has taken something of a back seat. In recent years, residents have become more vocal with complaints, often revolving around issues such as rising housing and transport costs, an influx of foreign labor and widening income inequality.

The ruling party has pledged to dial down its growth targets and think of better ways of sharing the fruits of the state’s success with lower- and middle-income residents; Mr. Lee’s son and current leader, Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong, is overseeing this recalibration.

Under the younger Mr. Lee, who took office in 2004, the government has attempted to shake off Singapore’s fusty image and rebrand it as a cosmopolitan center for culture and commerce. It recently started introducing higher taxes on the wealthy and greater welfare spending, part of a longer-term push to remold the country’s economy and adjust to changing social demands.

“With profound changes in Singapore’s economic context and a more plural political environment, some of Lee Kuan Yew’s policy ideas and style may have become less relevant,” said Yeoh Lam Keong, an economist and adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“Even so, the core social democratic ideals and objectives pursued by the team of founding fathers he led are arguably just as relevant today—seeking egalitarian access to education, health care, housing and public infrastructure, as well as a population and immigration policy that was more deeply aware of the social and environmental dangers of overcrowding,” Mr. Yeoh said. “We can definitely do much more to refocus our efforts on pursuing these goals.”

Singapore’s shift on social policy also straddles a broader debate over how this Southeast Asian nation should chart its course in a future without its guiding architect.

“More people are questioning what’s next, and in answering that question, I don’t think people are asking what Lee Kuan Yew would have wanted or how he would have answered those questions,” a Singaporean political analyst and former senior civil servant said.

The debate has gained particular salience this year as Singapore prepares to mark its 50th anniversary of independence, gained through its acrimonious separation from neighboring Malaysia. While the government has planned celebrations that trumpet Singapore’s myriad achievements under the rule of the People’s Action Party, many residents also see the occasion as a signpost of political and social transition in the tiny island state of 5.4 million.

Many local activists and artists, for instance, are planning events and performances that celebrate alternative narratives of Singaporean history, deviating from the official government effort—known as SG50—to commemorate the landmark year.

“We are attempting to challenge established narratives and to provide new perspectives and ideas about what Singapore was, and what it can be,” said Lim Jialiang, a university student and an organizer of Project 50/100, a grass-roots effort to showcase alternative histories and visions for the city-state. “To face the future, we have to be honest about the past.”

Some observers, however, say Mr. Lee’s legacy of authoritarian rule and hard-nose social policies still loom large, and could color public discourse in the city-state for years to come.

Government leaders, and many Singaporeans, still appear to “view, analyze and respond to problems and issues with the tools and perspectives that Mr. Lee held dear,” said Alex Au, a blogger and Singaporean social commentator. These include the ruling party’s “hypersensitivities” toward issues of race and religion, its focus on trickle-down economics, and its brand of elite governance that party leaders say is necessary to overcome Singapore’s unique vulnerability as a tiny, resource-poor island state, he said.

“The values, myths, imagined enemies and hypochondriacal fears of chaos that Mr. Lee propagated still remain largely unquestioned,” Mr. Au said.

Party insiders, however, say that Mr. Lee’s stern style of governance ensured Singapore’s stability and allowed it to prosper.

“The clean and efficient government of today is a result of a culture that Mr. Lee and his founding team of PAP leaders created,” said Inderjit Singh, a ruling party lawmaker. Crucially, Mr. Lee also established “a robust process and institutionalized the system of [leadership] renewal,” and “made sure that the current leaders got used to managing without him.”

Some sterner aspects of the elder Mr. Lee’s rule have eased in recent years, as his son relaxed certain political and social controls put in place by the republic’s first generation of leaders. But a further loosening of Singapore’s tightly controlled political system—such as its strict rules on media freedoms, public speech and assembly—appears unlikely for the foreseeable future, critics say.

That “is something that half a century of authoritarian rule by Lee Kuan Yew simply cannot handle,” says Catherine Lim, a Singapore-based author and commentator.

Instead, a fresh wave of political liberalization may come with a new generation of leaders who are more responsive to “a younger, more vocal, more sophisticated electorate, created by the Internet and social media,” she said.


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