Among the ‘new nations’ that became independent in the 1960s, Singapore makes the least pretence of a break with colonial rule. Streets and roads bear the names of some of the most savage grandees of the empire – Havelock, Neill, Outram. The bicentennial of 2019 celebrated the arrival of the city-state’s ‘founding father’, Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, whose name graces countless schools and institutions, the famous hotel, and the world’s largest flower. ‘Without 1819, we may never have been launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today,’ the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, declared at the festivities. His father, Lee Kuan Yew – Singapore’s second founding father – would have agreed. When he took power at the head of the anti-colonial People’s Action Party (PAP) more than half a century ago, LKY followed the advice of his Dutch economic adviser not to remove the statue of Raffles from Singapore harbour: it would be foolish to retire such a beacon for foreign capital.
Singapore today occupies an exalted place in the neoliberal imagination. ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ was the slogan of the Brexiter elite, who promised a City of London ‘unleashed’ from European controls and equipped with a finely calibrated lever for migration. ‘We will pursue Singapore’s model in Crimea,’ the head of Crimean affairs in the Kremlin said, with LKY’s memoirs visible on his desk, shortly after the statelet’s annexation. When Saudi Arabia in 2017 unveiled its $500 billion joint-stock company in the form of the mega-city of Neom, the prospectus featured a photograph of Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay. The Singapore ‘model’ now seems poised to replace its old rival, Hong Kong, whose GDP it recently surpassed.
Singapore began the 20th century as one of the hubs of Asian communism, and in the decades after the Second World War, all the century’s ideologies made an appearance there. A onetime Fabian, Lee Kuan Yew modelled Singapore’s postwar welfare state and housing system partly on Attlee’s Britain, of which it became a hyperbolic version (the Singaporean government today owns 85 per cent of the land, and 80 per cent of the population lives in public housing). Lee took other ideas from his communist and left-wing rivals: clean-up campaigns, anti-corruption purges and the white short-sleeved uniforms that were meant to convey the PAP’s purity. Meanwhile, his ‘Asian Values’ campaign and his 1980s eugenics programme – one of the few initiatives his citizens rejected – owe debts to Japanese fascism, and the PAP’s elaborate cadre system draws explicitly on the Vatican’s College of Cardinals. And yet a vast brocade of unreconstructed colonial law and administration remains at the centre of Singaporean political life like a cherished Victorian heirloom.
In the mid-1960s, Singapore was still a plausible member of the Non-Aligned Movement; Lee mugged for the cameras with Nehru, Nkrumah and Tito. He openly mocked Washington’s incompetent imperialism in Vietnam, holding to ransom a CIA agent who had spied on his party, and flirting with the idea of a Soviet naval base, before abruptly reversing gears, taking a series of sabbaticals in the Harvard Kennedy School (which would become the finishing school of Singapore’s elite bureaucrats), before embarking on a headlong courtship of US corporations. For the first thirty years of independence, American firms concentrated their domicile-holding companies in Singapore, investing more on paper in the tiny city-state than in the rest of South-East Asia combined. But, even during the depths of the Cultural Revolution, Lee never doubted China’s rise. For the past three decades, Singapore has tacked nimbly between China and the US. In the early 1990s, Beijing sent officials to be trained in Singapore, but Peter Sloterdijk’s line that statues of Mao will one day be replaced with ones of LKY now seems a dated exuberance. The meritocratic ideology of Singapore has begun to show signs of wear, and its elite seems incapable of regenerating itself as that of the PRC does. Lee’s pioneer generation – the ‘Men in White’ – has given way to an ever more circumscribed stratum, a process which Michael Barr, the leading historian of modern Singapore, examines in rich detail. The well-oiled pistons of the market-state are increasingly accompanied by the creaks and squabbles of a Chinese dynasty. The country’s prized state companies are overrun by kinship networks. It is not unusual for one spouse to be in charge of auditing the other’s operations. Despite Singapore’s professed meritocracy, the central place of the Lee family in the system recalls the Nehrus’ nepotistic rule in India.
