When it started life as an independent, separate country in 1965, Singapore’s prospects did not look good. Tiny and underdeveloped, it had no natural resources and a population of relatively recent immigrants with little shared history. The country’s first prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew is credited with transforming it. He called one volume of his memoirs, “From Third World to First”.
Why did Singapore become an economic success?
First, its strategic location and natural harbour helped. It is at the mouth of the Malacca Strait, through which perhaps 40% of world maritime trade passes. It was an important trading post in the 14th century, and again from the 19th, when British diplomat Sir Stamford Raffles founded the modern city.
Now it is at the heart of one of the world’s most dynamic regions. Under Mr Lee, Singapore made the most of these advantages.
Second, under Mr Lee, Singapore welcomed foreign trade and investment. Multinationals found Singapore a natural hub and were encouraged to expand and prosper.
Third, the government was kept small, efficient and honest—qualities absent in most of Singapore’s neighbours. It regularly tops surveys for the ease of doing business.
But the island city is not ideal. Although clean and orderly, it has harsh judicial punishments, a tame press and illiberal social policies. Homosexual acts, for example, remain illegal. Protest demonstrations are rarely permitted.
Mr Lee saw his authoritarian style of government as an essential ingredient in Singapore’s success, emphasizing the island’s vulnerability in a potentially hostile neighbourhood.
But younger people now question whether Singapore really is that fragile, and resent the restrictions on their freedom.