Rule of Law Trumps Majority Rule in Singapore: The Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)

by | Mar 24, 2015 | Asia, WORLD

At a time when other Third World countries were setting up government-controlled economies and blaming their poverty on "exploitation" by more advanced industrial nations, Lee Kuan Yew promoted a market economy, welcomed foreign investments, and made Singapore's children learn English, to maximize the benefits from Singapore's position as a major port for international commerce.

At a time when other Third World countries were setting up government-controlled economies and blaming their poverty on “exploitation” by more advanced industrial nations, Lee Kuan Yew promoted a market economy, welcomed foreign investments, and made Singapore’s children learn English, to maximize the benefits from Singapore’s position as a major port for international commerce.

It is not often that the leader of a small city-state — in this case, Singapore — gets an international reputation. But no one deserved it more than Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore as an independent country in 1959, and its prime minister from 1959 to 1990. With his death, he leaves behind a legacy valuable not only to Singapore but to the world.

Born in Singapore in 1923, when it was a British colony, Lee Kuan Yew studied at Cambridge University after World War II, and was much impressed by the orderly, law-abiding England of that day. It was a great contrast with the poverty-stricken and crime-ridden Singapore of that era.

Today Singapore has a per capita Gross Domestic Product more than 50 percent higher than that of the United Kingdom and a crime rate a small fraction of that in England. A 2010 study showed more patents and patent applications from the small city-state of Singapore than from Russia. Few places in the world can match Singapore for cleanliness and orderliness.

This remarkable transformation of Singapore took place under the authoritarian rule of Lee Kuan Yew for two decades as prime minister. And it happened despite some very serious handicaps that led to chaos and self-destruction in other countries.

Singapore had little in the way of natural resources. It even had to import drinking water from neighboring Malaysia. Its population consisted of people of different races, languages and religions — the Chinese majority and the sizable Malay and Indian minorities.

At a time when other Third World countries were setting up government-controlled economies and blaming their poverty on “exploitation” by more advanced industrial nations, Lee Kuan Yew promoted a market economy, welcomed foreign investments, and made Singapore’s children learn English, to maximize the benefits from Singapore’s position as a major port for international commerce.

Singapore’s schools also taught the separate native languages of its Chinese, Malay and Indian Tamil peoples. But everyone had to learn English, because it was the language of international commerce, on which the country’s economic prosperity depended.

In short, Lee Kuan Yew was pragmatic, rather than ideological. Many observers saw a contradiction between Singapore’s free markets and its lack of democracy. But its long-serving prime minister did not deem its people ready for democracy. Instead, he offered a decent government with much less corruption than in other countries in that region of the world.

His example was especially striking in view of many in the West who seem to think that democracy is something that can be exported to countries whose history and traditions are wholly different from those of Western nations that evolved democratic institutions over the centuries.

Even such a champion of freedom as John Stuart Mill said in the 19th century: “The ideally best form of government, it is scarcely necessary to say, does not mean one which is practicable or eligible in all states of civilization.”

In other words, democracy has prerequisites, and peoples and places without those prerequisites will not necessarily do well when democratic institutions are created.

The most painful recent example of that is Iraq, where a democratically elected government, set up by expenditure of the blood and treasure of the United States, became one of the obstacles to a united people with the military strength to protect itself from international terrorists.

In many parts of the Third World, post-colonial governments set up democratically made sure that there would be no more democracy that could replace its original leaders. This led to the cynical phrase, “one man, one vote — one time.”

Democracy can be wonderful as a principle where it is viable, but disastrous as a fetish where it is not.

Lee Kuan Yew understood the pitfalls and steered around them. If our Western advocates of “nation-building” in other countries would learn that lesson, it could be the most valuable legacy of Lee Kuan Yew.

2 Comments

  1. I am surprised you use the term “democracy” as a form of government to be advocated. Our founders did not advocate a democracy, but a republic based on individual rights (right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for each individual – and by implication, the right to property). The only “democratic” part of our nation is the right to vote for elected officials, who are then bound by the constitution to respect individual rights; unfortunately, something that is being neglected wholesale today. For a goverment to be just, it must respect individual rights. If the people and the culture they have formed do not respect and/or understand individual rights, then there is no hope for freedom in that country, as in what happened in IRAQ. I would assume that Mr. Yew understood this and sought to build a country that respected individual rights first. I don’t know anything about him, so I don’t know if his understanding of individual rights was consistent or not, but it looks like he got most of it right.

  2. “Democracy” as a term can be understood in a few different ways, some of them even contradictory. What bothers me about the European model, especially in Sweden, is that democracy is taken to mean unlimited majority rule and worse still democracy is held out to be an end in itself. Democracy, by whatever definition you choose, can only be a value to the extent that it allows us to live in freedom. Every single freedom that has been stripped away from the Swedish people as individuals has been so by means of the democratic process, and thus democracy as such is a non-value. Voting, as a decision-making process, can be an important part of a free society, but it must be done within the confines of a legal philosophy based on individual rights.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Thomas Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His dozen books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Please contact your local newspaper editor if you want to read the THOMAS SOWELL column in your hometown paper.

SHOW PROFILE

What do you think?

We are always interested in rational feedback and criticism. Feel free to share your thoughts using this form.

We will post responses that we think are of interest to our readers in our Letters section.

Help Capitalism Magazine get the pro-capitalist message out.

With over 10,000 articles readable online Capitalism Magazine is completely free. We rely on the generosity of our readers to keep us going. So if you already donate to us, thank you! And if you don’t, please do consider making a donation today. One-off donations – or better yet, monthly donations – are hugely appreciated. You can find out more here. Thank you!

Related Articles

Where is Jack Ma?

Where is Jack Ma?

While we should condemn the Chinese government’s actions, we should also be cautious of rising authoritarian tendencies here at home, whether it’s towards our civil rights or our economic freedom.

Voice of Capitalism

Free email weekly newsletter.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest