The True Story of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

Mike Enerio/Singapore

There is no authoritarian in modern history as well-regarded as Lee Kuan Yew among the Western elite. Henry Kissinger called Lee “one of the asymmetries of history.” Margaret Thatcher once remarked that Lee was “never wrong.” Out west, Netflix executives study Lee’s life in their leadership course. On the East Coast, Harvard Kennedy School pores over the “Grand Master’s insights.”

The Western student of international politics knows to nod approvingly when Lee’s name is mentioned. Frustrated by the sludge of partisan politics in his own country, he sees in Lee’s legacy a kind of exotic escape. If asked, he remarks sagely: Singapore is proof of what enlightened authoritarianism can achieve.

On this alone, the Chinese elite agree with their Western counterparts. For them, early Singapore is proof of the effectiveness of one party rule. Let the West squabble over legislatures and obsess over separated powers, while China moves boldly to reclaim its rightful place on the world stage. Africa is no exception to this consensus. In Rwanda, Paul Kagame styles himself in Lee’s image. In the words of The Washington Post: “to really understand Rwanda is to study Singapore.”

A broad consensus has solidified among elites that early Singapore should serve as a model for other developing nations to study and replicate. At a time when Western democracies are under stress and challengers from Chinese socialism to ‘illiberal democracy’ are ascendant, this consensus deserves to be examined carefully. China in particular has become something like a case study for Singapore-inspired technocracy, and the Chinese Communist Party itself reinforces the link between the two.

What exactly is the Singapore Model? Beyond the crude label of enlightened authoritarianism, what are the philosophical assumptions that underlie the Singaporean approach to governance? What are the limitations of these assumptions? What has happened when foreigners have attempted to replicate the Singaporean model, or when Singaporeans try to export it?

Both official and dissident accounts of early Singaporean history reveal a model with three key elements: high modernism, centralized authority, and weak civil society.

However, these accounts also provide a challenge to the idea that Singapore’s model can be exported. In fact, it was highly conditioned by Singapore’s own context, and how Lee and the People’s Action Party (PAP) responded to the political dynamics of the time. The resulting model is effective in Singapore itself, yet inevitably limited by scale. Large social processes are more complex than any schemata can capture—and yet, authoritarian high modernist states must rely on schemata to make centralized decisions. This leads to its failure in larger geographies, since abstractions and errors inevitably compound as the distance from ground reality increases. Soviet agricultural collectivism, the Chinese Great Leap Forward, and the Le Corbusian projects in Brasilia and Chandigarh are haunting reminders of the limitations of the model.

But the rise of Singapore provides compelling lessons of a different sort, ones which help us understand how the city-state was built in its unique conditions. Today, the new U.S.-China rivalry is playing out in the divergence between different development paths—a divergence which may end the mythos of a universally applicable model. While Lee’s admirers in the art of statecraft cannot import a Singaporean model, they can learn from the ardent pragmatism which drove him to reject the easy solutions of outsiders and build a state which defied all conventions.

The Gospel According to the People’s Action Party

The current consensus around Singapore is the product of careful narrative by the PAP, Singapore’s governing party. This version of history revolves primarily around the figure of Lee Kuan Yew.

The construction of this national narrative begins in Singaporean schools, where every student studies the Singapore story under the National Education program. Students learn that Singapore began as a sleepy Malay village until Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819 to set up a British trading post. Raffles’ colony thrived, attracting hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants, as well as Malays and Indians. But the Japanese subsequently humiliated the British in World War II, captured Singapore, and subjected its residents to trauma and oppression from 1942-1945.

With the end of World War II, Britain returned and set about executing a “painless exit strategy” of gradual decolonization. In the 1950s, Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues in the PAP outmaneuvered a violent Communist party to emerge victorious in the election of 1959. From 1963-1965, Lee attempted to integrate Singapore into the Malaysian Federation in order to fend off the Communists and maintain economic and political stability. The merger proved to be temporary and by August 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia and became independent. A short clip of Lee at the press conference announcing separation, overcome with emotion and crying openly, is familiar to every Singaporean.

Miraculously, Lee overcame this setback and took Singapore from Third World to First. Lee built modern flats to replace squalid shophouses and kampongs. He created a conscription army and built an officer corps from scratch. He prioritized education and built a world class education system. He soothed racial discord and social disharmony with smart housing policy and a firm criminal justice system. In the PAP’s telling, the Singapore story is the story of Lee Kuan Yew.