The British were relative latecomers to South-East Asia. An administrator on the make, Raffles wanted to make up for lost time. He took part in the invasion of French-controlled Java in 1811 and ruled it for three years as lieutenant-governor. With a talent for engineering inter-elite intrigues and massacres, he made considerable headway in bringing the sultans of the island to submission. He ransacked the ancient city of Yogyakarta and catalogued the treasures of the territory. But his plans for the British East Indies appeared to be at an end with the peace of 1814, when Britain returned most of its gains to the Netherlands in exchange for keeping the Cape of Good Hope and some minor territories in Latin America. In 1817, his glory days seemingly over, Raffles became the lieutenant-governor of Bencoolen, a miserable penal colony and pepper trading post on the west coast of Sumatra. Back in London, he had moved in the zealous circles around Jeremy Bentham. He believed in the moral uplift of free trade, and in the perfectibility of native peoples. In Sumatra, he found some wayward clay to work with:
When a tiger enters a village, the foolish people frequently prepare rice and fruits, and placing them at the entrance as an offering to the animal, conceive that, by giving him this hospitable reception, he will be pleased with the attention, and pass on without doing them harm. They do the same with smallpox, and thus endeavour to lay the evil spirit by kind and hospitable treatment. I am doing all I can to resume the empire of man …
‘Resume’ was the key word. Raffles believed that the indigenous peoples of the archipelago had noble pasts and had been perverted by the incursions of Islam. Unlike his epigones, Raffles knew that the natural harbour at the mouth of the Johor River had two centuries earlier served as a major port for the sultanate of Johor (and before that as trading post for the Java-based Majapahit empire). Singapore, the port on the Johor River, was not his first choice for an experiment in enlightened colonial rule – he would have preferred to inherit Penang or start anew on Bintan or Riau – but he forced the East India Company into accepting that it needed a new port to control the China trade, and challenge Dutch dominance at Malacca. The chance came with the death of the sultan of Johor. Well-informed about the rivalries of the court, Raffles co-ordinated with the local Temenggong (the court’s chief of public safety) at Singapore to smuggle the sultan’s exiled elder son out of Riau. He then proclaimed him the new sultan, and got him to sign over to the East India Company the port of Singapore and a piece of the Malay hinterland to function as a free-trade zone.
Raffles was known at the company for financial incompetence. He had been sacked as governor of Java for selling the company’s property in order to float a paper currency, which then failed. He wanted Singapore to be a free port – with no import or export duties, no port fees and no income taxes – but also banned other sources of company revenue: taxes on gambling, sex work and cock-fighting. His deputy, William Farquhar (Justin Trudeau’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather), resented Raffles’s evangelism, and in post-Raffles Singapore (he returned to England in 1823), traditional company practices resumed. The free port’s success was immense. In the following decades, Chettiar traders arrived from Tamil Nadu, Punjabi Sikhs came to work as police, Tamil coolies were shipped in to work as slaves in everything but name. But the majority of migrants were Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hakka-speaking traders and workers from Guangdong and Fujian. The rise of British colonialism and the rise of Chinese prosperity are inextricable strands in Singapore’s official history, making its progress from a sparsely populated Malay island to a densely populated Chinese-majority city-state appear to be destined. The company developed the land around Singapore into large opium and rubber farms that were sold to Chinese businessmen, who paid tax on their immense concessions. The Straits Settlements became a crown colony in 1867, partly at the instigation of business elites in Penang and Singapore, who asked the British for a more ‘settled government’ in the belief that it would facilitate the Malayan market. Within the next half-century the city became the main base for the British navy in Asia, and was second only to Tokyo as its wealthiest conurbation. The last wild tiger on the island was shot in 1930.
The Japanese Empire’s long anticipated showdown with the Western powers culminated in 1942 in the spectacular conquest of Singapore. Humiliated by its modest haul of Germany’s Pacific colonies at Versailles and the US rejection of its proposed racial equality clause, in the 1930s Japan wanted a protectionist yen bloc comparable to the sterling area and the dollar zone. In 1940, as part of its campaign to install itself as the successor to European colonialism in mainland China, Japan routed the French empire in northern Indochina, in order to shut off finance and supplies to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. As if further tinder for Japanese expansionism were required, the incursion provoked Roosevelt to stop metal, oil and machine tool exports to Japan, which Tokyo believed would hinder its ability to fight a protracted war. The oil stocks of the Imperial Navy, by far the largest in Japan, duly declined between 1940 and 1941, as the empire failed to process adequate amounts of oil from Manchuria and Sakhalin. Nazi Germany’s lightning conquest of France later that year presented a separate impetus: Germany now looked to inherit the French and Dutch colonies of South-East Asia. Tokyo thought it had little time to waste. When Japanese forces captured Singapore at the end of its no less astonishing Blitzkrieg down the spine of Malaya, it was Hitler’s turn to be nonplussed. He was taken aback by Japan’s victory, much as Teddy Roosevelt had been a generation earlier by Japan’s defeat of the tsar’s navy at Tsushima Bay: it was the bittersweet case of a derelict race dispatching an imperial rival.
The peoples of South-East Asia prepared for a Japanese future. Lions of decolonisation such as Sukarno in Indonesia and Aung San in Myanmar would later play down their wartime collaboration with the Japanese. Lee Kuan Yew, by contrast, made no such attempt. ‘That’s the end of the British Empire,’ he told one of his classmates at Raffles College when the first blasts were felt over the city. Lee, then in his late teens, not only learned Mandarin and Japanese during the occupation, but worked as a translator of Allied news reports for the main Japanese propaganda bureau in the Cathay Building. A few floors down, Yasujirō Ozu, freshly arrived in Singapore, produced propaganda about the Indian National Army’s fight against the British Empire. ‘The three and a half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life,’ Lee wrote in his memoirs. He admired the ruthlessness of the Japanese, and believed it had toughened up his generation. The efficiency of their brothels impressed him. Spotting the head of a Chinese looter hanging from the marquee of a movie theatre, he thought: ‘What a marvellous photograph this would make for Life magazine.’
In retrospect, the Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere now looks like a drastically failed test run at an Asian century. Reappropriated and refined by a neo-Kantian law professor in Tokyo, the idea of Hakkō ichiu – literally ‘eight crown cords, one roof’ or ‘the world under one roof’ – was meant to elevate the structure of the patriarchal Japanese family into a geopolitics. Tokyo would be the cultural father, with tribal peoples in Burma and the Philippines and elsewhere serving as children, allowed to preserve their cultural uniqueness in return for raw materials. But the Imperial Army eradicated mosques in Malaya and hunted down educated Chinese with genocidal precision. Lee Kuan Yew only narrowly escaped the Sook Ching massacres, in which General Yamashita’s troops executed 25,000 Chinese in Singapore. The Japanese disruption of Trans-Java and Indian trade led to an enormous surge in smuggling. By the end of the war, Lee was manufacturing gum for the black market. The rubber estates of the Malayan hinterland meanwhile became a wasteland, as the defeats of the Japanese navy barred shipping to the mainland. When it became clear, on 22 August 1945, that General Itagaki intended to surrender, three hundred Japanese officers killed themselves immediately, several of them in the lounge of the Raffles Hotel. The remaining soldiers busied themselves destroying records and archives. Ozu, who devoted his tour in Singapore to collecting rugs and watching confiscated American films, burned the reels of his first picture, fearing reprisals.
At the end of the war, Whitehall still considered Singapore a critical military and commercial node, linking the empire to settler populations in New Zealand and Australia. The ‘loyalty marches’ by Singapore’s communal associations gave the impression that the population was willing to resume the status quo ante. The main legacy of the Japanese occupation was the rationalisation of the bureaucratic administration of British Malaya. What had formerly been ruled as a patchwork of federated and unfederated sultanates, along with the Straits Settlements of Malacca, Penang and Singapore, had been treated by the Japanese empire as a single administrative unit, ruled from Singapore. With the sultans facing insurrection for having collaborated with the Japanese, and a growing communist insurgency connected with Mao’s army to the north, Whitehall decided to create a Malayan Union which would combine the Straits Settlements with the federated and unfederated Malay states to form a single entity under British jurisdiction. (This failed, and was replaced by the less centralised Federation of Malaya in 1948.) Singapore, whose large Chinese population Malayan elites were unwilling to absorb into the union, was left dangling as a separate protectorate. It was the cleanest of the British partitions of the 1940s.
In 1955, Britain brokered the first legislative elections on the island – the freest and fairest in Singaporean history – which made the Labour Front leader, David Marshall, head of the local advisory board of what remained a British colony. The son of Sephardic Baghdadis, Marshall had been a Japanese POW in the mines of Hokkaido, and had Fabian connections in London. He proposed the creation of a welfare state and political autonomy. In particular, he demanded a relaxation of the Emergency Regulations that since the communist insurgency began in 1948 had allowed the British governor to detain suspects without trial and enforce a curfew. This was too much for Whitehall, which tapped up Kwame Nkrumah, prime minister of the Gold Coast, to convince Marshall to dampen his ardour. Marshall resigned later in 1955. ‘Christmas pudding with arsenic sauce’ was the way he described Whitehall’s proposal for autonomy with a British-appointed security apparatus. His replacement, the Labour Front secretary, Lim Yew Hock, was all too willing to do British bidding. But his crackdown on local communists backfired badly. The resulting uprising among the Chinese left destroyed the Labour Front’s future electoral chances, and provided an opening for a more radical organisation.
Lee Kuan Yew knew that he was an unlikely leader of the Singaporean left. From a fourth-generation Singaporean family of Hakka and Straits Chinese, his gambling-addicted father was a Shell Oil representative in the city. His mother, a second, concurrent wife, gave birth to him in 1923 when she was sixteen and insisted on a Western education for her children. Harry Lee grew up speaking Malay and English, but none of Singapore’s main Chinese dialects, which he later regretted as a political handicap. Unlike most radicals in the Straits, he was the product of Raffles College rather than ‘the world of the Chinese-educated’. He saw his colonial scholarship to study in England as an instance of divine election. Harold Laski’s lectures enraptured him along with the rest of the colonial students at the LSE. In his memoirs, written in the 1990s, Lee credited himself with a congenital distrust of student communists: ‘They used whatever means were at their disposal, like those attractive young ladies ready to befriend lonely colonial students, deceiving the unwary by calling themselves the “Socialist Club”.’ London tired him: ‘I was fatigued from walking, and travelling on tubes and buses left me without the energy for study and contemplation.’ He transferred to Cambridge in 1947, where maids and porters provided conditions that enabled a First in both parts of the law tripos.
After returning to Singapore in 1950, Lee took a job as a lawyer in an English-Chinese firm. His pro-bono record won the respect of Chinese radicals and trade unionists, and he became known as the leading lawyer of the left. He defended the Indian killers of an RAF officer, as well as unionised postal workers demanding wage rises and – most important – socialist students at the University of Malaya who had been arraigned on sedition charges for publishing an underground journal. In 1954, he began convening a motley group of English-educated radicals and Chinese-educated trade unionists at his bungalow on Oxley Road to talk about changing Singapore. It was a short-lived political marriage of convenience. The British-educated needed access to the Singaporean working population, while the Chinese-educated needed legitimacy in the eyes of Whitehall. On 24 November 1954, the People’s Action Party was founded. Members wore short-sleeved clean white shirts with pale trousers, in the tropical communist fashion, and refrained from ‘bourgeois affectations’ such as beer and cigarettes. Lee kept the minutes of the meetings buried in his backyard, and trained the group’s sights on seizing power.
The most formidable member of the Chinese left to join the PAP was Lim Chin Siong – a haunting figure in Singaporean history. Lee had discovered Lim organising relief during the great floods of 1954 . ‘He will be the future prime minster,’ Lee said, when introducing him in British-educated anti-colonial circles. In Lim, Lee found everything he himself lacked. A leader of Chinese middle school radicals in his teens, Lim understood that the fate of the Singaporean left was tied to a much wider political movement. His uncle had fought for the communists in China, and Lim had immersed himself in Russian history. He was widely considered the finest orator in 1950s Singapore, able to spellbind large Hokkien-speaking audiences. (Lee, acutely aware of his own deficiency, studied long into the air-conditioned night trying to add Hokkien and the other Chinese dialects to his language reserves.)
