(Republic of Korea, Flickr Commons) Singapore, a small city-state that achieved a sovereign status 50 years ago, has surprised the world with its brilliant economic growth and extraordinary domestic political orderliness. At the heart of Singapore's speedy development was the country’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. Marking the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Frank Lavin, former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore, to discuss Lee’s legacy on the Singaporean society, the global economy, and U.S.-Singapore relations.  

GJIA: Lee Kuan Yew created a powerful government that molded Singaporean society around certain values and quelled political dissent. In doing so, he also managed to maintain political stability and boost economic vibrancy. Although a number of governments in other countries have tried to achieve similar goals, few have been so successful. What do you think made such change possible in Singapore?

FL: I think Lee had more latitude in advancing government intervention than leaders in other societies for two reasons. First, there was a strong domestic consensus on the need for economic growth – Singapore had to climb out of poverty – and an acceptance among the Singaporean people that the government could provide economic leadership. Second, there was a deep-rooted sense of external threat in Singapore at the time. Singapore is a small country both in terms of landmass and population. During the country’s early years, socio-political turmoil ravaged neighboring countries — particularly Indonesia, whose policy of konfrontasi in the 1960s challenged Singapore’s political legitimacy. So there was a heightened sense of vulnerability. I think the population of Singapore was more willing to rely on the government’s leadership throughout that very challenging time.

GJIA: How much do you think that Lee’s authoritarianism contributed to domestic peace in such a multiethnic state?

FL: I think it was a generally successful model. But the question we have to ask is, were there alternative models that would have brought similar or greater success? I think Lee’s active management of domestic issues through government leadership, combined with strong economic growth, did help provide the basis for stability in Singapore during his tenure as Prime Minister.

GJIA: Lee argued that Western style liberal democracy does not suit Asian countries. How much do you think this idea has proven true?

FL: Personally, I am always a little skeptical when I hear that argument advanced from someone in power. It could be an interesting intellectual argument, but it’s also used by people of authority to discredit challenges to their power. So in the case of Singapore, I’m not surprised that a person in a governing position, who makes an openly competitive election difficult, rationalizes his or her practice in this way. My view is that the yearning for some kind of open, democratic, or freely elected system is universal. People in general want to be able to choose their leaders. How that is expressed in and what that means to different societies can vary quite significantly. But I don’t think an entire group of people in an entire region would not value some kind of democratic structure.

GJIA: Besides the possibility that Lee might have pushed this idea to justify his authoritarian tendency, what points do you think Lee may not have considered in making the argument that Western style democracy is not suited for Asian countries?

FL: Lee Kuan Yew was a very intelligent man who had enormous experience in government management. He chose a path for his nation that, in his mind, would bring forth the best outcome. He was far more concerned with the outcomes of a policy, rather than what he might have called ‘process questions.’ What decisions the government had to make in order to move Singapore forward had far more weight in his mind than issues concerning how exactly to go about achieving that progress. I think his point was to focus on the actual decisions themselves. If you have the right decisions, your country will move ahead and the people will be happy.

There is certainly truth in that point. But I think, in the long run, if you completely ignore the process, you run several risks, one of which is alienation. The general population does value democratic processes, participating in elections, communicating with those who comprise the country’s leadership, and accountable practices. If you start the conversation with your people by saying, “You don’t really have any say in this process,” then you’ll definitely alienate the public.

Another potential problem is the insularity of the governing class. If the people in power do not change regularly, then you risk certain strata of society being disconnected from the general population.

This observation is not just about Singapore, but more generally about ‘closed-systems’ versus ‘open systems’; open systems have a lot more advantages. They might have certain challenges as well, but there is a real advantage in a democratic system.

GJIA: Do you think the lack of involvement of the public in political processes is bearing any visible outcomes in Singapore?

FL: What we’ve seen in Singapore in the past decade is an increasingly open political system. There is both increased latitude for criticism and space for political competition. I think Singapore has wisely come to realize that a closed political system is not indefinitely sustainable. To put it in another way, the price that they used to pay for a closed system continued to grow, while the benefits continued to shrink. So that transition to a more open system is well underway in Singapore.