When Lee died in March 2015, Singapore’s military activated Operation White Light. Within three hours, a state funeral was underway. So much manpower was thrown at the operation that colonels were acting as drivers. Tens of thousands stood in the heavy rain to pay tribute to him. His son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, remarked: “The light that has guided us all these years has been extinguished.”

This version of the Singaporean story has several advantageous features. First, it collapses the accomplishments of many individuals into the single figure of Lee Kuan Yew. There is a reason, after all, that Hollywood makes use of composite characters—they make the story easier to tell. Second, it makes the implicit case that the early authoritarianism of the PAP was a desirable quality. Without it, Singapore would not have been able to enact sweeping reforms. By this logic, illiberal leaders in countries like Zimbabwe and North Korea have failed despite the centralization of power in their countries. If only Mugabe and Kim had the character, intelligence, and statecraft of a Lee Kuan Yew, their countries would develop rapidly.

The Struggle for Modern Singapore

On the other side of this narrative conflict are those aligned with the various factions of the opposition. Historians on this side tell a different story. Rather than analyzing Singapore’s climb from Third World to First, the opposition instead focuses on the early days of Singapore where political norms were nascent and the leadership of Singapore contested. In particular, they see the period of struggle as culminating with Singapore’s “original sin”: Operation Coldstore.

Three political parties dominated Singapore in the early 1950s: the People’s Progressive Party, the Democratic Party, and the Labour Front. The first two parties were widely seen as out of touch British stooges dedicated to preserving the interests of the rich. The Labour Front was interested in labor issues, but was led by, in Lee’s estimation, a “bunch of clowns.” The political landscape was ripe for disruption.

Lee Kuan Yew and his fellow English-educated socialists wanted to seize this opportunity. But Lee and his broken Mandarin could not win the support of the mass of Chinese speaking laborers alone. Beijing-led Communist ideology resonated deeply with the Chinese working class in Singapore. After their humiliating defeat to the Japanese in World War II, the British had lost their mandate to rule. Yet to be a Chinese laborer in 1950s Singapore was still to be a “second-class citizen in the land of your birth.” Singaporean Chinese citizens were no longer willing to tolerate forms of colonial exploitation, massive inequality, “structural wage discrimination, and unsafe labor conditions. Trade unionists and pro-Communists who articulated these frustrations in fiery rhetoric were political dynamite. “Any man who wants to carry the Chinese-speaking people with him cannot afford to be anti-Communist,” Lee realized.

And so Lee set out to court the trade unionists, progressives, and Communists. At the PAP’s inauguration ceremony in November of 1954, Lee articulated objectives carefully calibrated to appeal to them. The PAP declared that it would seek to soften local sedition laws and secure the right for trade unions to participate in politics. “The problems and struggles of the trade union movement,” the PAP signaled after the ceremony, “must find increasing expression in Party policy.” These sweet words found eager ears among prominent trade unionists in search of allies. Lee soon found himself working closely with a man named Lim Chin Siong.

Later observers would describe Lim as “a comet on the [1950s] Singapore scene” and a “dominant political figure in [early 1960s] Singapore.” A capable organizer and a charismatic orator in Mandarin and Hokkien, Lim could connect with Chinese-educated audiences in a way that Lee could not. Contemporary accounts of Lim’s political talent are giddy with praise.

There were 40,000 people, each mesmerised by Lim Chin Siong’s oratory. ‘The British say you cannot stand on your own two feet,’ he jeered. ‘Show them how you can stand!’ And 40,000 people leapt up—shining with sweat, fists in the air—shouting, Merdeka.

By inviting prominent trade unionists and left-wing factions—some of whom were pro-Communist—into the PAP, Lee was making a calculated gamble. Could he channel their popularity into electoral success without ceding internal control of the party to them?

In 1957, the Communists staged a coup inside the PAP. They hoped to wrest control of the Central Executive Committee (CEC) from Lee in order to oppose his plans for independence through merger with Malaya. Further, the Communists opposed the establishment of an Internal Security Council that ceded control of Singapore’s internal affairs to the UK and Malaya that Lee had assented to in London. The left-wing coalition quickly secured six of twelve CEC seats. Lee had lost control.

