From the banyan’s shadow: What Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy means for young Singaporeans

Note: This is an expanded version of an essay first published on Quartz.

In the wee hours of Monday morning (March 23), Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died after having been hospitalised for pneumonia since February 5. He was 91.

This year I will be 31 – the same age Lee was when he started the PAP in 1954. By 1955, he had won the seat for Tanjong Pagar constituency, and by 1959, just before turning 36, he was sworn in as prime minister. Perhaps in a young country many things may be done by young men. (By contrast, the minimum age of candidacy for a US president is 35.)

I sometimes wonder what harsh words Lee in the 1980s might have had for his younger self, the idealistic upstart lawyer who defended trade unionists and, like many young people in colonial societies at the time from Africa to the Caribbean, thought he could talk the British into turning Singapore over to self-rule. But the fact remains: at 31, Lee and his fellow party members (and their rivals) were out there campaigning for the city they believed in, hearing citizens’ grievances, and generally putting their money where their mouths were.

My generation may not fully agree with his politics even as we benefit from some of his policies. But can we love Singapore as fiercely? Can we look clear-eyed at Lee’s legacy and work out for ourselves which parts are worth carrying on and which parts are more burden than gift?

One of the key things Lee and his cohort did for the island-state was entrench the rule-of-law doctrine. Singapore’s systems and institutions evolved from British colonial ones – the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau has been around since 1952, before the city attained self-government in 1959 or independence in 1965 – but laws this time around were enforced. And when it came to corruption, the stick was balanced by a fat carrot of high civil- and public-service salaries so workers were less likely to take bribes.

At the same time, some have critiqued Singapore as paying lip service to the rule of law and ignoring the spirit of justice, in situations ranging from detention of activists without trial to defamation and libel lawsuits. Yes, and my generation needs to understand the tumultuous context in which Singapore’s rule of law doctrine came about, and decide for itself how far to adapt it for the future.

And there is no doubt about Singapore’s meteoric economic progress since independence. The popular ‘swamps to skyscrapers’ trope is a myth, but if Singapore was quite as healthy a commercial hub under colonial rule as some critics make it out to be, how then does one explain the tremendous support he enjoyed from my parents’ generation? Perhaps it was because they saw their quality of life visibly rise, with more equitable provisions from sanitation to public transport to affordable housing for all. Public parks, for instance, were distributed across Singapore for the benefit of all citizens, not just the moneyed elite.

But these, while necessary, are not sufficient.

If a country is to thrive over the long run, it must be able to move on from its founding fathers while upholding and adapting the founding principles that made it great. I think of former Foreign Affairs minister George Yeo, who in 1991 spoke of freeing non-state civic institutions to thrive: of needing to “prune the banyan trees so other plants can grow”.

This pruning, and the flourishing of other plants, has carried on for some years now. Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been prime minister since 2004, and though the elder Lee remained highly influential he took a less active role in public life and parliamentary debate. In 2011, he stepped down as Minister Mentor after the People’s Action Party posted its worst general-election result with just over 60 per cent of the vote. (The party abolished the Minister Mentor and Emeritus Senior Minister posts to give the Prime Minister and his team room to prepare for the future, he said.) So while his passing marks the end of an era, it may be less of an inflection point for Singapore than many think.

A leader such as Lee Kuan Yew, who made himself redundant, who stepped down to hand over the reins within the party even as he ensured the party remained in power, would understand the principle that societies evolve, generation by generation. And so I believe my generation must address some key considerations for Singapore’s future.

Inequality and elite governance

Effectively addressing the bread-and-butter concerns of everyday folk was what bolstered Lee’s rise to power. But today intergenerational mobility is beginning to ossify, while income inequality is among the highest in the developed world. If you want to talk about bread and butter issues, what about advocating for the least of Singapore’s people, those left behind by Singapore’s much-vaunted economic growth and those on whose backs that growth is still being built?

As for high pay, every policymaker should be at least aware of perverse economic incentives – and of their own privilege. High salaries do run the risk of becoming a perverse incentive in which people enter government or civil service motivated by money. (On the other hand, if you didn’t pay MPs anything at all you might get only the already wealthy running for office – much as unpaid internships reduce socioeconomic diversity in media. And today, to a great extent, Singapore’s public service is genuinely selected on the basis of merit, not class or parental connections.) And if we think a policy of elite governance has created a two-tier system of insiders and outsiders or fostered top civil servants out of touch with the ground, remember the elite civil service is not the only career path, reject this two-tier system, or for those already in it, aspire to serve or govern as best you can.

