Inquiry into Authoritarianism with Lee Kuan Yew

This conversation between Fareed Zakaria and Lee Kuan Yew started off as an investigation of Lee’s ideology, but it gradually induced arguments from both sides.(1) Lee finds certain facets of America attractive and worth following, such as the social and political openness, while rejecting total individual freedom in fear of “moral decay”. He believes that culture is the dominant factor behind societal development. In particular, Lee prefers the Asian cultures’ emphasis on family to Western cultures’ faith in governmental influence, arguing that families are more ephemeral and pervasive and thus impact the society more. His proposal that only those between the age of 40 and 60 can vote stems from Confucian filial piety. He also advocates a balance between multiculturalism and interchangeability. Overall, Lee’s arguments seem to serve as the foundation of his political philosophy, as they necessitate certain authoritarian traits of Singapore, including a strict criminal system, Confucian ideals, and national unity.

A recent BBC article talks about Singapore’s focus on tidiness and hygiene.(2) The “Clean and Green” policy was established by Lee Kuan Yew decades ago to improve health conditions and city appearance. Even with 56,000 registered cleaners, there still are many organizations for volunteer cleaning. In addition, fines over tens of thousands are issued each year as punishment for littering alone. The growth of life expectancy from 66 to 83 is said to be correlated to the “Clean and Green” policy.

Lee believes that culture is more impactful than government, but how can government steer society progression by influencing culture?

Long-term policies can change the nations’ culture because of the change in everyday habits. However, a more thorough influence must be exerted through the educational system. Although this approach seems inherently authoritarian or even totalitarian, it exists to some degree in many democratic societies. What really differentiate them is freedom of speech and civil society, which ensure the protection of various opinions.

Dickovick, James Tyler, and Jonathan Eastwood. Comparative Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, (New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 69-79

McDonald, Tim. “Capital – The Cost of Keeping Singapore Squeaky Clean.” BBC, BBC, 29 Oct. 2018, www.bbc.com/capital/story/20181025-the-cost-of-keeping-singapore-squeaky-clean.

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