This pro-Communist triumph was a brief one. Under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, the government arrested five of the six newly elected members of the PAP CEC. Lim Yew Hock, then Chief Minister of Singapore, had ordered a brutal crackdown of Communist and leftist groups. Lim Yew Hock’s forceful application of the Internal Security Act won him many admirers in the British government. Comforted by reduced Communist activity, the United Kingdom Parliament passed the State of Singapore Act in 1958, granting Singapore full internal self government.

Publicly, Lee stood in solidarity with his imprisoned colleagues. Lee issued a declaration that the PAP would be standing for election but, in the event of victory, would refuse to take office unless all eight imprisoned members of the PAP were released. In parallel, however, Lee created four types of membership in the PAP: probationary, ordinary, probationary cadre, and full cadre. Under this new system, only full cadres would be able to vote for CEC elections. A Board of Selection filled with PAP moderates would decide which party members were full cadres. Lee was determined to prevent another coup.

In May of 1959, the PAP crushed its competitors, winning 43 seats out of 51 seats in the newly established Singaporean Legislative Assembly. To ensure a smooth transition, the government immediately released the eight alleged Communist members of the CEC. Lee’s gamble had paid off handsomely. In just five years, the PAP had gone from nothing to Singapore’s dominant political party. PAP moderates began to look for an opportunity to end their partnership with the pro-Communist faction. To preserve the party’s legitimacy, a split would have to be over a principled policy disagreement. With Lim Chin Siong out of prison and able to lead, the Communists and their allies pushed yet again for the government to release all political detainees and abolish the hated Internal Security Council. Yet their public statements did not alter PAP policy substantially. Lim Chin Siong was likewise beginning to tire of the political alliance.

These tensions reached a breaking point over the issue of merger with Malaya. During a motion of confidence, thirteen PAP assemblymen refused to vote for the PAP’s merger proposal. Led by Lim Chin Siong, these thirteen assemblymen and five other prominent trade unionists left the PAP and formed their own party, called Barisan Sosialis, in July of 1961. In the wake of Lim’s departure, 19 out of 23 PAP Organising Secretaries left to join Barisan. 25 out of 51 branch executive committees resigned en bloc. In total, 80% of PAP members would leave the party by the end of 1961.

Lim and Barisan Sosialis became a formidable opposition to the PAP, campaigning fiercely against Lee’s proposal for merger. When Lee emerged victorious in a referendum for merger, Lim stated publicly:

The PAP used threats and cheated to gain victory… the people can clearly see that if the PAP can juggle with the law and threaten and cheat today, they will be able to do so tomorrow…But as long as the authorities preserve the conditions for peaceful constitutional struggle, we will continue to carry out peaceful constitutional struggle. If the PAP continue to cheat and threaten, we will keep exposing their cheating and threats. If they want to juggle around with and break the parliamentary democratic system, they have to bear all the consequences.

Unable to detain and neutralize Lim without evidence of violent subversion, Lee bided his time. Then on December 8th, an armed rebellion in Brunei broke out. Lim and the Barisan issued a statement in support of the rebellion, declaring “a popular uprising against British colonialism and must command the support of all genuine anti-colonialists.” Further, police had spotted Lim lunching with Azahari, the leader of the rebellion a few days ago. Lee had his opening.

On February 2nd, 1963, the Internal Security Council executed Operation Coldstore. Under the cover of darkness, police arrested 113 alleged Communists and detained them without trial. Among them was Lim Chin Siong. In one fell swoop, Lee dismantled the political network around Lim and his allies, ending their chances of intellectual leadership and political power.

Official Singaporean materials obscure the human cost of Operation Coldstore. The PAP casts Operation Coldstore as a harsh, but necessary action that crippled a violent Communist Party of Malaya. In contrast, the opposition identifies Coldstore as the moment political pluralism was wiped out on the island—Singapore’s original sin. Lim Chin Siong is likewise a political totem. For Lee’s supporters, his victory would have doomed Singapore to stagnation, conflict, and foreign domination. Opposition sympathizers instead imagine an alternative history where Lim was the one to build modern Singapore.

In reality, Lim would spend the next six years in prison, culminating in an attempt to commit suicide in 1969. After his release, Lim moved to England, working odd jobs. For a time, he worked as a grocer in London. Lim never returned to politics and died after a heart attack in Singapore.