The political virtuosity of the Chinese left put Lee in a delicate position. He could dispense with them after they had helped the PAP into power, but he had first to work out how to wean the Chinese electorate from its allegiance to radical leaders, and how to sell the emergency laws that would ensnare them without seeming like a pro-British lackey. His first bit of luck came in 1956, when Lim, who had just won a seat for the PAP in Bukit Timah to become an MP at 22, was arrested by the British after being falsely accused of inciting a riot. Lee had been present at the riot, but declined to testify on behalf of Lim, who was imprisoned for four years without trial. Several other left-wing leaders of the PAP suffered the same fate. Then came Lee’s tactical masterstroke. He asked the British colonial secretary to insert a clause in its internal security law barring those who had been detained for subversion from standing at the next election. None of the most radical members of the Chinese left could be elected again. Lee made clear to the British that he would protest against this in public as a typical piece of British devilry, so as to maintain his anti-colonial credentials. He duly gave rousing speeches expressing his outrage at what he himself had arranged. British repression, Lee warned the Chinese working class, was like making love to a woman; it was always easier the second time.
The PAP swept the 1959 Singaporean elections, and has dominated its politics ever since. Fulfilling his campaign promise, Lee freed his former colleagues from prison, but Lim was barred from any major position, and became political secretary to the minister of finance. The rift between the British-educated and the Chinese-educated within the party could no longer be contained. Lim and the hard left criticised Lee’s wing for retaining emergency laws – detention without trial, denial of citizenship on political grounds, restrictions on union organising – and not negotiating complete security and legal independence from Britain. There was no longer any doubt that Lee intended to marginalise them. When by-elections were held in Hong Lim and Anson in 1961, Lim and the left faction threatened to withdraw their support for PAP candidates if Lee did not meet their demands. Lee refused, and the PAP lost. In an extraordinary gambit, he called a no confidence vote in his own government, which survived by a single vote. There followed the exodus of 80 per cent of the PAP membership into Lim’s new party, the Barisan Sosialis, or Socialist Front. With the Chinese-speaking working class supporting it, the PAP’s days seemed numbered.
In 1962, after Lee engineered a referendum, Singapore became part of the Malayan Federation. The idea was that it would become a more prosperous country if it could join with Malaya and its territories into a single federation. The price exacted by Kuala Lumpur, which feared being dominated by left-wing Chinese, was that Lee destroy the Singaporean left. The Barisan’s fears that the federation was a neo-colonial construction were shared only by Sukarno’s Indonesia, which promptly embarked on the quixotic campaign of Konfrontasi. British forces backed Malaysian units in skirmishes in the jungles of Borneo, while Indonesian special forces blew up the McDonald Building in Singapore. The 27-year-old Benedict Anderson witnessed, with some satisfaction, a crowd of thousands burning the British embassy in Jakarta. But the rest of the Non-Aligned Movement took Malaysia’s side. In 1964, as part of a whirlwind promotional tour for the federation, Lee visited Africa, winning over Nasser, Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere. He rode with Jomo Kenyatta in a convertible through Mombasa, and smarted at the indignities of a Monrovia hotel, where he resorted to brushing his teeth with Fanta. In Delhi, he encountered a Nehru humbled by the Sino-Indian war. ‘He had introduced Zhou Enlai to the Afro-Asia leaders at Bandung in 1955 to herald a new age of Afro-Asian Solidarity,’ Lee wrote. ‘His dream had turned to ashes.’ Looking back in the 1990s, Lee would claim to have prophesied pauperdom for his well-meaning Non-Aligned peers, though at the time he was as committed as they were to building an economy protected from the vagaries of international capital.
