“Pragmatic” was a word used over and over again in glowing obituaries of Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore for 32 years, since the day of its independence. “We are ideology-free,” he told The New York Times in 2007. “Does it work? If it works, let’s try it. If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.”
Lee is being praised as a visionary stateman who guided his tiny country from its days as a sleepy colonial outpost to become a leading financial centre with one of the world’s highest GDP per capita.
His was a small nation, but larger nations learned from his success, especially China. Tens of thousands of Chinese officials visited Singapore to observe how to make one-party control compatible with authoritarianism. Earlier this week China’s Foreign Ministry mourned Lee’s death and praised him as “a uniquely influential statesman in Asia and a strategist embodying oriental values and international vision.”
Nothing illustrates Lee’s pragmatic streak better than the story of how he structured his People’s Action Party (PAP) to resist Communist infiltration and to allow him to keep control in perpetuity. In 1958 he visited Rome as a tourist and saw Pope Pius XII being carried through the crowd in a palanquin. It was an aha! moment for Lee. He wrote in his fascinating memoir, The Singapore Story:
“Soon after I returned from Rome, I proposed that PAP elections to the central executive committee [CEC] be modelled on the system for electing the Pope. As we worked out the details, on 9 October Pope Pius XII died. The cardinals gathered at St Peter’s to choose the new pontiff, and within three weeks announced the election of Pope John XXIII. We noted the strength of the system, and at a special party conference on 23 November, we got the necessary changes adopted…
“Only cadres who had been chosen by the CEC could in turn vote for candidates to the CEC, just as only cardinals nominated by a Pope could elect another Pope. This closed the circuit, and since the CEC controlled the core of the party, the party could not now be captured.”
Lee understood almost nothing of Christianity and had no interest whatsoever in the teachings of the Catholic Church. But he admired an institution which had lasted 2000 years and he pragmatically swallowed the husk and spat out the fruit. He did much the same with democracy.
Ever since he was first elected as Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959, the PAP has governed the country with pragmatism as one of its guiding principles. Pragmatism appears to have paid off for Singapore. It is rich, highly educated, clean, tidy, hard-working, disciplined and honest.
The flip side is that it has a toothless press, an authoritarian government which suppresses opponents with defamation suits, and a supine, gerrymandered Parliament. “Disneyland with the death penalty,” as William Gibson cynically observed. But their country works and, like Lee Kuan Yew, most Singaporeans, too, are pragmatists.
But can a system built on an ideology of mere pragmatism last?
“People are our only resource” is a slogan often repeated by Singapore’s ministers. And people are treated pragmatically as resources. The most egregious example of this is the country’s notorious population policy. Soon after independence, Singapore enforced a “stop-at-two” policy. Couples who had three or more children were penalised. Large families received less education, health care and housing. The government promoted the slogan: “The more you have, the less they get. Two is enough.”
Singaporeans listened. The birth rate plummeted to replacement level. And then below replacement level. And then far below replacement level. The government became worried and changed its slogan to “Have Three or More (if you can afford it)” and set up dating agencies. Singaporeans didn’t listen. Their fertility rate is now amongst the lowest in the world.
The current prime minister, Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong said somewhat plaintively in 2014: “we do need enough children to form the next generation. Unfortunately, despite our efforts to promote marriage and parenthood, our birth rates are still too low. Singapore’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) was 1.19 last year, far below our replacement rate of 2.1. The TFR for Chinese Singaporeans (1.06) was even lower. We must try our best to do better.”
Is it a mark of national success that its citizens do not care to reproduce themselves?
And what does being treated pragmatically as a resource do to people? Does it make them bright, agile, nimble, creative entrepreneurs?
Probably not. The dearth of creativity and entrepreneurship in Singapore is a problem as the global economy shifts towards services and away from manufacturing. Marketing guru Guy Kawasaki once said “Israel has 5 million people, 6 million entrepreneurs, and 15 million opinions. Singapore has 5 million people, 6 entrepreneurs, and 1 opinion.”
And Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, once told the BBC, “Look at structured societies like Singapore where bad behavior isn’t tolerated. You are extremely punished. Where are the creative people? Where are the great artists? Where are the great musicians? Where are the great singers? Where are the great writers? Where are the athletes? All the creative elements seems to disappear.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Singapore. Its citizens are clever and work hard and there is much to celebrate. But something is going wrong with Lee Kuan Yew’s experiment in social engineering. Even though Singapore’s GDP per capital is higher than the United States, Hong Kong or Japan – and far ahead of China or neighbouring Malaysia — more than half of all Singaporeans say that they would emigrate if they could. Many do. Is it a mark of national success that half of a country’s citizens do not want to live there?
Lee Kuan Yew was a successful politician. But a visionary statesman? Not likely. Not likely at all.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.