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Hitachi Research Institute

President Column

Commentary by our General Manager, Keiichi Shimada

President Column #9: The Cost of Democracy

Freedom and democracy are values shared by an overwhelming number of countries throughout the world today. However, one statesman and leader of a nation, despite sacrificing these values at times, earned respect from people the world over. This person was Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, who passed away at the age of 91 in March this year. World leaders were quick to praise Lee's achievements. British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to him as “one of the modern world's foremost statesmen.” French President Francois Hollande described him as a “visionary statesman who was able to guide the remarkable development of Singapore,” and former U.S. President Bill Clinton viewed him as a person who “made a significant contribution to improving and making the lives of all people prosperous in Southeast Asia.”

It has been some time since Asia was referred to as the growth engine of the world economy. However, if we look at the countries of Asia individually, there are some where the labor population has already begun to decline prior to reaching the economic levels of developed countries. There are also some countries that are having difficulty achieving policies that should have been promoted much earlier in their development. Singapore, on the other hand, went on to overtake Japan in per capita GDP and to achieve a level of prosperity in Asia that places it in a league of its own.

Anyone who wishes to talk about the assessment of Lee Kuan Yew as a politician would have to go back to the very founding of Singapore, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Reviewing his speeches and statements of those early days, one cannot help but sense in his fierce dedication to rationalism the presence of a business manager even more than a politician.

After World War II in 1957, Singapore's neighbor Malaysia, which was also former a British colony, became independent from Britain. The following year in 1958, Singapore became an autonomous state within the British Commonwealth of Nations. In 1959, in the general election to elect an autonomous government, the People's Action Party (PAP) – only five years after its formation and still Singapore's leading party today – won an overwhelming victory, and Lee Kuan Yew, at the tender age of 35, took office as prime minister. As a country that depended on Malaysia for both water and food, Lee was well aware of the difficulties Singapore faced in surviving on its own and in 1963 successfully negotiated a merger with Malaysia. In 1965, however, only two years after the merger, the conflict between the central government of Malaysia and the Singaporean state government as well as conflicts between Malay and Chinese people made any kind of unity unviable, and Singapore was forced into independence after being driven out of the Federation of Malaysia.

Singapore was in dire straits in the early days of its independence. Tension in its relationship with Malaysia, the country it relied on for the majority of its food, water and daily commodities, was at an explosive level, and President Sukarno of Indonesia, another neighbor, continued its ban on trade with Singapore since 1963. Faced with the crisis of survival shortly after Singapore's founding, the slogan Lee and PAP embraced was “government for survival.” Lee appealed to his people, saying, “I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy”. He went on to say that the government must protect the lives of the people and, if necessary, “We will trade even with the devil for our survival.” This perhaps sums up the reality of Singapore at the time.

From the latter half of the 1960s, the PAP forged ahead on the road to economic development, embracing thorough pragmatism as if Singapore were a business entity. During this process, priority was often given to establishing favorable conditions for economic growth and an environment that would attract foreign firms, rather than the rights of the people or workers.

At the foundation of this pragmatism was the commitment to train an elite who would make the most of Singapore's limited human resources. Lee himself hailed from Singapore's educated class and studied overseas at Cambridge University in Great Britain in his youth. In fact, the majority of the top officials of PAP and bureaucrats working at government institutions hail from an elite group who have experienced overseas study at top universities in Europe and the United States through President's Scholarships, after rising through the ranks in a selection process that began in elementary school. This commitment to education seems to have come from the conviction that “…it is not right for second and third rate people to have to remain in the country, and only first rate people to have the opportunity to go out of the country and compete with the government. It is a foolish method of managing a state.”

On the other hand, Lee demanded high morality of the country's leaders, who are the elite. This is an aspect that sets Singapore apart from many other developing countries, and this was a significant reason why social stability could be maintained despite restrictions on the rights of people for many years. When Lee was appointed prime minister, he is said to have called his brothers and told them, “When a family member becomes Prime Minister, the family members may expect some kind of special privilege or gain. However, this will never happen. Do not consider me your brother from now on.” At the same time, he gave powerful authority to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau saying, “I am representing Singapore, and I will beat those who deceive the people”.

Lee resigned from the position of prime minister in 1990 but remained in government as a senior minister and minister mentor. In 2004, Lee's eldest son Lee Hsien Loong took office as Singapore's third prime minister. Lee never listened to ridiculing words such as “the Lee Dynasty” or “Sunny North Korea”, and maintained his conviction that his son was in the position he was in “because he is needed” and “because he is capable.” This conviction was based on the fact that Lee's oldest son also rose through the ranks of Singapore's selection process to become a member of the country's top elite who studied at Cambridge University and Harvard University. In the basement of the Marina Bay Sands, which has become a symbol of tourism for Singapore, is the world's largest casino as a single entity. It is said that Lee senior, who was minister mentor at the time, initially opposed the government led by his son, who was trying to promote construction of the casino. In the end, however, Lee respected the decision of the government, comprised of his son and his elite colleagues of the same generation.

Now that Singapore has become an advanced country and secured stability and prosperity, its survival crisis at the time of its founding has already become an event in history, and people's demands have become diverse and segmented. In the 2011 general election, the number of the PAP's seats fell to 81, the lowest in its history, and the opposition party won six seats. Upon receiving the results, Lee Kuan Yew resigned from all executive positions and retired from politics. It is said that flooding that occurred in a section of Orchard Road, the main street of Singapore, during a torrential downpour affected the results of the election.

Until just a few years ago, many countries among the developed countries, including Japan, continually experienced frequent changes in government, or required a long time for policy decisions to be made due to the opposition parties' occupying the majority seats in their legislatures. Former British Prime Mister Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” The question is whether an elite group will continue to lead Singapore in the future, or whether it will evolve into a political form where a wider group of people will participate in dialogue, even if it takes time and money. The next general election, expected to be held this year at the earliest, will be the first since the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, and the results are sure to attract attention.

Political Philosophy of Singapore (Volume I&II) – Speeches by Lee Kuan Yew by Benjamin Wong & Xunming Huang (Japanese translation by Kyoko Tanaka) Imura Bunka Jigyo Sha, 1988.
Lee Kuan Yew, Wedged between West and Asia by Ikuo Iwasaki, Iwanami Shoten, 1996.
The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World by Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill, and Ali Wyne, (Japanese translation by Maki Kurata)

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