Lee’s open war on the Barisan was set in motion by the last British commissioner of Singapore, George Douglas-Hamilton, an exceptionally wily colonial hand. As the historian P.J. Thum has recounted, Douglas-Hamilton made a point of arranging a rendezvous with Lim and other Barisan figures (making it appear that they, not he, had arranged it), during which he assured them that, should they take power, the British would not arrest them. When Lee got news of the meeting, he was furious. His chance to obliterate the Barisan came the next year, 1962, with a revolt in Brunei, the Muslim principality on the north coast of Borneo, which was also considering a merger with Malaysia. Lee declared a link between Lim and the Barisan and the revolt’s leader, A.M. Azahari. It was just enough of a pretext for the British to submit to Lee’s wish for Lim and his associates to be rounded up, while allowing them to deny with some plausibility that this was the result of a carefully nurtured antagonism. On the morning of 2 February 1963, Operation Coldstore arrested 113 leading figures in the Barisan, who were detained without trial, interrogated and tortured at Changi Prison. Lim was put in solitary confinement and given psychotropic drugs. The Barisan stumbled on for another two decades, but the Singaporean left was finished. Coldstore would figure as a minor prelude to the wider anti-communist killing in Indonesia three years later, a small dot on what Wen-Qin Ngoei describes as the ‘arc of containment’ that Washington drew from Saigon to Jakarta. Lim was held in prison until 1969, when he was exiled to England, where for many years he worked as a grocer in Bayswater.
‘Singapore’s membership of Malaysia turned out to be a disaster from beginning to end,’ Barr writes. With the Singaporean left dealt with, Kuala Lumpur had already got what it wanted. But there were deeper problems. There was trouble on both sides of the Causeway. Lee’s finance minister, Goh Keng Swee, found it impossible to realise his vision of leveraging cheap materials from the Malaysian mainland and selling them back into the Malaysian market as finished goods. With good cause, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore feared each other’s economic exploitation. Suffering from stress, Lee became incoherent during public appearances. At the height of his mania, he burst into tears on the radio when he announced in 1965 that Singapore had been expelled from Malaysia. Yet there was method in this maudlin theatre: Goh had secretly arranged for Malaysia to save Lee’s reputation by pretending to expel him when in fact the two sides had made a cordial divorce agreement. Alone now in the Straits, there was no model to go by. The British were pulling out of their bases, unemployment surged, racially framed communalism flared and all economic indicators suggested chaos, or worse. In 1965, the international media declared the independent city-state of Singapore dead on arrival.
How Lee and the PAP manoeuvred Singapore off these shoals became ‘the Singapore Story’. The accomplishment is enshrouded in seventy years of mythologising, but no less impressive for that. As John D. Kelly has emphasised, a Singaporean cultural identity was forged within a decade: Malays in Singapore went overnight from being the Bumiputera – the chosen sons of the soil – to a minority; Indians had to forget memories of their prowess in the Indian National Army; and the Chinese had to give up any claim to be the special victims of Japanese – their massacre was passed over, only to be interpreted later as a crime against the nation-in-waiting. Within two decades, the PAP had built a state with mandatory conscription that manufactured its own machine guns. Within half a century Singapore had surpassed the US and Western Europe in per capita GDP, though the destitution of its underclass remains no less striking.
Singapore’s course of development departed markedly from the other Asian ‘Tigers’. In Taiwan and South Korea, the emerging states teamed up with local capitalists to establish protected firms that rapidly matured under the umbrella of US power. But in the 1960s, the young state of Singapore had no comparable local capitalist class. As well as going to war with the Chinese left, the PAP had ruthlessly crushed local capitalists like Tan Lark Sye, the Chinese rubber industrialist. With no need to make compromises with an indigenous bourgeoisie, the PAP nationalised 80 per cent of the land on the island and herded the population into state-built housing that carefully stratified different ethnicities. The intention was to dilute any left-wing groupings that could threaten the PAP. Indians, Chinese and Malays were assigned to mixed housing blocks, following strict quotas. Many resented leaving their village-like kampongs and kept hold of illicit livestock for as long as they could. Some were reduced to ‘shelter poverty’: they had a roof over their head but little else. But the Housing and Development Board served its purpose: it kept people loyal to a party that had in fact substantially delivered on its campaign promises of providing basic services.