Economic growth

A greater concern is the nature of Singapore’s economic growth. Is the foundation of its growth becoming a new vulnerability for Singapore? In the drive to grow Singapore’s economy as fast as possible in the early decades of independence, the infant state went big on foreign direct investment as a path to wealth. Between 1970 and 2013, foreign direct investment ballooned from US$93 million to US$63 billion (note: source: UN statistics at, USD$ at current prices and exchange rates). And so industry today continues to be dominated by multinational firms that site their manufacturing and regional head offices here.

That strategy has worked very well for the last three decades, but it presents a different kind of vulnerability if Singapore doesn’t grow its own startups and support homegrown enterprises fast. Various factors hold back innovation and entrepreneurship in Singapore – the rent is high, for instance, and the prevailing culture encourages risk-aversion in young people – so it’s up to my generation to try to overcome those. Furthermore, some have argued that Singapore’s emphasis on growth and money as an end in itself has fostered a “vacuous sense of national identity”. The onus is on my generation to go one better.

Beyond benevolent authoritarianism

Most pressing of all is to make amends for Lee’s heavy-handed repression of dissidents and critics, and reform media laws. Perhaps that was justified in those early tinderbox years when a spark could set off riots, but today an informed electorate would rather have a larger say. (On the ‘benevolent’ part of benevolent authoritarianism: without openness or sunshine laws, there is little to ensure that future politicians are as benevolent, not corrupt, or even telling the truth at all.) And Singapore and its institutions would be stronger and more trusted for a more open media that enjoys greater credibility and legitimacy.

In 1968, addressing the University of Singapore, Lee said, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.” In a delightful irony, about a decade ago, his granddaughter Li Xiuqi wrote a poem that speaks for a generation accused of being too far removed from the turbulent early years of Singapore’s birth: “Not being born, I didn’t know/ This time when Singapore boiled and bled … I didn’t know; I didn’t share;/ I didn’t fight; I wasn’t there./ And so, although this is my land,/ I only love it secondhand.” (Li Xiuqi, ‘not being born’)

Li speaks for my generation – the last generation to remember Lee Kuan Yew alive, as a dynamic politician and elder statesman, not just the frail party member waving from the stands at National Day Parades. But I am also a parent-to-be, and I think Li also speaks for my future children and their children, born to a world beyond the banyan’s shadow, for whose Singapore I am now working.

Being told precisely what to do can be comforting in the short run, but in the long run, Singapore’s citizens must find our own way in the world. Are we bold enough to engineer, as Lee did, disruptive change where needed?

A final word: Yes, go ahead and mourn. By all means, mark the benefits of Lee’s legacy. But remember that it alone is not sufficient to carry the country forward – and that neither the best nor the worst of Singapore’s features can be attributed to him alone. And then do what he would have done himself: pick right up and carry on fighting for the Singapore you believe in.

The real lesson was his leadership by example: instead of sitting around complaining about being stifled by past regimes, instead of stretching out your open palm in supplication, have a vision and stand up for it. Perhaps even devote your life’s work to it. Never waver.

The other day, a friend wrote by way of Facebook eulogy: “From here on, my dear Singaporeans, it’s all on us.” The thing is – it’s been all along.


One thought on “From the banyan’s shadow: What Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy means for young Singaporeans

  1. peteryeo March 30, 2015 / 2:35 am

    Hi Grace, I came across your post on Quartz via Facebook. It is an enjoyable read and shows the clarity of thought with a vision for a better Singapore. Values I support.

    If I may ask though, have you tried starting a business of your own (pardon my ignorance, or are you running one now?). My wife and I did (try). We’d wanted to start a business in F&B, possibly the most competitive industry in Singapore. And as expected, it was tough. Rent, as you’ve mentioned is high. But there are myriad grants to help the new business owners as well as options such as second hand machines (from the graveyard of failed businesses). We eventually gave up because I wasn’t confident of my product. But options are available to start your own business. I’ve also known of friends and relatives who have started businesses through sheer grit. My cousin just started his business. He co-shares a rent space for a surprisingly low rental and to save money, sleeps in it (he’s Malaysian). So I say the opportunities for entrepreneurship is there, we just have to nurture the spirit.

    I also wonder if today’s internet generation can be reined in. If we allow free speech without consequence, how should we draw the line? At what point should a commentor be clamped down? For example, the 17-year-old Amos Yee. Lock him up or let that negative energy fester? Free speech allows trolls to breed in my opinion. Free speech should be not free from consequence. I came from an era where proper lines of communication matter. If you have a grouse, bring it up in the right channels and forums. I disagree it should be done for the sake of catching up with the world. Don’t rock the boat for popular vote.

    I do think you’re right about bringing Mr Lee’s legacy to this new times. But I think we have to be smart about it. I think capable young people like you can represent the youth of Singapore. I encourage you to raise hard questions. Perhaps join the public service if you feel the calling. Thank you for being a concerned citizen.

    (Peter) Yeo Sunn Liang


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