Scholars will continue to advance competing interpretations of this moment in history. As recently as 2018, Singapore’s Home Affairs and Law Minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam spent six hours cross-examining dissident historian Thum Ping Tjin on his analysis of Operation Coldstore. The historiography of this affair is far from settled. Did Barisan intend to use violence to subvert the constitution and overthrow the government? Was the Communist threat real? Was Lim Chin Siong himself a Communist? Was he really willing to resort to violence?

Whether motivated by genuine security concerns or political gain, Operation Coldstore made the rules of engagement clear for the body politic. Lee would not hesitate to sacrifice pluralism or cripple civil society in the pursuit of a modern Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew’s High Modernism

By the mid 1960s, Lee had finally assembled two key components of the Singapore Model: Centralized authority and a weak civil society. These two conditions provided the blank canvas upon which Lee could impose his vision for Singapore. Yet what was the underlying philosophy that animated Lee’s vision? To identify this third component of the Singapore Model, one must understand how Lee’s time at Cambridge shaped his worldview.

Two centuries before Lee Kuan Yew’s arrival at Cambridge, high modernism as an ideology emerged in Western Europe. Europe in the 1800s saw unprecedented advancements in chemistry, physics, medicine, math, and engineering. Modernists hoped to apply the fruits of linear progress in the sciences to shape society through the state. For some, this took the form of liberal technocracy or Fabian social democracy. For others, particularly Marxists, revolution had to overthrow those classes which opposed progress. Just as engineers can study and optimize the functioning of a steam engine, so too did the various modernists seek to calibrate social order. For the first time in history, governments could shape society not by custom and historical accident but according to conscious and scientific planning.

These themes suffuse Lee’s 1971 Foundation Lecture at Cambridge. In it, Lee remarked unapologetically that industrialization in the developing world could only be achieved if “new value systems and behaviour patterns are grafted on the old.” Leaders, according to Lee, could not afford to be sentimental. In his words:

It requires bold and determined leadership to eradicate those values which hamper the advance of a people into the higher sciences. It requires strong will to force the adoption of values and attitudes which can quicken the pace of change.

For Lee, Southeast Asian populations were “soft societies.” Modernization of Singapore’s economy was impossible without the scientific alteration of society. In this sense, Lee was the prototypical high modernist.

Lee’s Singapore reflects his modernist convictions. As Prime Minister, Lee’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) replaced the chaos of kampongs with neatly ordered concrete flats. HDB flats of the same generation look identical apart from varying pastel paint jobs. Every detail from the placement of trees, to the ratio of playgrounds per resident, to the proportions of races in each building is carefully orchestrated. Lee’s HDB sells these flats to Singaporean citizens at below the market rate.

A strictly enforced quota system prevents racial enclaves from forming by ensuring each block is racially integrated. Further, citizens do not actually own their property—they purchase a 99 year lease from the government. At the end of the lease, the government reclaims the property. With citizens largely holding leaseholds and the government owning 90% of Singapore’s land, urban planners can tear down anything old that falls outside of narrowly defined heritage areas. It is in short, something straight out of modernist architect Le Corbusier’s radical manifesto “Towards a New Architecture”—technocratic, mass-produced, and ruthlessly modern.

When Modernism Fails

Yet history is littered with the failures of authoritarian modernist regimes. Indeed, the record of utopian schemes to improve the human condition is dismal in the 20th century. In the Soviet Union, Stalin’s plan to transform “small, backward and scattered peasant farms to amalgamated, large scale socialized farms” led to brutality and starvation for millions. In China, Mao’s Great Leap Forward propelled the nation into the Great Chinese Famine. Even Le Corbusierian plans in Brasilia or Chandigarh have become embarrassing examples of government hubris. Why did authoritarian modernism work well for Singapore and poorly for others?

The key difference is scale. Authoritarian governments by nature concentrate authority in centralized decision-makers. Decision-makers must rely on simplified models to make their decisions. All schemata are by nature imperfect representations of reality. Indeed, a scheme that reflected reality perfectly would be cluttered and uninterpretable. The reality is always more complex than the plan. In large countries, the planner is further from ground reality than in tiny city-states. Abstractions and errors inevitably compound as the distance increases.

Part of the mythos of Lee Kuan Yew is that he succeeded as an authoritarian where so many others have failed. Would-be Lees around the world use the Singapore story to argue that authoritarian modernism works if the authoritarian himself is brilliant and wise. Perhaps it is the case that with the right leader, the problems of scale can be overcome? Nixon, for one, believed if Lee had led a larger country he would have “attained the world stature of a Churchill, Disraeli, or Gladstone.”

