In 1989, the Chinese government massacred hundreds of protesters who had gathered at Tiananmen Square. A few years after the slaughter in Beijing, Singaporean political leader Lee Kuan Yew told an interviewer, “If you believe there is going to be a revolution of some sort in China for democracy, you are wrong. Where are the students of Tiananmen now? They are irrelevant.”
Lee Kuan Yew, who recently died at the age of 91, was Singapore’s first Prime Minister. He held that office from 1959 until 1990 and continued to preside in various high-level positions until his death in March of 2015. Singapore experienced a dramatic transformation over the half-century of Lee’s life in public office. In Asia and around the world, his public tenure is often praised as an economic and political model that developing countries should follow.
Lee’s model, however, relied on suppression of speech, the jailing of political opposition, and frequent use of court systems to financially cripple his critics. In many ways, Lee got lucky. Singapore, more of a city-state than a country, sits at one of the most important crossroads of international trade. It has succeeded in spite of its Prime Minister’s heavy-handed leadership, and it is entirely plausible that another leader could have charted a course to equally impressive economic success while avoiding human rights violations. Lee was an outlier, not an exemplar.
The reason many look to Lee for guidance is that Singapore did achieve remarkable economic development during his time in office. His administration emphasized economic openness, ease of doing business, and international trade, and Singapore benefitted tremendously from its strategic location on the Strait of Malacca, one of the most important waterways for Chinese trade with the rest of the world.
In the last half-century, the small country saw its GDP per capita grow astonishingly. From less than $500 annually in 1960, GDP per capita grew to over $55,000 annually in 2013, making Singapore the third (or fourth, depending on the ranking) wealthiest country in the world by that measure.
Still, despite his country’s rapid economic success, Lee’s legacy is stained with significant abuses of power. He once cited the British colonial empire and the Japanese army of World War II as inspirations for how to govern. He said they knew how to “dominate the people.” While he opened up the economy, Lee only partially opened up the political process to his country’s citizens. In Singapore, as in China as of late, open markets have not coincided with an open society.