Critics call Singapore an autocracy. But I never felt more free than when I lived there.
By Sahana Singh/March 25 2015/The Washington Post
Between my early life in India and my current life in the United States, I spent 14 years in paradise: Singapore. From clean water and crime-free streets to reliable public transportation and easy access to libraries, the state government anticipates all the basic needs to provide its residents a good quality of life and eliminate the stresses that can impede personal progress. But in the coverage that followed the death of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Monday, Western media has painted a very different picture. They describe a crushing autocrat that chained his people and stripped them of basic freedoms. My experience was quite the contrary. Outside of this tiny island utopia, I never felt more free.
My husband whisked me and our baby away to Singapore in 1998 after landing a job there, despite my fears about adapting to an unfamiliar culture. When we first arrived and checked into a hotel, I called room service and asked for a jug of filtered water – a standard health precaution. The hotel employee dismissed my concerns: “You can drink water from the tap in your bathroom.” At first, I was horrified by the suggestion. In India, water filters were as common as TVs and refrigerators in middle- and upper-class homes. But here, I soon discovered, the state maintained a high-quality water treatment process that delivered purified water nationwide. Not only was Singapore’s water drinkable straight from the tap, but it always gushed with good pressure, even on the top floors of the tallest buildings. It was my first introduction to a government that works.
In my first days in Singapore, I worried about safely getting around town, especially with a baby. I had never used local trains and feared ending up in a dangerous neighborhood. But what would be reasonable fears for a newcomer in most countries were gratuitous in Singapore. Everywhere were street signs and directions in English, clearly marked and intelligently placed, as if invisible planners were anticipating your next question. On my first try, I navigated to Orchard Road, the nation’s retail hub, and back to my hotel without having to ask anyone for directions.
There was no litter in Singapore’s streets. Every building looked clean and every walkway looked newly washed. The national library had numerous branches, stocked with wonderful books. With my baby in a stroller, I could go practically anywhere. It was like an India I had always dreamed of: clean, green and hassle-free.
How was this possible? Singapore gained its independence nearly 20 years after India, and yet, the island nation now boasts a remarkably diverse economy, the world’s top airline, clean river, and a thriving trade port – all achieved in just a few decades. Certainly, Singapore benefits from being a fraction of India’s size, with a population of 5.5 million people covering just 275 square miles. But by any measure, it developed at a staggering speed. The engine behind that transformation was the governance of Lee Kuan Yew, the man whose vision took this little dot of a city-state “from third-world to first.”
But not everyone shared my admiration. At the time, a friend of mine from the U.S. told me nothing could make her move to Singapore: “I would hate to live in a country where my freedoms are curtailed,” she declared loftily. I could only laugh. There I was, freer than anytime I had been in my life. I had just found a job I loved. I could go see a movie with friends and return by myself late at night. I could fall asleep in a taxi, after reeling off my address, and the driver would safely take me home and gently wake me up. Singapore maintains an efficient – if strict – judicial system, fundamental to living in a low-crime society while practicing individual freedom. I had tasted the real freedom that came with security.
Many point to the price Singapore’s citizens and residents pay for achieving that security. The government imposes strict laws with steep fines and punishments for even minor transgressions: Breaching the ban on selling gum can fetch a fine north of $70,000. Vandalizing property can lead to caning. These kinds of sentences may be an affront to American ideals, but in Singapore, like many Asian countries, ensuring the greater good is paramount to self-determination. Americans, it should be noted, also pay a price for the premium they put on individual liberties.
Westerners ridicule Singapore for restrictions on personal expression and protest, but overlook how the nation provides more freedom than some of the most-lauded democracies. In Singapore, there was no gun-culture like America’s or neighborhoods with street gangs to be avoided. As my daughter grew older, I could easily let her move around the city with no worries about her safety. Around the country, there are plenty of mosques, churches and temples in close proximity, along with Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist national holidays. The national government is highly transparent and virtually incorruptible, functioning better than some chaotic, so-called democracies. And yet the world asked why average Singaporeans, who had good schooling, a job, affordable housing, healthcare, child-care and elder-care don’t protest from roof-tops?
Yes, Lee Kuan Yew was not a paragon of the kind of democracy that throws up populist political leaders. Yes, his acerbic remarks would never have won a TV debate or an election in the U.S. But he was not one of the self-serving, corrupt dictators that developing countries produce so often. It would be folly to deny him his due credit for building a nation regularly listed as the world’s best place to live. He accomplished in one generation what took other newly developed countries three or more. He delivered the strong medicine needed to transform a nascent and suffering country into a mature nation, capable of punching far above its weight. Perhaps another leader would have given a sweet placebo, or worse still, poison. May Singapore never squander the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew.