Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew's Legacy

Like most Singaporeans, I was saddened to learn of the death of our country's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY). There is little left to be said about his achievements in shaping the history of a small island nation. While LKY's actions have benefited generations of Singaporeans directly, it may well be that his greatest contribution to global welfare will be the creation of an Asian model of political and economic development. Having visited in November 1978, Deng Xiaoping was reportedly heavily influenced by Singapore's success in undertaking economic reform in China. India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has in turn praised the Singapore model and identified it as an exemplar.  On a personal level, much of my interest in macroeconomics stemmed from the simple observation growing up that Singapore seemed so much richer than many of its neighbouring countries. This brings to mind Robert Lucas who, speaking about development economics, said, "The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else." LKY's ability to influence economic and social growth in the two Asian giants will ensure that he has a far greater effect globally than on Singapore alone.

The public outpouring of grief and emotion at LKY's passing has certainly taken me by surprise. Obviously, for many people it is an occasion to reflect on the opportunities they have had in life - education, political stability, economic growth, and meritocracy, just to name a few. Far from being complacent and apathetic, Singaporeans have shown a deep sense of gratitude for the strides the country has made, and a profound desire to build on LKY's legacy. I share those sentiments wholeheartedly. It is also a moment to reflect on our mortality, seeing a true giant pass from this world. For those of us with elderly relatives, it is particularly poignant.

Still, the contrarian in me is forced to make several points where I think public perception risks being skewed. First, Singaporeans should not fall for the Great Man Fallacy, and end up believing a monocausal narrative of our country's success. LKY's book, "From Third World To First" is a masterful telling of the complexity behind the nation's growth. (Aside: Blattman and Pepinsky argue that Singapore wasn't a Third World country even at independence. I agree that the narrative might be overstated, but the sustained levels of growth are still impressive). Developing countries don't need One Great Leader; they need strong institutions and a deep bench of competent public servants with integrity. Numerous leaders contributed to Singapore's growth, and I think particularly of Goh Keng Swee, who is generally acknowledged as the real architect of Singapore's economic success. A lovely book on this is "Lee's Lieutenants", edited by Lam and Tan. (Aside #2: Goh's own words on the philosophy behind Singapore's growth are stunningly "Washington Consensus". No doubt my bias towards such a framework in development economics emerges from having enjoyed the fruits of such policies first-hand.) The book rightly presents LKY's greatness as being the superb captain of a team, rather than someone governing in isolation. And of course, economies are complex systems. In addition to the nation's leaders, it is important to pay tribute to millions of anonymous Singaporeans who have contributed to the thriving economy through hard work and a powerful desire to improve themselves. 

Secondly, we should be careful not to whitewash LKY's legacy. He was relentlessly clear-eyed as a leader and it would be odd if we didn't subject his legacy to the same level of scrutiny. LKY wasn't a cuddly old man. He was a political force to be reckoned with, and a ruthless opponent when crossed. There is a natural impulse to forgive the ethical trade-offs he and the ruling elite made in governing the country. (See Glenn Greenwald here on a similar approach to Reagan, and Alexander Pantsov here on Deng Xiaoping). If anything, LKY's passing should fill Singaporeans with a resolve to be politically engaged. That doesn't mean engaging in the petty partisan politics that seem to afflict much of the West. It means thinking critically about where we want our society to go, and challenging our political leaders to be outstanding community servants. 

None of the points above should diminish the magnitude of LKY's legacy, or the gratitude that Singaporeans feel. He was singularly successful in navigating the pitfalls that corrupt other men of similar intellect and ambition, and had the foresight to create institutions that will outlive him. Hopefully, he will inspire generations of Singaporeans to contribute to the country through a variety of ways - serving in government, developing private enterprise, and building a dynamic and inclusive civil society. Non-Singaporeans often say to me, "I hear Singapore is very clean and efficient." These days, I often respond, "Yes, but it's so much more than that." Mostly I'm referring to the glittering skyline, vibrant multi-cultural society and burgeoning appreciation of our history. But it truly is more than that - it is, and always will be, our home. We owe it to LKY, and to ourselves, to make it the best home it can be.