It’s easy to forget that the gleaming Singapore of 2015 was once a tinderbox of interethnic hatred that, in the 1950s and 60s, erupted in a series of race riots. In the summer of 1964, for instance, just months before Singapore was essentially expelled from the newly established Federation of Malaysia, a street fight broke out between Malay and Chinese young men, which in turn sparked a broader conflagration that led to 23 deaths and many more injuries. To understand modern Singapore — its strengths as well as its flaws — it is absolutely essential to understand that its founding generation feared nothing more than a renewal of this kind of violence.
Lee Kuan Yew’s death this Sunday has brought widespread, and well-deserved, praise for his central role Singapore’s astonishing and almost uninterrupted economic rise over the past 50 years. No one even bothers to dispute Lee’s success in this regard, and for good reason. In 2013, Singapore’s GDP per capita (PPP) stood at $76,860 in 2013, compared with $53,750 for the United States or, for a closer analogue, $54,270 for Hong Kong.
Singapore is not a paradise, as Singaporeans will happily tell you. What’s striking, however, is that the average Singaporean’s gripes, in a city-state with four official languages and three major ethnic groups — Chinese, Malay, and Indian — that haven’t gotten along historically and generally don’t get along anywhere else, aren’t really about race.
Housing is obscenely expensive, despite the government’s unique and in its own way very admirable public housing program. But one doesn’t get the impression that members of Singapore’s South Asian or Malay minorities feel shortchanged by local housing policies. High immigration levels are resented by locals, who hate the congestion it seems to exacerbate. Yet Singaporeans aren’t generally concerned about the racial dimension of immigration. They’re more likely to have a problem with mid-skilled Chinese immigrants who compete with them for service jobs or with high-flying European and American expats than with, say, the low-skilled Bangladeshis who work back-breaking jobs in construction. And yes, Singapore is now rich enough that it is home to a cottage industry of academics who complain about income inequality. They’re joined by a growing number of ordinary Singaporeans, particularly those young enough to have no memory of when their country was poor. Yet no one argues that Singapore’s inequality problem is first and foremost a racial problem. It’s true that Malay Singaporeans are more likely to be disciplined in school or to have run-ins with the law than members of the Chinese majority, and they tend to have lower household incomes. Nevertheless, local Malays are generally confident that they’re treated fairly. This is a bigger deal than you might think. In Malaysia, Malay resentment of the country’s more affluent Chinese minority is a festering problem to this day, which has led many of that country’s best and brightest to emigrate. And as recently as 1998, Indonesia saw a terrifying outbreak of anti-Chinese violence. There is no other country in Southeast Asia where minorities feel so safe and secure.
Lee went on to serve as Singapore’s prime minister uninterrupted from independence until 1990. Though there is no question that he enjoyed wide support, he also kept careful control of the media and engineered an electoral system that limited the reach of his political opponents. Early on, this hardly made Lee look especially despotic: Until the so-called “third wave” of democratization in the 1980s, multi-party democracies in East Asia were rare and short-lived. But as Taiwan and South Korea liberalized, Singapore came to look like more of an outlier. Lee stood out in his willingness to defend his brand of illiberalism.
Since Lee stepped down as premier, however, Singapore has opened up quite a bit. The dominance of Lee’s People’s Action Party is slowly eroding, and many Singaporeans, including many PAP members, expect that the country will have a non-PAP government in the not-too-distant future. Moreover, the PAP has responded to the growing strength of the political Left by curbing immigration (in Singapore considered a left-wing cause) and expanding the welfare state. Though Singapore still has state-controlled media entities that shrink from criticizing the government as you might expect, the country is ever more open to critical voices, both from abroad and at home. These last vestiges of authoritarianism are increasingly seen as an embarrassment by young Singaporeans, and it’s hard to imagine that they won’t soon fade away.
The notion of Singapore as a repressive dictatorship is, in other words, badly dated. It is becoming more and more like other affluent market democracies, for better or for worse. What Lee’s critics don’t seem to appreciate is that for all his curmudgeonly illiberalism, his rule paved the way for Singapore to become the more messy, rambunctious democracy we’re starting to see today. Had he not vigorously opposed Communism and carefully kept a lid on racial nationalism, things might have turned out very differently.
— Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review.