There are many reasons to judge Lee Kuan Yew a genius. Not the least of them is the fact that he attended Cambridge University—the alma mater of Stanley Baldwin (the do-nothing British prime minister of the 1920s-1930s), the Cambridge 5 spy ring (Kim Philby et al.), and Jawaharlal Nehru, among others—and managed to emerge not only a sensible person but also one of distinctly free-market views. He had the advantage, of course, of having been raised in the Crown Colony of Singapore, which, like Hong Kong, continued to practice unfettered capitalism long after it had become unfashionable in the Home Islands. Thus Lee fashioned in Singapore, the city state he ruled from 1959 to 1990, one of the most dynamic free-market societies on earth—one that has remarkably enough gone from per capita GDP of $512 a head in the 1965 to over $56,000 a head today, making it richer than Japan or Germany.
He was seemingly immune to the Fabian Socialist nostrums taught at Cambridge and other British universities in the first half of the twentieth century—misguided ideas which did so much to mess up developing countries in Africa and Asia where they were dutifully imported by credulous Oxbridge and London School of Economics graduates. Lee harked back to earlier British ideas—the ideas associated with free market apostles of the 19th century such as Richard Cobden and John Bright of Anti-Corn Law League fame—and his tiny state greatly benefitted from his iconoclasm.
Lee was more resistant to another British tradition—one of political liberty. He often said that Singapore could not afford the messiness of true democracy because it was only big enough to field one A Team—it couldn’t keep rotating politicians. There may or may not have been something to this. It is undoubtedly true that Lee made Singapore into one of the best-run societies on the planet, which remained for the most part free of the nepotism and corruption that are such a big problem in other Confucian societies where family ties mean so much. But Lee went further and often argued that democracy simply would not work in Asia—that Asia had to find its own way based on “Asian values.”
This is demonstrably false. Countries such as Taiwan and South Korea have evolved into vibrant multiparty democracies. Even Singapore appears to be headed in that direction, with Lee’s People’s Action Party, now led by his son the current prime minister, having lost 40% of the seats in parliament to opposition candidates in the last general election in 2011. If this trend continues—and let’s hope it does—it is not inconceivable to imagine a different party taking power in Singapore, one that might even be inclined to lift the stifling restrictions on the press that Lee imposed in order to defend social order.
Admittedly Singapore flourished without the normal checks and balances of liberal democracy but it is a unique case, not only because it is a tiny city state, but also because it was run by Lee Kuan Yew, the greatest dictator of the 20th century. Not only was he foresighted in his economic policies but also he was remarkably restrained in taking advantage of the absolute power that he wielded. He did not became a megalomaniacal tyrant like Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, Kim Il Sung, Mao Zedong, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Fidel Castro, or countless others. Only a few other dictators—Park Chun Hee, the founder of modern South Korea, comes to mind—deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with him.
If there were more Lee Kuan Yews, the case for democracy would be a lot weaker. But there was only one Lee, and it is impossible to imagine any political system, even one as advanced as Singapore’s, replicating his greatness for generation after generation, absent considerable advances in genetic cloning, without running the risks that come from handing absolute power to someone who is not fit to exercise it.
Many countries in Asia have sought to emulate what they saw as Singapore’s example—free market economics combined with autocratic politics. Few have managed it. Indeed the People’s Republic of China is now seeing how difficult of a juggling act that is to pull off: China has been experiencing breakneck economic growth but also extreme corruption, pollution, and other ills associated with an undemocratic system in which insiders rig the game to their benefit without having to experience any outside scrutiny from a free press, opposition parties, or an independent judiciary.
Neither a democracy nor a dictatorship is likely to produce a leader of Lee Kuan Yew’s caliber very often. But the saving grace in democracy is that there are limits on what the chief executive can do. Indeed the genius of America’s Constitution is that it has allowed the United States to survive presidents such as James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter. Singapore and its many imitators would be well advised to stop trying to replicate Lee Kuan Yew and instead institutionalize systems that are robust enough to flourish under leaders of lesser caliber.