Singapore ponders over its future after Lee Kuan Yew

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Updated: Mar 24, 2015 1:30 PM

Foreign influx, slowing economy, unemployment … the ruling PAP faces a tough test in the 2016 elections—it’s the first time the party goes to polls without LKY

Singapore, Singapore LKY, Malaysia, Singapore GDPSingapore has paused to reflect on perhaps the last of the great Asian statesmen of the 21st century—a man of uncommon erudition and sophistication, a moderniser par excellence and, like it or not, a sharply controversial visionary.

Singapore, it is said, is named after the rare sighting of a lion. Modern Singaporeans believe they found another lion in Lee Kuan Yew, popularly known as LKY.

As the small, bustling city-state—historically famous as a trading port—celebrates the 50th anniversary of its break up from Malaysia this year, its 5.46 million people cannot be indifferent about the one man who wrote its modern destiny, LKY.

The passing away of the 91-year-old LKY is the passing away of an era. Singapore has paused to reflect on perhaps the last of the great Asian statesmen of the 21st century—a man of uncommon erudition and sophistication, a moderniser par excellence and, like it or not, a sharply controversial visionary. Indeed, it is said that the remarkable and much-lauded metamorphosis of Singapore from mangrove swamps, opium dens and small kampongs (villages) into its present day avatar as a bustling Asian metropolis with an enviable skyline happened under LKY’s tutelage—and iron hand, if you will.

LKY never looked back since he became the Prime Minister in 1959, overseeing Singapore’s transition as an independent republic just after its integration with Malaysia fell apart in 1965, with Singapore’s expulsion from the federation. Since then, LKY rose as the “first among equals” to dominate the political scene as the Prime Minister till 1990, until he stepped down to become a Senior Minister (SM) and later the Minister Mentor (MM)—an euphemism for the grand patriarch that LKY had become—till he retired from politics in 2011.

LKY was born into a middle-class, English-speaking home as Harry Lee Kuan Yew in 1923 (he later dropped Harry from his name) and graduated from Raffles College, Singapore (now the National University of Singapore). He pursued further studies at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and later passed the British Bar exams at Middle Temple, London, returning to Singapore in 1949. He was one of the founding fathers of the People’s Action Party (PAP), becoming its Secretary General in 1954. It was both his academic achievements and high moral ground to be the ultimate exemplar that thrust greatness on the “man on the dot”. Indeed, the Singaporeans—an ethnic mix of the Chinese, Malay and Indians—stood steadfast behind him, irrespective of religion, class and gender.

As LKY grew in stature, so did Singapore, with a 30-fold rise in GDP. The place where ships docked became the UE Square, the broad boulevards facing Fort Canning were built on the dust of the beloved National Theatre and Van Kleef Aquarium famous for its  Shell Fountain.

Singapore became the home of the seventh largest oil refinery in the world, emerged as one of the top R&D hubs of the region with multi-faceted clusters such as Fusionopolis and Biopolis, boasting of one of the world’s busiest ports that can give Shanghai (port) a run for its money.

Locals say that, in the 1970s and 1980s, people from the region flocked to Singapore to buy goods, because they were cheaper than Bangkok.

Today, Singapore is among the most expensive in the world, with Mercer’s Cost of Living Survey (2014) putting Singapore among the top four expensive cities, followed by Zurich (5) and Geneva (6). The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Cost of Living Survey which covered 133 countries ranked Singapore as the world’s most expensive city in 2014.

How did this happen? Part of it is connected to the dramatic increase in Singapore’s population, with huge foreigner influx. Hordes of foreigners have taken to Singaporean citizenship in the last few decades, which the government gave out fairly easily then, coaxed by Singapore’s falling fertility rate of 1.2 child per woman (below the replacement rate of 2.1%). Citizens constitute 3.3 million and there are 527,000 permanent residents (called “PRs” who are not Singapore citizens but can reap some benefits), but the rest are foreigners—more than one-third of the total population. With the economy visibly slowing down and unemployment averaging 2.49% from 1986 until 2014, there is rising pressure on employment, services, housing and the Singaporean dream.

This has reflected in the polls. LKY-led PAP closely fits famous Indian political scientist Rajani Kothari’s paradigm of “one-party dominance”.

The PAP has ruled Singapore for five decades, but fared its worst in the last general elections (2011). The PAP won just 60.1% of popular votes, the lowest since independence—though it won 81 out of 87 seats, reflecting the way the system is stacked up. Its share of popular votes has been swaying precariously, showing at 61% in 1991, to an upswing of 75.3% in 2001, and down to 60.1% in 2011. The opposition to the PAP is still splintered and muffled, with the Workers’ Party (WP) lurking around the corner; but the task of the PAP wearing the sole crown of responsibility is not one easier.

Analysts have attributed the poor showing to foreign influx. The last few years have seen thousands of Singaporeans publicly rally against foreigners who, they allege, take away cushy jobs and drive property prices up. The reality is writ in daily life when taxi drivers (colloquially “Taxi Uncles”) enquire whether you are Singaporean, PR or a foreigner, to many passengers.

In January 2013, a white paper issued by the government’s National Population and Talent Division indicated “to allow for an increase in the city-state’s population to 6.9 million by 2030”, indicating that Singaporeans were expected to make up a little more than 55% of the total. The reaction in the local populace was swift and severe. Social media was agog with activity, including a Facebook group called “Say No to an overpopulated Singapore”, forcing the government to clarify, with the Prime Minister stating that the figure was just a “worst case, aggressive scenario that we must prepare for.”

In response, the government clamped down on the number of foreign workers coming in. This severely affected the small and medium businesses, especially in sectors such as food, construction and services—who cannot find workers—and quite a few have shut down recently.

Meanwhile, it has stepped up Baby Bonus schemes—the latest being the SG50 Baby Jubilee Gift, a gift hamper from diaper bag to baby sling to even baby clothes.

Far away from architect Moshe Safdie’s impressive interpretation of the Singapore skyline of the Marina Bay Sands and the CBD sky-rise, lie heartlands such as of Ang Mo Kio and Toa Payoh, with pawn shops doing brisk business. The yawning gap between the average Singaporeans and the expatriates is visible there to see. While expats live it up in private houses or condominiums of River Valley and Cairnhill Road (typically surrounded by walls), 80% of the resident population lives in public housing in HDBs (Housing Development Board houses, resulting from the Home Ownership for the People Scheme in 1964, typically not surrounded by walls).

The next elections are due in early 2016, with the PAP facing a more demanding electorate. It would be the first time the PAP goes to battle without the roar of the lion of Singapore.

The author is a Singapore-based sinologist and currently adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi

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