There is a guess-you-had-to-be-there tone to the dialogue considering the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore who died this week at 91. From this side of the globe, reports generally cast Lee’s transformation of the tiny city-state into one of the wealthiest Asian nations as having been accomplished through a semi-authoritarian, one-party rule that muzzles political dissent.
Along with the acknowledged success of Lee’s “Singapore model”—rendering one of the world’s highest per-capita incomes, spotless public spaces, clean tap water, non-corrupt government officials—there also has been attention to harsh penalties for such crimes as failing to flush public toilets and buying or selling chewing gum, and questions of whether free speech is fully tolerated.
As a person who spent a single week in Singapore for a 2005 assignment to cover a major International Olympic Committee meeting, I can only say there was nothing not to like about the place. On the surface, at least, Singapore appeared to follow the Walt Disney school of theme-park efficiency—a Tomorrow Land, Fantasy Land ideal. (You can chew gum, just don’t dare spit it out on the street.)
I even ran into the Statue of Liberty while I was there. (She was promoting the unsuccessful New York City bid for the 2012 Olympics.)
Picture gleaming, modern skyscrapers side-by-side with classic, historic buildings in the British colonial style, such as the Raffles Hotel (partly famous as home to the Singapore Sling drink). Think of impeccably neat surroundings and a mix of normally distinct cultures, a place somehow simultaneously Asian and Western, which was a manifestation of Lee’s ability to get along both with China and the United States.
Of course, I had read about the high-profile case of American teenager Michael Fay, whose conviction for vandalism and subsequent sentence to be caned in Singapore triggered a minor diplomatic crisis in 1994. It certainly made Singapore sound like a menacing place.
But travel can do enlightening things for one’s worldview. Almost a half-century in the newspaper business afforded me just enough global rambling, mostly via of assignments to cover international sports, not only to deepen an appreciation for all the good stuff and openness we have in the United States—but also to come to the conclusion that we too often paint other lands with a brush of generalization.
So it is not so hard to understand some of the Singaporean annoyance over disapproving representations of Lee and his approach to social order. A column in the United Kingdom’s Independent, written by Singapore native Calvin Cheng, appeared under the headline, “The West Has It Totally Wrong on Lee Kuan Yew.”
“Much as I understand the West’s fundamental DNA to assert certain unalienable freedoms,” Cheng wrote, “as a Singaporean, I strenuously object that there has been any…trade-off” between Lee’s enormously successful economic template and fundamental civil liberties.
“In short,” Cheng wrote, “are you a civilized person who wants to live in a civilized society? Because the things you cannot do in Singapore are precisely the sort that civilized people should not do anyway. If you are, you have nothing to fear.”
Indian-born Washington Post reporter Sahana Singh, who lived in Singapore for 12 years, wrote that she “never felt more free” than when she was stationed in that city-state. “Westerners,” she wrote, “ridicule Singapore for restrictions on personal expression and protest, but overlook how the nation provides more freedom than some of the most-lauded democracies.
“The national government,” she said, “is highly transparent and virtually incorruptible, functioning better than some chaotic, so-called democracies. And yet the world asks why the average Singaporean, who had good schooling, a job, affordable housing, healthcare, child-care and elder-care, doesn’t protest from roof-tops.”
It turns out, by the way, that when Michael Fay—upon returning to the United States—also got in trouble with the American legal system. And that Bill Clinton, who as President during Fay’s Singaporean troubles called that nation’s punishment of the lad extreme and mistaken, is attending Lee’s funeral.
A very civilized thing to do.