Singapore became a neoliberal promised land when Lee recognised that his fate was bound up with US power. After the Wilson government announced it would withdraw all British forces ‘East of Aden’, Lee, worried this would scare away Western investors from Singapore, had to find a new patron. He had ridiculed the US war in Vietnam at the outset. Why could the Americans not behave like proper imperialists and transform Diem’s South Vietnam into a proper client state like South Korea? But by the late 1960s, Singapore had become both a supplier for the war and a rest stop for US troops. After a sabbatical at Harvard to cool his heels when the merger with Malaysia fell apart, Lee devoted himself to attracting the US to replace decolonising Britain. The key was to make Singapore appealing to US investment by ensuring laws favourable to corporate capital, and prioritising economic prerogatives over political freedom. With no local capitalist class to discipline the workforce, independent Singapore resorted to what Christopher Tremewan calls ‘forced proletarianisation’. The city-state’s notorious public order laws – lashes and prison for spitting, graffiti and public urination; swift execution for drug possession – were part of a breakneck effort to make Singapore’s citizens the most cowed and reliable semi-skilled workforce in Asia. ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’ was the way William Gibson described it. Free hospital care – which scandalised Milton Friedman when he learned of it – was ended. Lee consolidated all the trade unions into a single union under his control. With the Central Provident Fund, he could force workers to save part of their salaries for retirement, adjusting amounts at will, which allowed him to raise and lower wages in co-ordination with the needs of foreign industry. American corporate elites marvelled at such a partner. Lee personally escorted visiting CEOs around the island. The result was a boom of massive proportions, with Singapore leading the region in electronics assembly, ship repair and food processing. Full employment was achieved within a decade.
But Lee had grander plans. In the 1970s, faced with a labour shortage and a strong Singapore dollar that threated to give ground to regional competitors, he and Goh embarked on what they christened the Second Industrial Revolution. The idea was to transform Singapore from a low-wage manufacturing base to a capital-intensive, high-value-added economy. But this was a miscalculation, and in the 1980s capital fled to the new low-wage hotspots around Asia. In response, Lee and Goh pivoted back to suppressing wages, but also allowed for more unskilled migration. This is the formula Singapore has stuck with ever since, only with fewer opportunities for migrants to gain citizenship. The PAP regularly boasts of Singapore’s high GDP per capita and its ‘Swiss standard of living’, but the median income of Singaporean workers today is roughly on a par with the minimum income of a cleaner in Berne.
Geopolitically, Singapore tacked towards the US, but Lee was quick to make himself a counsellor to Beijing. Deng Xiaoping first visited in 1978, in order to recruit Singapore onto Beijing’s side in the Sino-Vietnamese war. Though Singapore today is officially closer to the US, conducting joint naval exercises in the South China Sea, Lee junior has tried to find a balance between the two powers. Despite their shared British colonial legacy, Singapore, in Beijing’s eyes, is everything Hong Kong is not. Instead of throwing up a Cantonese identitarian revolt that mobilises the legacy of British law for new ends, Singapore sleepwalks towards sinicisation. Its main sovereign wealth fund invests more in the Chinese mainland than in any other country.
Folly overtook tenacity during Lee’s last years in power. Showered with accolades – ‘the smartest leader I think I ever met’ (Tony Blair); ‘none is more impressive’ (George H.W. Bush) – his rule became erratic. He was frustrated by the absence of a spirit of entrepreneurship among his people and as a solution, proposed a eugenics campaign. The migrant working-class population would be encouraged to sterilise itself, while college graduates would be incentivised to breed. Polygamy, Lee thought, would be worth reinstituting for clever Chinese men.
The most lasting legacy of LKY may be the two volumes of his official history of Singapore. The Singapore Story and From Third World to First are masterpieces of the statesman’s memoir, written in forceful, unvarnished prose. But for deeper reflection on the meaning of Singapore, one must turn elsewhere. The leading Singaporean state intellectual today is the sociologist Chua Beng Huat. In the 1980s, Chua worked as a researcher for the Housing and Development Board (from which he was sacked for writing critical reports). Since then, he has become the regime’s most articulate defender. In Liberalism Disavowed, Chua recasts the city-state’s history in evolutionary terms, with LKY providing the necessary authoritarianism to set up the state, but fading from the picture when the population reached Western levels of prosperity.