GJIA: Did the Singaporean model of economic growth make any distinctive contributions to the fields of commerce and international development?

FL: It has had quite an extraordinary record of success over the last several decades. On a per capita GDP at Purchasing Power Parity basis, it ranks even higher than Western countries.

Though, I would say the success of the model in Singapore is not so much about pioneering new ways of growing economically, but rather about the country’s extraordinary integrity in respecting the proven ways.

Singapore recognizes economic growth as a ticket out of poverty, and for that reason, has remained focused on achieving it. Over the years, Singapore has had very high rates of growth and very low unemployment rates. High workforce participation and social mobility has over time bred social stability. There’s a social contract that permeates Singaporean society that, if you study in school and work hard, you can get ahead.

I don’t think that the Singaporeans created new methods of economic growth. Instead, they chose to stick to proven and efficient methods of economic engagement. They have placed a strong emphasis on market economics, an open trading system, and very good currency and monetary policies, thereby preventing bouts of rapid inflation that undermine economic growth. Singapore’s openness is not just in trade. The country was very inviting toward foreign investment. Even as a third world country, Singapore did extremely well in attracting international investment. Now, a number of U.S. companies are investing in Singapore.

GJIA: Do you think his idea of ‘Asian values’ helped build the Singaporean economy? 

FL: I think there is a strong emphasis in Singapore on personal responsibility. A common notion in the country says that if you want to advance in life, you owe it to yourself to acquire the tools and training necessary to do so. The government will not improve your position in life for you, but it does owe you the opportunity through which you can advance yourself. That idea is very in line with Confucian thinking.

GJIA: Do you see any potential weaknesses in the way that the Singaporean government manages its economy?

FL: I wouldn’t say that there are necessarily weaknesses to such a system, but I think there are challenges that every open economy faces. The good news and bad news about human nature is that human aspirations are open-ended. When you help people climb out of poverty and achieve middle-income status, or even a more advanced income status, the two words that you’ll never hear from the general population is, “thank you” — or you’ll hear that, but it fades very quickly. Given that Singapore is a quite prosperous society, the country’s current challenge is keeping growth on an upward track — how do you allow people to move further up the socio-economic ladder when they are already highly educated and increasingly in white-collar positions?

There’s a second challenge as well. Singapore has done a superb job in internationalizing its economy and benefitting from globalization. But the benefits aren’t always distributed equally among the population, and there are classes in Singaporean society that do not have the tools or the training to take advantage of globalization. I think we’re wrestling with this same stratification effect in the United States: some people are better equipped to navigate this new world and do very well, while others simply lack the skills and training necessary to do so. The question of how you can help lower classes participate in this new trend, or at least welcome Singapore’s advance into a privileged position in international commerce, is a challenge that the Singaporeans now have.

GJIA: Do you think that the current Singaporean government is adequately preparing itself for these challenges?  

FL: I think this is a government that thinks very deeply about what Singapore will have to do in the next 50 years and how the world economy will reshape Singapore’s opportunities. Singapore began its economic leap by attracting inward investment. One of the earliest investors in the country in the 1960s was General Electric (GE). At that time, GE was making clock radios, which were viewed as reasonably high-tech products. Because Singapore maintained a stable investment climate, low-political risks for international activity, and low wage rates, GE found Singapore to be a very attractive place to do business.

Now, wage rates aren’t low anymore; they have gone up, along with an increase in productivity and specialization. What you now see in the Singaporean manufacturing industry is petrochemical, jet-engine refurbishment, and pharmaceutical R&D work. You see people engaging in very high-end, highly skilled, and highly trained activities.

GJIA: Quite a few other countries have looked toward Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore as a model of economic development. Do you think Lee’s example would work in other countries? Or, are there any factors that made his plan particularly successful in Singapore? 

FL: I think the fundamental principles are universal: market economics will give you the best outcomes in terms of prosperity and economic growth, and policies have spillover effects on social stability. I think they are universal principles that can work in every market.

