Bryan Caplan  

Singapore's Independence: What Was the Point?

A Price on Integrity... Why I Became an Economist...
In his From Third World to First, Lee Kuan Yew admits that his original political motivation was simply nationalism:
The Japanese occupation... aroused my nationalism and self-respect, and my resentment at being lorded over.  My four years as a student in Britain after the war strengthened my determination to get rid of British rule.

I returned to Singapore in 1950, confident of my cause, but ignorant of the pitfalls and dangers that lay ahead.  An anticolonial wave swept me and many others of my generation.
Nationalists normally buttress their arguments for independence by insisting that their "mother country" is holding them back.  But at least by the late 60s, Lee explicitly rejected this view:
The accepted wisdom of development economists at the time was that MNCs [multi-national corporations] were exploiters of cheap land, labor, and raw materials.  This "dependency school" of economists argued that MNCs continued the colonial pattern of exploitation that left the developing countries selling raw materials... Keng Swee and I were not impressed... If MNCs could give our workers employment and teach them technical and engineering skills and management know-how, we should bring in the MNCs.
Now you could say that Singapore's results are proof of the wisdom of Lee's quest for independence.  But not so fast.  Lee not only envies the success of Hong Kong under continued British rule; he seems to attribute its success to the weakness of democratic and nationalist checks upon its policies.  Furthermore, Lee admits that his strategy of cooperation with the communists to overthrow British rule could easily have ended in disaster:
In retrospect, it was our good luck that Singapore did not come to greater harm from some of the high-risk policies and actions that we embarked on.  We worked with the communists in a united front; we could have been chewed up and swallowed as happened to social democrats in Poland and Czechoslovakia after World War II. 
Lee may be the father of independent Singapore; but his own account of the facts suggests that Singapore's economic miracle would have begun 10-15 years earlier if the nationalist movement had never existed.  I have to ask, then: What was the whole point of Singaporean independence?

P.S. If you retort, "What was the whole point of American independence?," I'm one step ahead of you.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (7 to date)
david writes:

Because there was another country which was vigorously anticommunist, culturally much more similar to Singapore than Britain, and wealthier than Singapore: namely, the Federation of Malaysia.

Singapore didn't declare independence to be independent, it did so to hitch itself to another already-independent nation. If you examine local politics at this time, the PAP was planning to lead its own coalition against UMNO post-merger, which would have allowed Lee to lead a wealthy anti-communist federation, not a poor nearly-communist island.

It didn't work out, of course, but that was the idea then.

The Snob writes:

Lee is the closest thing we may have to the proverbial enlightened despot, perhaps along with the sheik of Dubai. Democracy in Lee's view seems to be not a nutrient of the body politic, but a sedative. I'm skeptical of him for the same reason I'm skeptical of all kinds of despotism--there's one Lee Kuan Yew, but quite a few Idi Amins and Mugabes out there.

Colonialism was also a very mixed bag. Great Britain and to a lesser degree France made significant capital investments in and took care in the administration of some of their colonies. Others were almost as bad as the Ward Churchills of the world make them out to be.

In hindsight, it's easy to see that Britain took a wise approach to managing Hong Kong, but in 1950, being ruled by a distant little island that was tired and mostly broke may not have looked like a very promising future.

Jason Malloy writes:

"..but his own account of the facts suggests that Singapore's economic miracle would have begun 10-15 years earlier if the nationalist movement had never existed. I have to ask, then: What was the whole point of Singaporean independence?"

What's the whole point of an economic miracle?

The utility of greater ethnic self-esteem was higher than the utility of greater economic development.

How much of a pay cut would you take to get Biff from Back to the Future to stop following you around all day degrading you in front of your friends and family?

david writes:

*as an add-on to the earlier post: a brief history of Singapore for the unfamiliar.

The PAP formed the first government in 1959 by allying with the communists. Lee then kicked the communists from the party. By 1961 the communists reformed under the Socialist Front party and nearly removed the PAP from power. Lee was then relying on the British to suppress the communists, but the British were steadily withdrawing support, causing both Lee and the Alliance (coalition of parties, lead by UMNO) in Malaya to support a merger as Malaysia.

Lee's plan is to now rely on KL to suppress the communists. Abdul Rahman includes Sabah and Sarawak in the Federation to offset the racial ratio impact of Singapore, and no longer needs to worry about having a communist stronghold in the south. Britain gets to shut down its expensive territories in Borneo and Singapore. Everyone's happy. The Federation of Malaysia is formed in 1963.

Post-merger: the PAP and UMNO play political games with each other. PAP leads the Malaysian Solidarity Council coalition against UMNO's Alliance (Barisan National). Mutual political battling in Singapore and KL (despite mutual promises pre-merger not to do so). Major issues: race and trade regulations. Race riots break out in 1964 in Singapore. Race riots threaten to break out in KL.

Situation degenerates. Abdul Rahman decides to expel Singapore from the Federation. Singapore becomes independent in 1965 against its political leadership's will.

Tom writes:


When are you or Patri Friedman going to come out and make explicit the case for a libertarian dictatorship?

Arare Litus writes:

"What was the whole point of Singaporean independence?"


Nacim writes:

@ Tom,

Given how much both of them speak about incentives, which kind would make such an arrangement feasible? How would you keep a dictator libertarian?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top