Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, transformed the island from a tiny third-world country in 1965 into a first-world city-state that is now one of the world’s most prosperous, least corrupt and best-educated societies. Yet after Lee’s death earlier this month on the 50th anniversary of the republic’s founding, questions remain about the durability of his legacy. While changes have been afoot in Singapore, particularly since Lee retired from politics in 2011, they are likely to develop into larger challenges as the city-state’s economic constraints become clearer and its politics more competitive amid growing regional and global uncertainties.
Domestically, Singapore in the post-Lee era must confront the economic problems of managing a small city-state. There is already more discontent about issues such as rising property prices, a widening wealth gap and the increasing influx of immigrants. The future presents tough questions with few easy answers. Take Singapore’s demographic challenge. The government realizes that it needs to find a way to get around the country’s stubbornly low fertility rate—in part caused by Lee’s earlier population control attempts—if it wants to avoid becoming an aging society in the next few decades. But welcoming young immigrants is proving unpopular, while it is still unclear whether marriage incentives will work as well and as quickly as they need to.
Politically, Singapore should move gradually to a more open political system and society and away from the darker side of Lee’s legacy. His People’s Action Party (PAP) stayed in power with an iron grip, from the infamous ban on chewing gum and hefty fines for littering and not flushing toilets to bankrupting political opponents in court or imprisoning them without trial. Singaporeans have signaled that they want a more responsive and inclusive government, with the PAP garnering just 60.1 percent of the popular vote in the country’s last general elections in 2011, an embarrassment given that the odds are stacked so much in its favor. Many expect the PAP’s vote share to decline even further in the next election, which must be held before January 2017.