Analysis

The man who built the modern city-state

Lee Kuan Yew's greatest legacy might not be Singapore itself, but the idea behind it

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister and by all accounts the true founder of independent Singapore and the creator of its unique regime, has died at 91.

The outlines of his legacy are easy to draw.

Singapore is, from many perspectives, clearly one of the most successful polities on the planet. The once very poor colony has become one of the wealthiest commonwealths on the planet. It has achieved an astonishing degree of prosperity, social cohesion, and comity. It is almost certainly the most successful welfare state on the planet: able to protect the poor and the middle class while keeping taxes low, all run by one of the world's most famously efficient technocracies. While Singapore's strategic location in the midst of the world's most important shipping lane clearly aided its success, there is also no one who doubts that most of its prosperity is due to the amazing, difference-making work of Lee and his governing agenda. There are dozens of former colonies with great inherent assets, but only one Singapore.

On the other hand, the criticisms of Singapore are well known. It can seem like The Prisoner's island, only with more boring architecture. Famously, there are steep — and enforced — fines on spitting gum; caning and hanging are in use as legal punishments. There is an inherent creepiness to Singapore's fussy technocratic management, a creep factor that is only enhanced by how efficient and smiley it all is. Singapore is not a dictatorship, exactly, but neither is it a full democracy. There are restrictions on free speech and human rights. While no one doubts that Lee's People Action Party, which has ruled Singapore continuously since its independence, is broadly popular, the electoral system is skewed to maintain its majority.

Lee has defended his regime's authoritarian technocratic as in comport with "Asian values," as opposed to the supposed imposition of "Western values" of democracy which, he claimed, could not work in Asia. It is thought that he has had a bad influence on world politics, by lending credibility to the idea that an authoritarian regime can maintain legitimacy and popularity as long as it delivers the technocratic goods. China's leadership, to take the most obvious example, clearly takes this tack: Far from seeing a progressive shift towards democracy as an either inevitable or desirable follow-up to economic liberalization, it wants to build a Singapore-like state where the party elite remains safely in power. Another obvious emulator of Lee is Paul Kagame's Rwanda, with its creepily clean streets and increasingly iron-gloved authoritarianism. From this vantage point, no matter Singapore's prosperity, Lee's influence on the world has been mostly meretricious, by giving the world's dictators a playbook on how to subtly smother democratic change.

I don't want to settle that debate here. My sense is that the "Asian values" stuff is mostly rhetoric, and that Singapore is headed in the direction of liberalization. And China's corrupt, self-dealing elite would have seen democratic accountability with horror with or without Lee's legacy. At some point, there will be peaceful democratic change in Singapore, and what will shock everyone is how effortless it will be.

What is so striking about Singapore is simply the fact that it exists. The Westphalian order of post-Renaissance Europe gradually squelched one of the most important and valuable forms of polity that existed: the city-state. The great prosperity — and cultural achievements — of the Renaissance were largely midwifed by city-states like Florence and Venice. I like to define a bureaucracy as an organization that does not understand itself to be under competitive pressure. States are always competing with each other — for investment, for growth, for attractiveness. A relatively large state — like, say, California or France — can afford a very long bureaucratic twilight, for even as it bleeds its most talented people, it can stay pain-free for a long time. A city state can ill afford that. Lee's obsession with Singapore's international competitiveness bordered on paranoia. It's no coincidence that Singapore is often contrasted with Hong Kong, another astonishingly successful city state. The world is an astonishingly diverse place, and it is good for all of us when we have astonishingly diverse regimes. I wouldn't want the whole world to be a giant Singapore, but I am in the end glad that Singapore exists as Singapore. We need more Singapores, more Hong Kongs — more Venices and Florence.

One of the most exciting new movements for global development is the Charter Cities movement which seeks to build Hong Kong-like and Singapore-like efficient city states in the poorest areas in the world. Think of how the existence of Hong Kong amidst Chinese communism's privation not only made millions of people better off, but eventually spurred China's leadership to apply a smattering of Hong Kong-like reforms at home.

If the Charter Cities movement does take off, it might be Lee's greatest, albeit quite involuntary, legacy.

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