This year I will be 31—the same age as Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew when he started the People’s Action Party in 1954.
My generation may not fully agree with his politics, even as we benefit from some of his policies. But can we love Singapore as fiercely? Can we look clear-eyed at Lee’s legacy and work out for ourselves which parts are worth carrying on and which parts are more burden than gift?
If a country is to thrive over the long run, it must be able to move on from its founding fathers, while upholding and adapting the founding principles that made it great. I think of former Foreign Affairs minister George Yeo, who in 1991 spoke of freeing non-state civic institutions to thrive: of needing to “prune the banyan trees so other plants can grow.”
This pruning, and the flourishing of other plants, started some years ago.
Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been prime minister since 2004, and though the elder Lee remained highly influential he took a less active role in public life and parliamentary debate. So while his passing marks the end of an era, it may be less of an inflection point for Singapore than many think.
Lee’s rise to power was bolstered by keeping a keen eye on the bread-and-butter concerns of ordinary Singaporeans. But today intergenerational mobility is beginning to ossify, while income inequality is among the highest in the developed world.
If you want to talk about bread and butter issues, what about advocating for the least of Singapore’s people, those left behind by Singapore’s much-vaunted economic growth and those on whose backs that growth is still being built?
Another highlight of the governance model that Lee so carefully built is Singapore’s incredibly well paid civil service. Today, to a great extent, Singapore’s public administration is genuinely selected on the basis of merit, not class or parental connections. But these high salaries run the risk of becoming a perverse incentive, in which people enter government or civil service motivated by money.
If we think a policy of elite governance has created a two-tier system of insiders and outsiders or fostered top civil servants out of touch with the ground, we need to remember joining this elite is not the only career path. Either reject this two-tier system, or for those already in it, aspire to serve or govern as best you can.
Singapore’s vaunted economic growth model isn’t beyond questioning either. Is the foundation of its growth becoming a new vulnerability for Singapore? In the drive to grow Singapore’s economy as fast as possible in the early decades of independence, the infant state went big on foreign direct investment as a path to wealth. Between 1970 and 2013, foreign direct investment ballooned from $93 million to $63 billion. And so industry today continues to be dominated by multinational firms that site their manufacturing and regional head offices here.
That strategy has worked very well for the last three decades, but it presents a different kind of vulnerability if Singapore doesn’t grow its own startups and support homegrown enterprises—fast.
But there are factors that hold back innovation and entrepreneurship in Singapore—the rent is high, for instance, and the prevailing culture encourages risk-aversion in young people. So it’s up to my generation to try to overcome those.
Some have even argued that Singapore’s emphasis on growth and money as an end in itself has fostered a “vacuous sense of national identity.” The onus, therefore, is on my generation to go one better.
But the most pressing of all is to make amends for Lee’s heavy-handed repression of dissidents and critics, and reform media laws.
In those early tinderbox years, when a spark could set off riots, perhaps such restrictions were justified, but today an informed electorate would rather have a larger say. And Singapore and its institutions would be stronger and more trusted for a more open media that enjoys greater credibility and legitimacy.
In 1968, addressing the University of Singapore, Lee said, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.”
In a delightful irony, about a decade ago, his granddaughter Li Xiuqi wrote a poem that speaks for a generation accused of being too far removed from the turbulent early years of Singapore’s birth:
“Not being born, I didn’t know/this time when Singapore boiled and bled… I didn’t know; I didn’t share; I didn’t fight; I wasn’t there. And so, although this is my land, I only love it secondhand.”
Li speaks for my generation, the last generation to remember Lee Kuan Yew alive, as a dynamic politician and elder statesman, not just the frail party member waving from the stands at National Day Parades.
But I am also a parent-to-be, and I think Li also speaks for my future children and their children, born to a world beyond the banyan’s shadow.
Being told precisely what to do can be comforting in the short run, but in the long run, Singapore’s citizens must find our own way in the world. Are we bold enough to engineer, as Lee did, disruptive change where needed?
A final word: Yes, go ahead and mourn. By all means, mark the benefits of Lee’s legacy. But remember that it alone is not sufficient to carry the country forward—and that neither the best nor the worst of Singapore’s features can be attributed to him alone. And then do what he would have done himself: pick right up and carry on fighting for the Singapore you believe in.
The real lesson was his leadership by example: instead of sitting around complaining about being stifled by past regimes, instead of stretching out your open palm in supplication, have a vision and stand up for it. Perhaps even devote your life’s work to it.
The other day, a friend wrote by way of Facebook eulogy: “From here on, my dear Singaporeans, it’s all on us.” The thing is, it has been us all along.