Singapore must now emerge from shadow of man who put it on global map

With the passing of the country's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore must now evolve and realize Lee's governing legacy may not necessarily support the next 50 years of growth.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor
As tributes pour in from around the world following the death of my country's founding father and first prime minister, it is clear he leaves behind a nation he almost single-handedly helped put on the international stage. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Singapore can now emerge from his long shadow and forge a future that can shine just as brightly for another 50 years.

Lee Kuan Yew passed away March 23, 2015, at the age of 91 and five months shy of the nation's August 9 celebration to mark its 50th year of independence. Lee's health had been deteriorating in recent years and his passing wasn't unexpected. When it finally came, however, I was surprised to find myself grieving along with many of my fellow Singaporeans.

While I had deep respect and gratitude for the man who built the country I today am proud to call mine, I have had misgivings about several of Lee's views, for instance, on class breeding and his infamous treatment toward dissension.

How else do you describe a policy based on a belief that graduates should marry only graduates so a country can produce a smarter population as anything but primitive, and one that in itself appears based on an uneducated assumption. Cambridge-schooled Lee had said: "If you don't include your women graduates in your breeding pool and leave them on the shelf, you would end up a more stupid society... So what happens? There will be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation. That's a problem."

His steadfast belief that anyone with opposing views should be brought down with his "very sharp hatchet" also frustrated me, especially as I watched him drag several of his opponents to court and made bankrupt.

His non-apologetic stance about intruding into the private lives of Singaporeans further infuriated me. "I say without the slightest remorse that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters--who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think," he declared during the country's 1986 National Day Rally.

So why do I now grieve for a man, often chastised by western media for his authoritarian style, who had governed me along with my fellow Singaporeans with such an unyielding iron fist? For one, he recognized the singular need to build a secular nation based on meritocracy and where it is not uncommon to see people of different ethnic groups taking the train and eating on the same table together.

He laid the streets on which I can walk safely alone at all times of the day and planted the seeds of a garden city that still amazes me today. He instilled the need to always look for solutions through innovation, resulting in the country's recycled water system, and believed in every society's right to run its own course. "It is not my business to tell people what's wrong with their system. It is my business to tell people not to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work," he said in a 1994 CNN interview.

And while his style of governing sometimes left much to be desired, his dedication to his country was unquestionable, unwavering. That he cared deeply for this little island was beyond any doubt. "What are the things important to me in my life? My family and my country," he had once said.

In Lee I saw a parent with whom I often would have strong disagreements and might at times threaten to disown. But I also saw a parent who had only his family's interests at heart and cared for it in the best way he knew how, even if it wasn't always necessarily the right way.

Whether he ruled the country right, or wrong, is irrelevant when Singapore--devoid of any natural resources--is today thriving as a global market player and internationally recognized economic powerhouse 50 years after Lee took the reins. It was "not supposed to exist and cannot exist" but has not only existed, it exists as a first-world nation admired by leaders worldwide.

The question now is whether the country can now continue to shine for another 50 years and emerge from the shadow of its founding father. Lee had laid the groundwork, encouraging foreign companies to invest in Singapore and recognizing the need to build a skilled, knowledge-based workforce.

It brought major tech companies to the country, from which they operated their Asian headquarters, and eventually sparked a bustling startup community.

But the government needs to realize that Lee's governing legacy cannot simply be replicated and will not necessarily ensure success in the next 50 years. Market environments are not what they once were and the Singapore population is vastly different.

For a large part of his political career, Lee never had to deal with citizens who are highly web-connected and significantly more mobile than they were half a century ago. He ruled a country that, for the most part, was largely untouched by technology and, hence, led a team of government officials who didn't need to understand how the bits and bytes worked.

This is no longer the case. Singapore wants to be a smart nation and that means the entire island will be intertwined with highly sophisticated technology and evolve at a rapid pace over the next couple of years. Strict regulations and an ironclad governing fist will no longer be enough to ensure the country continues to flourish.

I've been critical of my government's actions and policies, frequently pointing out its seemingly immature view and understanding of the internet as well as stifling regulations that I deemed unnecessary. I do so because, like Lee, I want only good things for my country and am immensely proud of what he has helped Singapore achieve in 50 short years.

He had led the country with much conviction and astute foresight, and I'm still unconvinced that the current crop of leaders have inherited these values--certainly not one who named his morning workout after Lee.

Should I be afforded the opportunity to live to witness the next jubilee celebration, it would be great to celebrate a country that has not simply built on Lee's legacy but one that also is able to emerge and evolve from under his shadow.

Once asked if he would have done things differently, he replied with his usual frankness: "All I can say is, I did my best. This was the job I undertook, I did my best, and I could not have done more in the circumstances."

His best was certainly more than enough for this Singaporean.

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