Society diversity

Nation-building in a plural society: The strategies of Lee Kuan Yew

By Dr Bertrand Ramcharan

Lee Kuan Yew and Forbes Burnham became prime ministers in their respective countries around the same time in the early 1960s. They were both gifted men, both national scholars, both graduated from prestigious universities, and all two eloquent statesmen. Lee had to build a nation with three ethnicities. Forbes Burnham needed to build his nation from four, African, Native American, Indian, Mestizo, with pockets of Chinese and Portuguese.

Today, Singapore is a stable nation and an economic powerhouse. Guyana, for its part, remains a fractured society that, until the recent arrival of energy resources, was among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Are there any insights that could be drawn from Lee Kuan Yew’s nation-building strategies that Guyanese would do well to consider? We think there are.

Henry Kissinger has just published six studies in global strategy in a book entitled Leadership. Lee Kuan Yew figures prominently as a nation builder as well as an international strategist. The chapter on Lee is captivating, as is Kissinger the strategist.

The first thing to note about Lee Kuan Yew is that he was a man of deep intelligence who thought about problems practically and developed policies through this process. He was no saint and he himself admits that he did some harsh things like locking up some opponents. But he saw it as his challenge to build a Singaporean nation and empower it to survive and thrive – even if it lacked resources except for its strategic location and port. And he succeeds brilliantly in these objectives. How did he do it?

Lee once wrote, “There are books to teach you how to build a house, etc. East Indies, or how to support its inhabitants while its former economic role as the warehouse of the region is fading. Lee would build his nation block by block – along with its stability and prosperity.

From the start, in 1965, Lee said, “We are going to have a multiracial nation in Singapore. We will give this example. It is not a Malay nation; it is not a Chinese nation; it is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have their place… Let us unite, without distinction of race, language, religion, culture. Early on, Lee introduced a system of racial and income quotas in Singapore’s living quarters that first limited ethnic segregation and then gradually eliminated it. By living and working together, Singaporeans of disparate ethnicities and religions have begun to develop a national consciousness.

Kissinger notes that, unlike many other postcolonial leaders, Lee did not seek to strengthen his position by pitting the country’s diverse communities against each other. Rather, he relied on Singapore’s ability to foster a sense of national unity among its warring ethnic groups. As Lee said in 1967: “It is only when you offer a man – without distinctions based on ethnic, cultural, linguistic and other differences – a chance to belong to this great human community, that you offer a peaceful path to progress and to a higher level of human life. Lee’s approach was neither to repress nor minimize Singapore’s diversity, but to channel and manage it. Any other path, thought he, would make governance impossible.

Lee’s signature strategy was to rely on educating his people. Between 1960 and 1963, Singapore’s education expenditure increased almost seventeen times, while the school population increased by fifty percent. During his first nine years in office, Lee spent almost a third of Singapore’s budget on education. He was determined to build a meritocracy as the basis for Singapore’s growth and development.

Lee vigorously fought corruption. Less than a year after taking office, his government passed the Prevention of Corruption Act, which imposed severe penalties for corruption at all levels of government. Under Lee’s leadership, corruption was quickly and ruthlessly suppressed.

Corruption in Singapore is understood not only as a moral failing by the individuals involved, but also as a violation of the community’s code of ethics, which emphasizes meritocratic excellence, fair play and honorable conduct. Lee said at one point, “You want men with good character, good spirit, strong convictions. Without it, Singapore will not succeed. Singapore has consistently been ranked among the least corrupt countries in the world.

To achieve his goals, Lee preferred to penalize officials for failure rather than encourage them by increasing their salaries. It was not until 1984, when Singapore got richer, that Lee adopted his policy of pegging civil servant salaries at 80% of comparable private sector rates. As a result, Singapore government officials have become some of the highest paid in the world.

Lee’s emphasis on quality of life has become a defining aspect of Singapore’s ethos. Beginning with a 1960 campaign against tuberculosis, Singapore made public health a top priority. Environmental protection was another of Lee’s top priorities.

Lee was passionately concerned with public order and public participation in governance. To orchestrate a revolution in governance, he established a network of “parapolitical institutions” to serve as a transmission belt between the state and its citizens. Community centers, citizens’ advisory communities, residents’ committees, and city councils provided recreation, settled small grievances, offered services such as kindergartens, and disseminated information about government policies. Lee considered one of the sources of Singapore’s continued strength to be its first-past-the-post electoral system.

Lee once summed up his life’s work thus: We did not have the ingredients of a nation, the basic factors: a homogeneous population, a common language, a common culture and a common destiny. To create the Singapore nation, he acted as if it already existed and reinforced it through public policies. And he succeeded masterfully.

Guyanese can learn many lessons from Lee Kuan Yew’s nation-building strategies. One is the role of intellect and public policy in governance.