Overturning Lee Kuan Yew’s Legacy in Singapore



by AMITAV ACHARYA is the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance at American University.

Can Democracy and Development Coexist?


Singapore’s storied first prime minister gave his countrymen stability and prosperity. A new generation of Singaporeans with little recollection of his crusade against poverty and violence wants democracy as well, challenging Lee’s principle that popular rule would threaten stability and development. 

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s storied first prime minister, gave his countrymen two things that elude most developing nations: stability and prosperity. Now, a new generation of Singaporeans with little recollection of Lee’s crusade against poverty and violence wants democracy as well. In pursuing greater political openness in two elections this year, they are challenging one of Lee’s most deeply ingrained beliefs: that development and stability do not necessarily go hand in hand with democracy.

Although Singaporeans voted in May’s parliamentary elections to keep the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in power, the party had its poorest showing since Singapore became an independent nation in 1965. It lost six seats to the opposition, prompting Lee, the party’s “minister mentor,” and another ex-prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, to resign. In a joint letter to parliament, the two described the elections as a “watershed,” explaining that they “decided to leave the cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore.”

Lee’s son, Lee Hsein Loong, the country’s current prime minister, tried to boost his party’s approval before the August 27 presidential elections by increasing spending on health care and tightening control over immigration. He also announced a committee to recommend cuts to the salaries of ministers and the president, whose wealth is a major sticking point for the public.

But his grasping did not prevent another setback. A record number of contestants (four, all with the surname Tan) threw their hats into the ring for the presidential election. The candidate with the closest ties to the government, the former cabinet minister and deputy prime minister Tony Tan, won with 35.2 percent of the vote. His margin over the nearest rival (Tan Cheng Bock, a legislator from the PAP who maintained his distance from the party) was only 7,269 votes, or 0.34 percent. Tan See Jay, a candidate from the opposition party, got 25 percent of the vote. And Tan Kian Liang, another candidate, got 4.9 percent. Had the field of contenders been smaller, it is unlikely that Tony Tan would have won.

Some analysts have called the elections the “Orchid revolution,” after Singapore’s national flower, but the metaphor is misleading. The issues at stake in Singapore are vastly different in degree from those that caused actual revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa this year and in Eastern Europe after the Cold War. Voters want greater government accountability and transparency and better handling of the issues that affect ordinary Singaporeans. It is commonplace in Singapore to hear complaints about the growing rich-poor divide; higher property prices; rising cost of living; and congestion, overcrowding, and growing unemployment caused by a recent influx of immigrants.

Many Singaporeans feel that the ruling party has lost touch with the public, since it failed to recognize, much less fix, these issues before this year’s elections. For their parts, both opposition candidates argued that Singapore’s social problems could be addressed if the president, who is directly elected but has a limited role, were given more power to advocate on behalf of the people. Of course, Tony Tan’s victory will keep the president out of politics for now, but the onus will be on him to win the hearts and minds of the overwhelming number of Singaporeans who voted for the candidates who would have been more active.

Generational change also played a role in the PAP’s poor showing. Younger Singaporeans have no memory of the difficult economic conditions under which the party took power. They do not feel the same sense of gratitude to Lee Kuan Yew and his party as their parents do. Moreover, social media has allowed a measure of political expression that would have been inconceivable 18 years ago, when Singapore held its last competitive presidential elections. (In the two elections between 1993 and 2011, a candidate backed by the ruling party ran unopposed.)

Still, this year’s election probably does not necessarily mark an irreversible turn toward genuine multiparty democracy. Critics say that Singapore’s protection of the rights of assembly and freedom of expression lags behind that in other East Asian democracies. And the short campaigning period (nine days) deprives relatively lesser-known opposition candidates an opportunity to present their message to the public.

Moreover, the ruling party still has substantial resources at its disposal. It could use them to address public grievances and prolong its life in office. Few can deny that Tony Tan is highly qualified and experienced, especially when it comes to finance, since he headed one of Singapore’s largest commercial banks and was deputy prime minister for the country’s top sovereign wealth fund. And for his part, Lee Hsien Loong, has emerged from his formidable father’s shadow and is widely respected for his competence and leadership. The electoral setback may be just the spur they need to show leadership in reshaping Singapore.

There is also the possibility that the ruling party could successfully stem the demand for greater political liberalization by taking decisive measures to address the causes of public discontent — curbing immigration, cooling the property market, and reducing congestion, to name a few. By showing greater sensitivity to the material needs of the people, the PAP may be able to diminish the call for more political competition and openness.

In 1992, Lee Kuan Yew told a business group in the Philippines that he did not “believe democracy necessarily leads to development.” He continued, “I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy.” In July, after the parliamentary elections, he restated his belief with equal candor. Democracy, he said, “may satisfy the curious, but . . . what is required is good governance, eradication of corruption, economic development.”

The recent elections have left little doubt that a good number of Singaporeans are curious about their country’s democratic future. They are interested in finding out whether democratic politics can sustain the development and relatively good governance they already enjoy. To be sure, the Singapore that grew prosperous and stable under Lee’s authoritarian rule is a matter of considerable pride for its people. But a Singapore that can be prosperous, stable, and democratic would be the pride of everyone.

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