Singapore’s riches grew under its leader. so did discontent.

Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world, but it does not have a minimum wage. Housing prices have surged, and many Singaporeans say social mobility has dropped considerably. Others complain that freedom of expression is still tightly controlled, if less so than before.
Last Updated : 15 May 2024, 03:45 IST
Last Updated : 15 May 2024, 03:45 IST

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Singapore: Singapore was once known as an affluent and strait-laced city-state. Today, it’s a glitzy international destination. It has hosted Taylor Swift concerts and Formula One night races. And it is substantially richer, per capita, than the United States.

That transformation happened under Lee Hsien Loong, the Southeast Asian country’s third prime minister. He made Singapore even more prosperous by largely following the semi-authoritarian and free-market model pioneered by his father, Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first leader.

Wednesday, Singapore gets a new leader for the first time in nearly 20 years. Lee, 72, is handing the office to his deputy, Lawrence Wong, 51. Their People’s Action Party has governed Singapore continuously for more than six decades and has had astounding successes. But there are concerns that the vaunted “Singapore model” is failing more and more people.

Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world, but it does not have a minimum wage. Housing prices have surged, and many Singaporeans say social mobility has dropped considerably. Others complain that freedom of expression is still tightly controlled, if less so than before. The strains are exacerbated by the need for overseas workers; about 40 per cent of Singapore’s nearly 6 million people are not citizens.

Compared to his famously strict father, Lee showed flexibility and responsiveness to the public’s demands, but the PAP’s popularity took a significant hit during his tenure. Nonetheless it remains, for now, firmly ensconced in power.

Wong has tried to project an everyman image: He was raised in public housing, did not attend the same elite schools as his predecessors, and loves playing the guitar. Lee will stay on as “senior minister,” as his father did after stepping down in 1990. Lee has said that his children are not interested in entering politics.

Earlier this month, Lee gave his last major address to the nation at an icon of the new Singapore, the Marina Bay Sands casino resort.

“When I was sworn in as PM, I promised to build a more inclusive Singapore: one where it is not every man for himself, but everyone working together to make things better for all of us,” he said.

A few hours later, a scene unfolded nearby that would have been unimaginable a few decades earlier. Hundreds had gathered for a rally at Speakers’ Corner, the one place in the city-state where Singaporeans can protest without a permit. Among them were delivery workers, bus drivers and health care workers, and many wore fluorescent yellow safety vests, evoking a French anti-government movement.

Addressing the crowd, Kokila Annamalai, an activist, said the PAP-led government had built systems that “have always protected the wealthy, not the working class.” Singapore, she added, is “a playground for the rich while the poor are squeezed into tiny rental flats.”

The PAP is one of the world’s most dominant political parties. Its ministers are paid high salaries, which the party says prevents corruption. It transformed Singapore from a backwater swamp into a first-world nation and a key cog in global maritime trade. Gross domestic product is about $83,000 per capita, compared with roughly $76,000 in the United States. The city-state, a major financial hub, deftly managed the coronavirus pandemic and rising tensions between the United States and China.

But discontent has been growing. In the 2020 election, the PAP’s share of the popular vote reached a new low of 61 per cent, and the opposition won a record 10 seats in Parliament, out of 93 that were up for grabs.

Lee once said that a two-party political system was “not workable” in Singapore. But in 2020, he formally established the position of opposition leader in Parliament and made concessions that allowed the opposition bloc to control 12 seats, more than the 10 it had won.

“He knew that if he wanted to maintain PAP’s dominance — which I think he has largely done — he had to manage the pace of change,” said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.

On the social front, perhaps the most sweeping change that Lee made was repealing a colonial-era law that banned consensual sex between men.

“At least there’s a sense of ‘We can do this now,’ and that ultimately we are not criminals anymore,” said Leow Yangfa, the executive director of Oogachaga, an LGBTQ rights group.

But Lee also moved to cement the definition of marriage as a heterosexual concept. Public discussion of race and religion remains tightly controlled, and rights groups say the government is still combative with its critics. In 2021, Singapore’s High Court ordered a blogger to pay Lee about $100,000 for defamation.

Critics say the government has weaponized a law it says was designed to combat fake news.

“You never know when or what you’re going to say is going to run afoul of the authorities,” said Joel Tan, a playwright and podcaster.

In recent years, Lee had to contend with a public feud with his siblings and a series of scandals within the PAP that sullied the squeaky-clean image the party projects. But he leaves office as a popular leader.

Zoe Tan recalled seeing Lee mingling with residents in Teck Ghee, a district in northern Singapore. “He’ll walk the market and is very humble,” she said. “He will take pictures with us.”

In his speech at Marina Bay Sands, Lee suggested that political change could threaten Singapore’s prosperity.

“The system does not have to fail outright for Singapore to get into trouble,” he said. “If our politics becomes like other countries, we will end up worse than other countries.”

Published 15 May 2024, 03:45 IST

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