Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore who recently passed away, turned the poor island nation into an economic powerhouse of Asia. He was a democratic dictator who chose pragmatism over ideology.
Lee knew exactly what citizens needed and desired, including “home ownership, a good job, and a good education” among other factors. Although some criticized Lee as a dictator, he implemented unrestricted freedom in the industry sector to attract foreign investment and replaced inheritance tax with a 17 percent corporate tax.
Moreover, he adopted English as the official language over Chinese, despite opposition from the Chinese residents that make up more than 75 percent of the Singaporean population. Convinced that Singapore needed to connect with the world to move out of poverty, Lee Kuan Yew pushed to have Chinese Singaporeans learn English at the expense of giving up the Chinese language. This was the Singaporean dream of this now wealthy nation.
In the United States, thousands of people leave their home country and land on U.S. soil daily in search of the “American Dream.” The “American Dream” according to immigrants, is the opportunity the country provides to earn money to buy a house, a car and provide education for their children through their sweat alone, without the need for connections or an educational background. The fact that Bill Gates was able to become the world’s wealthiest man after making a humble start in his own garage, and a black man was able to become the president of the U.S. is a testimony to the opportunities American society nurtures.
Former U.S. congressmen Democrat James Traficant and Republican Randy Cunningham, who were seated in Congress during my time there, were sentenced to eight years in prison for past monetary misconduct. Even to my eyes, their sentence was harsh for their crimes, but it is customary in the U.S. to enforce harsher punishment to those in higher positions than ordinary citizens to serve as an example. The two men were eventually removed from their offices, their pensions were terminated, and they lost eligibility to ever run for election again. It is such strict application of the judicial system that keeps American society running smoothly, an immense melting pot of many races, ethnic groups and religions.
Singapore is stricter than the U.S. in enforcing punitive action against crimes. Lashes are enforced for spitting chewing gum on the streets, and the death penalty is handed down for possessing even a very small amount of drugs. Singapore has been subject to criticism for its rigid control of basic citizens’ rights and suppressing the freedom of the press to facilitate its undeterred drive for economic growth. However, widespread popular support of Lee Kuan Yew, who led the impoverished port city of Singapore from $400 GDP per capita to $56,000 GDP per capita in half a century, serves as evidence that economic well-being is the most basic right for human beings.
The rigid penal system and judicial corporal punishment in Singapore has played a significant role in allowing the nation to enjoy a very low crime rate. Currently 33 countries adopt corporal punishment rather than monetary fines as part of their penal system, since it has been proven to be more effective for alcohol-induced violence, sexual harassment, pickpocketing, fraud and other petty crimes.
A well-known American criminologist, Peter Moskos, published a study that shows the effectiveness of corporal punishment over the prison system. He concludes that flogging would be more efficient for the United States, which gives five times more prison sentences than the world average. Moskos argues that when given a choice of between one year of prison or two lashes in the presence of a doctor, most will choose the lashes. The logic behind his argument is to enforce shock therapy through rough corporal punishment, as a few years in prison often fails to rehabilitate criminals and doesn’t ensure society will pardon those needing punishment.
Now that Singapore is economically stable, Singaporeans are no longer satisfied with being Asia’s richest nation, built through 20 years of Lee Kuan Yew followed by 10 more with his son as the prime minister. They are now disillusioned, especially due to the increasing gap between the rich and poor.
I am reminded of a saying from a certain philosopher: “Dictatorship is the ideal form of government, but only when the dictator is God.” As history proves so far, democracy, where power is vested in the people, is the best choice.