History provides us with a natural experiment. In 1994, Lee Kuan Yew and Chinese Vice Premier Li Lanqing signed the “Agreement on the Joint Development of Suzhou Industrial Park.” Under the agreement, Singapore would maintain a 65% ownership stake in the project and develop the city of Suzhou into a modern industrial powerhouse—all running on Singapore’s public-administration and industrial development expertise. Central to its success was the transfer of Singapore’s management prowess to Chinese bureaucrats who hoped to glean valuable insight into the Grand Master’s methods and Singapore’s institutional DNA. Both Singaporean and senior Chinese officials were eager to have the project succeed—this was a chance to prove that the Singapore model was applicable beyond Singapore itself.

The careful choice of location for the project reflected the public endorsement of Jiang Zemin, Vice Premier Li Lanqing, and Premier Li Ping. Located in Jiangsu, China’s richest province, Suzhou was a cultural and intellectual center. Universities, polytechnics and vocational schools in the area could easily supply the labor necessary for development. Modern expressways, a railway line, waterways, and an international airport connected the city to the rest of the country and the world. Lee was confident that the project had the endorsement it needed to succeed, assuring partners: “we can guarantee that the agreement we have reached with China about Suzhou will be honored.” More broadly by 1993, China was growing at a blistering pace of 13% per year. The project was poised to succeed.

Yet by 1999, Lee had failed in Suzhou. Five years into the project’s 20-year development plan, Suzhou Industrial Park had only attracted $754 million dollars of investment out of target of $20 billion, 5,000 residents out of target of 600,000 and 14,000 employees out of a target of 360,000. The Far East Economic Review reported that development costs had climbed to nearly $400 million but “profitability remain[ed] a distant hope.” Singapore subsequently disengaged from the project in 2001, reducing its stake to 35%. Lee had meticulously transplanted Singapore’s methods to Suzhou. Even the ‘ready-built factories’ constructed in Suzhou Industrial Park were made by the same government-linked organization that oversaw much of Singapore’s earlier industrial development. Yet competition for foreign direct investment from nearby Suzhou New District—a smaller, older, and less-supported development that Singapore previously dismissed—proved too fierce. Singapore’s elite group of civil servants simply could not navigate China’s multi-level government and apply the Singapore model at scale.

Frustrated by the lack of results, Lee flew frequently to meet with Jiang Zemin personally. Jiang would act decisively to assist the Singaporeans, on one occasion sending an allegedly uncooperative Mayor of Suzhou away to Harvard Business School for a ‘leave of absence.’ It was to no avail. Lee’s bet on a universal Singapore model was wrong.

Beyond the Singapore Model

A seductive assumption underlies the euphoria around the Singapore model: that models of development can be scientific and universal. Those who are afflicted with this euphoria search eagerly for examples of universality. But there is far more to the Singaporean story than mere technocracy. Political strategy and a keen understanding of domestic and international power were central to the success of Lee’s PAP. This allowed him to create the institutional foundations for Singapore’s famous technocratic model. Likewise, there is far more to the rise of China than an imported Singaporean model—a story frequently told by stringing together study-mission statistics and a couple of Deng anecdotes.

That story ignores, for example, China’s decentralized system of de facto fiscal federalism and fierce xian level competition—which have no Singaporean equivalent—because it is inconvenient for their thesis. They sweep aside the fact that the father of Singapore himself and a legion of elite Singapore civil servants could not scale the model under optimal conditions. Some are so oblivious of Singaporean history that they do not even realize they are advocating for a developmental model that contradicts their own ideological views. This analytical trap ends up not understanding Singapore, or China, or arguably the Western development path itself.

Ironically, Lee Kuan Yew himself had no patience for other people’s models. In his words, “I am not following any prescription given to me by any theoretician on democracy or whatever. I work from first principles: what will get me there?” If there is a lesson from Singapore’s development it is this: forget grand ideologies and others’ models. There is no replacement for experimentation, independent thought, and ruthless pragmatism.

Haonan Li graduated from the Wharton School summa cum laude. Before college, he served as an infantry platoon commander in Singapore. He currently works as an investor across the capital structure. He can be found on Twitter @Haonan.

Victor Yaw studied art history and finance at Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to attending university, he served as an army platoon commander in Singapore and was closely involved with Lee Kuan Yew’s state funeral. He currently works in venture capital.