Also, I think we should note that Lee’s government put an enormous emphasis on honesty and anti-corruption. His government functionally did a very strong job in delivering some crucial social services, without requiring bribes, kick-backs, and so forth. Those norms are beneficial to all countries. How they are implemented in each country, however, does require an understanding of local specifics. While bringing in these universal principles of economic growth, you also need to consider the particular social and cultural context in question.

GJIA: How has the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew shaped U.S.-Singapore relations?

FL: Lee Kuan Yew believed in realpolitik, that power distribution is a key driver in foreign policy. Throughout his career, his government’s core foreign policy dynamic was the balance of power. He always viewed the U.S. as the most benign of the superpowers and he was always skeptical about the Soviets, not only because they lacked efficient economic management, but also because their government’s interventions into society tended to be unproductive. In practical dimensions, he thought that the Western model was better. He also studied law in Britain, so his own personal inclination was western-oriented as well.

Also, remember, he came to power as an anti-colonial leader. He thought that colonies had to stand on their own feet. This anti-colonial sentiment pretty much spurred the U.S. revolution as well. So no doubt that he tended to welcome the United States playing a role in Southeast Asia.

At the same time, he also observed formal neutrality and kept a non-aligned position. Although Singapore is not subject to any treaty obligation, there is a close working relationship between the U.S. and Singapore.

GJIA: In your article published by The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs last year, you said that “Singapore thinks relentlessly about its policy objectives and what steps it needs to take to advance them in diplomacy. Were there any initiatives taken by Singapore in terms of its relations with the U.S.?

FL: Absolutely. If we look at my time as an ambassador, probably the most significant step for both countries during this time was the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. It was not only useful in promoting economic growth, but it also allowed America to think more strategically about the region. In some respect, you can say it set the baseline for the Trans-Pacific Partnership we have now. The free trade agreement with Singapore started the process of U.S.’ economic engagement in the region.

There are many other issues that brought the two nations together over the years. For example, there was a SARS pandemic during my ambassadorship that claimed a number of lives in Singapore and in the U.S. As a result, the U.S.’ Center for Disease Control and Singapore’s Health Ministry coordinated at a very high level in aiding laboratory work and exchanging scientists. Singapore took the initiative here and improved its relations with the U.S.

Further, anti-terrorism, social fragmentation, and social cohesion are questions that both the U.S. and Singapore worry about. There was a significant terrorist threat in Singapore by a local branch of Al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah. To prevent attacks by the group, the U.S. and Singapore coordinated in a number of areas.

GJIA: In terms of the U.S. growing interest in Asia, what is Singapore’s primary importance to the U.S.?

FL: I would say it’s multifaceted. There’s an enormous amount of economic, commercial, and financial engagement between the two countries. There are also very robust political and military relationships — we are planning to deploy vessels to Singaporean naval bases and currently conducting joint military trainings with Singaporean forces. But maybe the most important of all of those pillars is the social one. The number of Singaporean students studying abroad in the U.S. and American students visiting Singapore is on the rise, so the amount of social connectivity and people-to-people activity is the highest that it has ever been.

GJIA: Are there any particular areas of cooperation to which you look forward?

FL: Lee Kuan Yew had a noteworthy principle: never take a good relationship for granted. Just as in any other form of social relations, in foreign relations, you always have to work to improve your ties with others. Although you are friends with somebody now, you should spend time thinking about the next step. Society, business, and technology are changing, and the world is running faster than ever. My one suggestion to both Singapore and American leadership is to continue thinking about this next step, to think about where we want this relationship to be ten years from now. Let’s work toward that better goal.

Frank Lavin is a former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore and the current CEO of Export Now. Before serving as an ambassador from 2001 to 2005, he worked as a banker and a venture capitalist in Hong Kong and Singapore. From 2005 to 2007, he served as Under Secretary of Commerce and International Trade. In 2010, with his experience both in the public and the private sector, he founded Export Now, an e-commerce platform that helps U.S. companies enter the Chinese market.

Mr. Lavin was interviewed by Eunsun Cho on 11 July 2015. This interview was edited for length and clarity.