Upon Great Britain’s withdrawal from Singapore in 1959, the People’s Action Party (PAP) won a landslide victory, during the May elections of the same year. Thereby, Singapore became an internally self-governing state within the Commonwealth, with Lee Kuan Yew as the country’s first Prime Minister.
The withdrawal of the British from Singapore was nearly catastrophic for the island’s bewildered inhabitants. The main economic engine of the city had been the British naval base. Its loss left a gigantic gap which was very difficult to fill (an impossibility, in the short run). The hardships and problems that this caused were dreadful.
No longer being able to depend on the island’s mainstay, the economy entered a severe period of contraction, a depression. Along with the British, many traders and merchants left the island. Basically, most of the population that stayed were highly illiterate, untrained workers; and they were all jobless! Ethnic problems were not minor, and poverty was rampant. Under such adverse circumstances, Singapore applied for admission to the Malayan Federation. Admission to this group was so difficult that it took almost four years to be obtained.
Singapore was part of the Malayan Federation for a very brief period, from 1963 to 1965. In the latter year, Lee Kuan Yew, the head of government, rejected a law that provided excessive economic privileges for Malays on the island. The federation’s reaction was blunt: Singapore was expelled. With great doubt, fear, and misgivings, Singapore proclaimed its independence on August 9, 1965, with a highly uncertain future, considering the country’s small size and the lack of any natural or organizational resources.
At that time, Singapore and its population faced a very difficult and truly chaotic situation. Singapore was virtually bankrupt, small, very poor, demoralized, disjointed: a nation astray. As if this were not enough, it had widespread corruption at all levels of society. In addition, the island was heavily contaminated and had an inadequate supply of fresh water.
As quickly as possible, Lee proceeded to establish order and discipline so as to give direction to this tiny, new nation. Less than two months after it was founded (in a truly fast-track process), Singapore was admitted into the UN, on September 21, 1965. Two years later, Singapore founded the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with three other nations.
Emulating the Swiss, Lee proclaimed a policy of neutrality and nonalignment. In this way, he immunized the new nation, at least in part, from many potential political pressures and commitments (Communism as a big and menacing threat at that time).
Lee made English the mandatory language, with the second language to be chosen depending on ethnic background, the three main ones being Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Lee’s efforts to improve public education were also drastic and very successful. To eliminate corruption, Lee gave special attributions to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Agency, which had great power to make arrests and to investigate bank accounts and tax returns. He also provided great impetus to the punitive practice of public flogging for certain crimes; for instance, considering the unseemly habit of frequent spitting in public, severe penalties were imposed. Thus in search of order and prosperity, Singapore became a zero-tolerance nation of Spartan laws. Lee also pushed for paying public officials at market levels to minimize corruption temptations and to demand better results of their efforts.
So, the transformation of Singapore from an extremely poor and strayed tiny nation to become an influential nation, and one of the wealthiest countries on earth (on a per capita basis), under the leadership of the same person (Lee Kuan Yew) in just 25 years is truly remarkable, with very few precedents (Hong Kong being the other case. See Sir John James Cowperthwaite and Hong Kong’s Domino Effect.). Singapore’s wealth is based on knowledge, organization and hard work.
Lee Kuan Yew showed a remarkable ability to make the best out of adversity. He did not choose Singapore to be independent. Quite the contrary, as previously mentioned. However, once Singapore was expelled from the Malayan Federation in 1965, Lee didn’t waste any time to pursue much higher goals.
He was the ultimate pragmatist. He abided by the old saying “If life hands you lemons… make lemonade”. Nonetheless, his ability to learn from others, quickly and well, was truly extraordinary. In most likelihood Lee must have drawn inspiration from the then nascent Hong Kong economic miracle, despite lacking a background in economics or finance (he was a lawyer educated in Great Britain).
Like all human efforts, Lee Kuan Yew’s life had some flaws, like his inclination towards nepotism and probably an excessive hard hand on political opponents. Nonetheless, on the average, Lee Kuan Yew’s successes by far outweighed his human failures. Despite the astonishing success of Singapore under his direct leadership and afterwards, and his long stay commanding the government, he was not a kleptocrat. Granted, in many respects Singapore under his rule was practically a dictatorship. Yet, a benevolent and extremely successful one. His passion for excellence was unrivalled.
It is reasonable to state that Hong Kong and Singapore were a seminal experience that greatly influenced the destiny not only of the other two Asian Tigers, South Korea and Taiwan, but also of mainland China, among others. The world owes a lot to these tiny jurisdictions who have shown how excellence can be achieved coming from far behind.
As exposed in GLOBALIZATION, my book, those four nations have done an extraordinary service to the rest of humanity by providing the blue print to transit successfully from rags to riches in a relatively short period. In fact, this great development both, inspired and guided me into looking for a systematic, scalable way to replicate the Singapore experience in other extremely poor countries. As a subproduct, a very fresh, powerful, and badly needed source of extra growth for the world as a whole can be achieved (See TGP).