Neoliberal “good governance” in lieu of rights: Lee kuan yew’s singapore experiment

Cherian GEORGE*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


When Lee Kuan Yew died in March 2015 at the age of ninety-one, the outpouring of emotion in his country was only to be expected. Lee had been the giant of Singaporean nation-building throughout the lives of most of its citizens. What may have been more surprising even to patriotic Singaporeans, let alone the country’s critics, was the superlative praise heaped on him by leaders and commentators all over the world, including in the liberal democratic West, whose finger-pointing he had so scornfully rebuffed throughout his career. US President Barack Obama called him “a true giant of history” and “a devoted public servant” from whom world leaders had sought “advice on governance and development” (White House 2015). Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Lee “was the first to understand that modern politics was about effective Government not old-fashioned ideology” (Office of Tony Blair 2015). Roger Cohen (2015) opined in the New York Times that “the 20th century produced few greater statesmen and perhaps no greater pragmatist.” The praise was largely due to Singapore’s undeniable success in raising the standard of living of its citizens to First World levels in the space of a generation. It is not just an economic powerhouse; it is also exceptional in managing to stave off financial corruption and in providing quality housing, education and healthcare for the vast majority of its people. The fulsome praise may also have been a reflection of the uncertainty and doubt prevailing within the democratic world. Long gone is the triumphalism that bloomed at the end of the Cold War. Since then, the West has been forced to look inward, at the limitless and destructive greed of its richest, as well as the limited impact it has had on the lives of its poorest. It has become harder to hold as a self-evident truth that other countries would capitulate to the waves of democracy or, even more disconcertingly, that they would necessarily be worse off if they refused to conform to liberal democratic norms. Accordingly, the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Democracy was devoted to the question of whether democracy is in decline. The questions posed in this very volume are themselves an indicator of the current intellectual mood: they probably would not have been asked with such open-minded humility twenty years ago.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSpeech and Society in Turbulent Times
Subtitle of host publicationFreedom of Expression in Comparative Perspective
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781316996850
ISBN (Print)9781107190122
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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