CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – The death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, offers an occasion to reflect on his legacy – and, perhaps more importantly, on whether that legacy has been correctly understood.
During his 31 years as prime minister, Lee crafted a unique system of government, intricately balancing authoritarianism with democracy and state capitalism with the free market. Known as “the Singapore model,” Lee’s brand of governance is often mischaracterized as a one-party dictatorship superimposed on a free-market economy. His success in transforming Singapore into a prosperous city-state is frequently invoked by authoritarian rulers as justification for their tight control of society – and nowhere more so than in China.
Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping is pursuing a transformative agenda heavily influenced by the Singapore model – a relentless war on corruption, a broad crackdown on dissent, and pro-market economic reforms. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees in Singapore a vision of its future: the perpetuation of its monopoly on political power in a prosperous capitalist society.
But the Singapore model, as China’s rulers understand it, never existed. To emulate Lee’s model of government – rather than its cartoon caricature – would require allowing a far more democratic system than the CCP would ever tolerate.