With unshakable determination and a frightening ruthlessness, Lee Kuan Yew created a model society, busy but also neat and efficient, in many ways the Switzerland of Asia. Few modern leaders have demanded such thorough control over those they ruled, especially in a nominally democratic state. Singapore, in short, is the world’s best argument for authoritarianism.
Yet can Singapore survive in its present state? There are two reasons to suggest it cannot. First, the People’s Action Party, the political organization Lee created, looks like it will have to share power soon. It has ruled continuously since even before independence in 1965, and in its early years he freely wielded a political hatchet. Until 1981, the party captured every seat in every election for Parliament, a testament to the obsessiveness of Lee, who stepped down as prime minister at the height of his power in 1990 and died Monday at 91.
Since then, the PAP has remained in control. It now holds 80 of 87 elected seats in the unicameral legislature.
The party is not as popular as its seat total suggests, however. In the last general parliamentary election, in May 2011, it garnered 60.1 percent of the popular vote. Moreover, its percentage of the total has declined over time. The erosion should be evident in the next general parliamentary contest, scheduled for 2016, especially if the economy continues to wind down.
Economic problems are becoming obvious. The country is entering a period of deflation—February was the fourth straight month the consumer price index was in negative territory—and growth continues to disappoint, consistently underperforming forecasts. With export markets in Asia slumping, analysts point to a deteriorating environment this year, and there is little to suggest a reversal of adverse trends. That’s the brush for a political fire.
But the PAP is troubled by something far more important than a stalling economy or anger over income inequality and high housing prices. Even while Lee was alive, there was a sense the city-state had to move beyond one-party rule. And the death of the great man will only strengthen this feeling.
The principal problem for the PAP is not so much the passing of Lee but the passing of generations. Older Singaporeans, whatever they may feel about their former leader, know of his trials and triumphs. Younger ones, of course, have far less knowledge or gratitude. “The ones under 30, who’ve just grown up in stability and growth year by year, I think they think that I’m selling them a line just to make them work harder but they are wrong,” Lee told UCLA’s Tom Plate and USC’s Jeffrey Cole in October 2007. “The problem is they don’t believe. They think I’m wrong.”
Relentless modernization, one of Lee’s great legacies, and the passage of time, something he could not prevent, are almost always the enemies of authoritarian systems, even when they appear benign as Singapore’s. As one high-up official in the PAP and Singapore government said to a good friend of mine, “Things are going to have to change.”
The other problem for the PAP is that, having accomplished so much, it is beginning to appear less needed. The party has always made the case, whether directly or indirectly, that only it could keep Singapore’s multi-ethnic society together. On the island, almost 5.5 million ethnic Chinese, Malays, Tamils, Indians, Westerners, and others live side by side, squeezed into less than 280 square miles, and the peace among various peoples is not always easily kept.
Singapore is surrounded by two sometimes-volatile societies. It is nestled up against Malaysia, connected by two short causeways. Indonesia is just across a narrow strait, in sight of Singapore’s main island. The concern, justifiably felt by Singaporeans of all stripes, is that trouble in either neighbor could spill over their border and tear their own country apart.
In recent years, Malaysia and Indonesia have been mostly tranquil. Should they remain so, the PAP’s argument that its strong hand is essential could sound off-key to an electorate now assuming stability and seeking liberalization.
Yet in a moment that calculus in Singapore could change. Any incident can trigger a riot, such as a traffic fatality. The disturbances in Singapore’s Little India district in December 2013, set off by a bus accident that killed an Indian, were not as bad as those in 1964, when Chinese and Malays fought each other, but today resentment is evident throughout many sectors of society, made worse by a recent tide of immigrants from South Asia.
Lee Kuan Yew receded from political involvement as he aged, but he remained in the background as a father figure where many accept Confucian norms. It is telling that when he relinquished power in 1990, he became senior minister. Then he stepped back even further by taking a post created for him, minister mentor, which was abolished when he gave it up in 2011.
The gradual transition continues with his son, 63-year-old Lee Hsien Loong, now prime minister. Many hope that as Singapore eventually moves beyond the Lee era, the PAP will slowly relax Lee Kuan Yew’s rigid political system. At the moment, the movement from one generation of leaders to another looks well managed, yet no matter how accomplished, Singapore will be at risk. The reform of an authoritarian system is always inherently dangerous as those seeking change first become bold and then act.
Even a small hint of change, such as that caused by Lee’s passing, could start a disruptive process. His political heirs now face challenges perhaps almost as great as the ones he confronted a half-century ago.