Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister and renowned founding father passed away today.
I am in Singapore right now and particularly grieved because he was Singapore’s George Washington in some respects. There are not many men like Lee Kuan Yew. He was the founding father of a very poor nation that was basically a colonial outpost in a swamp and, in three decades, he successfully transformed it into one of the most free-market, business friendly economies in the world.
Singapore has even surpassed the United States
with a per capita income of $56,797 compared to America’s $47,084. Singapore’s per capita income is five times the average per capita income for an ordinary individual in the world.
Modern day Singapore would not exist without this extraordinary man. Just like America’s founding fathers, he was willing to do some of the hard things that make a nation prosperous.
Free markets, capitalism, anti-welfare, and no minimum wage helped Singapore prosper.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew implemented some policies that I am not a fan of, mostly because they restricted people’s personal freedoms. Despite the lack of individual liberty for Singaporeans, the man understood free markets and capitalism and his economic policies were the reason he was able to turn Singapore from a third world country into a first world country in a matter of a few decades. He understood that welfare programs brought down nations, that minimum wage priced people out of jobs, and that companies created jobs, not government.
He understood that even though government couldn’t create jobs, it could create an environment that made it easier for companies to create jobs. And he built just that allowing for free markets and economic freedom, much like America’s founding fathers did. Singaporeans today enjoy a much higher standard of living than just a few decades ago. From the janitors, to the construction workers, to the teachers, to the bankers, to the investment analysts, everyone and every position in Singapore has elevated to a higher standard of life.
Free markets, capitalism, anti-welfare, and no minimum wage helped the United States prosper as well.
Free markets and capitalism are also the reasons the United States of America grew, flourished, and prospered into the greatest economy in the world. They are the reasons behind why the majority of Americans enjoy prosperity and a high standard of living compared to most of the world, where only a small elite enjoy prosperity in most countries.
Lee Kuan Yew boldly pursued visionary economic policies and focused on good governance. His understanding of economic freedom is similar to that of America’s founding fathers. One of my favorite economic books was also one of his, Frederick Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. He said, “I believe Hayek was a very clear thinker and that he hit upon the eternal truth, explaining that the free market is necessary to get the economy right”. (Tom Plate’s Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew )
In the book, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, he said about America:
“Two years ago, Gallup did an analysis of what made a country grow. They decided it is talent. They noted that in the 1980s, economists projected that Japan and Germany would overtake America. They did not. The reason? America was attracting talent from all over the world. So whether China will be the most powerful nation will depend on whether it can attract foreign talent and retain its own talent.
We [Singapore] must attract and retain talent. Talent does not mean only bright academics. Talent includes football stars, tennis stars, singers, rock stars, whatever. Then we have vibrancy. A country grows by building one city at a time. A city grows by building one sector at a time. They analyzed four categories of talent: innovators, entrepreneurs, mentors, super-mentors. Americans beat the others because the Americans have all four types. They have developed a culture that brings in the talented.”
Gallup and Lee Kuan Yew are right – a country needs to attract talent to grow and succeed.
But the great tragedy for America is that our current government policies no longer attract talent and are choking this growth. Our economy is already paying for this. Each and every single American is going to pay for this. We already are. We are the most indebted nation in the world. Despite our “low” unemployment numbers we have drastically high numbers of underemployed citizens (people who have given up looking for jobs and part time workers desiring full time work).
Unfortunately, our current administration’s regulations and policies are sending talent scurrying overseas to find better opportunities. Or they are wasting our talents’ skills here by not utilizing them because their policies are killing jobs and talent can’t work.
The struggles of our past are un-emotional facts in textbooks that we barely comprehend. Are we doomed to repeat the failures of history?
Just like America, many of Singapore’s struggles in the past are now just facts in textbooks. Current generations did not endure the suffering and hardships of the older generations living in a third world Singapore. Just like Americans, the new Singaporean generation is softer than the older generations and want to change the very policies that brought the country prosperity. They grew up in a prosperous world and have no knowledge of harder times. And unfortunately, just like America, the new generations, as the inheritors of prosperity (prosperity created by the sufferers turning things around, mind you) are doomed to repeat tragic history.
America’s founding fathers were alive two centuries ago. The generations of the last century in America has laid waste to many of our founding fathers’ principles of freedom, opportunity, and economic prosperity. Our memories and understanding of oppression have faded. And so have our understanding of why we have a Constitution that limits our government.
Singapore’s founding father has been alive up until today and, even then, this current Singaporean generation already doesn’t remember or understand why he had certain economic policies in place. They are trying to change them, to the detriment to the themselves.
As part of the research for the book, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, “the younger collaborators interviewed 150 young people and found that many regarded Lee as a mythological figure from another era. Distant and detached, feared and revered all at once were the adjectives that came to mind. He was a figure they heard stories about from their elders but never encountered or needed to know in their lives. Lee would acknowledge in our meetings the stark generational differences between Singaporeans. His own generation’s experiences could not be reproduced. They [the older generation] understood Singapore’s special circumstances. So should the younger generation. That understanding would galvanize them to work hard and be prepared to serve the country.” (Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going p.21)
Younger generations who grow up in great prosperity must understand the hard circumstances that the first citizens endured at the birth of their countries to understand their founding fathers’ policies and why they worked. Otherwise, we’re doomed.
Lee, with good reason, consistently worried that the new generations of Singapore, as the inheritors of the prosperity he created, would not understand free markets and capitalism. He worried that youth would turn to government policies promoting welfare and closing markets off to foreigners to promote themselves. He believed that would decline Singapore’s economy and prosperity. It’s already happening.
In the last year, I’ve watched Singapore’s government implement policy change to reduce the number of foreigners coming in to work in Singapore. The result? Companies are already leaving Singapore, or preparing to leave Singapore, because of lack of freedom to hire the employees that they want. It’s one of the things that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew feared for the nation he spent his life building up. The young people of Singapore, the inheritors of prosperity, hopefully will pause on the path of repeating tragic history, turn around, and retrace their steps back to the free market capitalistic path Mr. Lee Kuan Yew led them down in the first place.
Hopefully, the United States of America can find its way back to the free market, capitalistic roots that brought success, prosperity, and the most freedom that any country has ever seen.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s passing is a colossal loss. He was a courageous and unique leader. His life will continue to inspire many worldwide. Rest in peace, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.