Under Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has transformed Singapore from a regional economic powerhouse into a rich global city. A state previously lumped in as one of four East Asian tigers, part of a broader, post-war industrial miracle, is now, from Bollywood to Silicon Valley, spoken about breathlessly on its own terms, sui generis. The Singapore mythology—of a society going quickly from rags to riches, enabled by a pragmatic technocracy that just works—grows more intense and iridescent by the day. Territories of all sizes and incomes seek to appropriate “Singapore” for their developmental fantasies, whether Brexiteers hoping for a “Singapore on the Thames”, or Israelis wondering if they can turn Gaza into a “Singapore of the Middle East”.

Lee’s headline report cards, from Bloomberg, CNA and others, offer statistical proof of this storied ascent. In his two-decade reign, real GDP per capita has doubled to US$88,000 (S$118,216), higher than in Hong Kong and the US. Assets under management have grown over eight times to S$4.9trn, nearing Hong Kong’s. The government has throughout kept unemployment low. In a tumultuous era when the international order has had to adjust to the end of American hegemony, Lee has, despite some hiccups, adroitly balanced the interests of the US and a rising China—so much so that the likes of Amazon, TikTok, Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, and Kim Jong Un all feel very welcome here. 

If Lee were judged purely by these metrics, he might indeed lay claim to being one of the world’s top leaders of the past two decades, as Graham Allison, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and Lee’s adviser when he was there, recently suggested. And yet, the reality is far more complex.

Lee leaves behind a Singapore that is probably more unequal and divided than when he entered office; where the raison d’être and dynamics of the much-vaunted public housing system are under growing scrutiny; and where the space for academic freedom and societal dissent appears to be shrinking, hampering the generation of new ideas and modes of thinking. 

The gleaming edifice of a global city shimmers, but inside one finds not a vibrant soul, but a troubling void.

The major political failures of Lee’s government encompass the twin challenges of immigration and inequality. When Lee became prime minister in 2004, Singapore’s total fertility rate had already dropped to 1.26, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. There are cultural and economic reasons why fertility has declined across East Asia. Still, the PAP itself was culpable from the 1960s. The party first disincentivised Singaporeans from having more children, then chided us for having listened, and finally said it’ll simply bring in other humans to make up for the ones we should have had. 

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