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Mar 23, 2015 | 19:51 GMT

5 mins read

Reflecting on the Life of Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew poses on June 5, 1959 after winning the elections in Singapore.

The March 23 death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father and its prime minister from 1959 to 1990, marks the passing of one of the last, great, Asian post-independence leaders. After 50 years of autonomy, the island city-state is a major shipping hub and oil refining hub, as well as a finance and manufacturing center. Lee's insight into the nature of the geopolitical realities facing his nascent country enabled him to take advantage of Singapore's strategic geographic position while navigating around its vulnerabilities. He leaves behind a stable configuration of power, now led by his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and a state that plays an outsized role in the international system. Yet, the exceptional island city-state Lee built will face a new set of challenges in the near future.

When Lee Kuan Yew became prime minister in 1959, Singapore was in a precarious position. In 1945, it emerged devastated by three years of Japanese occupation. The country returned to a period of British rule, finally becoming independent as a tiny nation with few resources in a region shaped by Cold War power politics. In the subsequent decades, Singapore's neighbors would — without exception — suffer instability, vicious inter-ethnic killing and ideologically driven insurgency.

Initially, Lee saw Singapore's only hope to be in joining the Malayan Union — now Malaysia — and did so in 1963. But staying in the union proved untenable. Singapore's Chinese majority threatened to upset the delicate ethnic balance of the collective, which had already faced communal riots and a communist insurgency backed by ethnic Chinese. Singapore, in turn, experienced its own ethnic riots in 1964. The city-state was asked to formally separate in August 1965 and soon found itself on its own.

Singapore's future was unclear after exiting from the Malayan Union, as was its status as a major port hub — a singular advantage. Though Singapore occupies a pivotal position along east-west trade routes at the mouth of the Malacca Strait, seafarers had long had competing options for transit. In the 19th century, for example, Singapore suffered from the rise of the nearby port city of Malacca (now in Malaysia). Later, the founding of Hong Kong, along with the emerging coastal ports of Vietnam, challenged Singapore's preeminence. Under the British Empire, Singapore's position had hinged on Malaysia's rubber and tin production.

The Singapore Model

Lee recognized that to remain viable — both politically and economically — Singapore's core imperative was to consolidate itself as a distinct nation; a country where citizens were loyal to interests beyond their ethnic affiliation with the Malay, Chinese or Indian communities. Unity meant that rule through ethnic privilege would not work — nor would wholesale adoption of Western-style majority rule, even if tempered with a system of minority rights and privileges.

Lee's People's Action Party took advantage of a serious housing crisis to build public housing blocs that broke up ethnic neighborhoods and mixed residents. He ignored the power of the huge Chinese clan associations and promoted the use of English as a national language. To protect Singapore's potentially embattled position in the region, he also established a national military built on mandatory service in line with the Israeli model and invested heavily in robust maritime forces. Throughout his rule, the People's Action Party exercised tight control over the government, compensated bureaucrats well and implemented open economic policies. Its strong laws and institutions and resistance to corruption made it a highly attractive destination for international investment. Ultimately, Singapore managed to remain stable and civilian-ruled — unlike nearly all of its regional neighbors. In 2014, Singapore had higher gross domestic product per capita than the United States.

Singapore's method of rule emphasizes discipline, harmony and pragmatism over civil liberty. Many outside the country, however, saw this system as one of a tight central authority hidden beneath the trappings of democracy, focused ruthlessly on internal unity and economic industrialization. Malaysia, Korea, Rwanda and Myanmar, among others, have all tried in various ways to mirror this limited vision of the "Singapore Model," usually without the sort of outsize success Lee found. But Lee's achievements stemmed, in part, from Singapore's particular geopolitical situation.

The island's resistance to military aggression and its internal stability were bolstered by Lee's policies but not determined by them. Singapore's position along the Malacca Strait gave it the potential to become a port hub. This, in turn, made it valuable to its neighbors and to foreign powers reliant on trade through the waterway. Singapore's importance meant that no one actor could risk action against the city-state without provoking its neighbors. Its ethnic composition, too, worked to its advantage in terms of centralization. Singapore's ethnic Chinese majority lives in a region demographically dominated by non-Chinese. Outnumbered, Singaporeans accepted that centralized rule translated into protection through unity.

Future Challenges

In spite of the system set in place by Lee, Singapore faces some uncertainty going forward. Its role as one of the world's preeminent ports is not guaranteed in perpetuity. More important, similar to Japan and much of Western Europe, the island is facing demographic decline. The birthrate for residents is below replacement rate and dropping — down from 1.29 in 2013 to 1.19 in 2014. The number of people over the age of 65 is also rising, now at around 12 percent.

The graying population and declining birthrate both mean Singapore will likely be forced to rely increasingly on migrant labor and immigration to fill gaps in the labor force, which could upset the orderliness of People's Action Party rule. Moreover, much like neighboring Malaysia, the birthrate in the ethnic Chinese community is falling faster than those of the Malays and the Indians. In 2014, the Chinese had a birthrate of only 1.05 versus 1.11 for Indians and 1.66 among Malays. The ethnic balance has been stable since 2004 and the People's Action Party has tightened immigration policies, but Singapore's stable political configuration is not going to last forever.

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