Singapore, for Chua, stands as a proudly heretical member of the liberal capitalist world. He describes the city as a consultative authoritarian market-state. Singapore’s elections – in which the PAP has consistently won a parliamentary supermajority – are not, as critics would have it, a charade. Instead they function like political cardiograms of the party’s performance. While there is rampant gerrymandering, as well as punishment in the form of neglect for constituencies that have historically voted against the PAP (flats in Aljunied, for instance, are not repaired and updated), the party registers when a policy has lowered its vote share by a hair. Chua believes Singaporeans are more conscious than their Western peers of the fig-leaf service that a constitutional-electoral system provides for a state that in fact governs on behalf of capital. Chua’s better-known counterpart, the made-for-export intellectual and statesman Kishore Mahbubani, has extended these principles to foreign policy. Does the West even want a democratic China? Does it realise what kind of expansionist populist nationalism such a development could produce?
One of the leading dissenters in the city-state today is an Oxford-trained historian, P.J. Thum (he also competed as an Olympic swimmer), who has a mastery of new media, producing kitsch but carefully researched broadsides against the government. He has been hounded for his academic work by some of the most draconian ‘fake news’ laws in the world, and his flat has been raided by the police. ‘They try to intimidate me,’ he told me when I met him at the Raffles City Mall. ‘But they don’t want to turn anyone into a martyr.’ In his academic work and in his magazine, New Naratif, Thum attempts to bring political alternatives into view. He has exposed the deliberate detour into free-market fundamentalism by a state whose welfare state is still the envy of Asia. Constant targets are the relatively low wages of Singaporeans, as well as the chauvinism of the government’s housing policy (since flats can only be sold within ethnic groups, the value of Chinese property has necessarily risen faster than that of other groups). Such criticisms have been the stuff of dissent for decades, but have rarely been so clearly expressed and widely distributed. Above all, Thum wants Singaporeans to reject the artificial conception of themselves as citizens of a global city, shorn from the region of which their city was once a part. ‘We never decolonised,’ he told me.
The Disneyfication of Singapore is undiminished. Each ethnic group has a museum that records its rise from squalor. The outdoor hawker markets of the postwar years have become indistinguishable from shopping malls anywhere else in Asia. In a McDonald’s in Bugis I watched elderly Singaporean women wipe the tables – not the ‘Asian Values’ LKY had in mind. I passed Tamil workers sleeping in their plastic gear on the baking pavement of Fort Canning Road, before watching them scurry into a truck that would take them to their housing camp. Despite declaring virtual victory over Covid-19 last year, Singapore had entirely neglected its migrants, who make up a quarter of the population. New measures belatedly went into effect, increasing the distance between the sardine beds in jammed block dwellings from 1 metre to 1.5 metres. Although migration remains an issue that brings rare criticism of the government, and fuelled the electoral campaign of the new People’s Voice opposition party, the cliquefication of the PAP elite remains the regime’s gravest vulnerability. At a small, orderly protest I passed in Hong Lim Park, the familiar rap sheet was rolled out. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong chairs GIC, one of Singapore’s two sovereign wealth funds; his wife, Ho Ching, chairs Temasek, the second. Ivy Lim Swee Lian is head of Singhealth, the country’s chief healthcare system, while her husband, Ng Eng Hen, runs the military. As Barr notes, the elite now collect in the military, from which increasingly out-of-their-depth generals are plucked to run public institutions, such as Singtel, the state telecom company, and the public transit system, which now resembles an underground shopping mall, with crash-prone trains running through it.
The PAP’s usual triumph at the polls last summer was never in doubt. But apostasies proliferate. Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother joined the new opposition party, Singapore Progress, deepening the younger siblings’ feud with their brother over the fate of 38 Oxley Road. They accuse Lee of wanting to keep the building as a political asset. To his credit, the grand old man was less sentimental than his children. He allowed the statue of Raffles to remain, but decreed that the bungalow at Oxley Road be bulldozed after his death.