Singapore's government in '65 was led by a man born Harry Lee, educated at Cambridge. By then, he was using the name Kuan Yew. He'd led Singapore since 1959, when full self-government was granted by the British. Lee Kuan Yew did everything he could to prevent the expulsion from Malaysia, I've read. When it was finalized, he went on television, in front of the entire nation-to-be, and as he announced the expulsion, he wept. He wept!
Singapore was unable to feed itself or even provide itself with water, and so he understandably feared that Singapore would be reduced to a pathetic walled-off island ghetto, a kind of Southeast-Asian Gaza. No wonder he wept.
I've been through its airport once, but so far never outside. It felt like a several star hotel, that airport did. (By contrast, I regret to admit that U.S. airports today tend to feel like second-rate bus stations.) By all accounts that I've read and heard from others, Singapore is efficient and well-run, with the main criticism being that it's rather boring.
With the death of Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015), the Singaporeans of my acquaintance seem truly sad. One, resident in Korea, took the time to go to the Singapore embassy in Seoul and sign a book of condolence (whatever that is) on Friday of the mourning week. Another, who returned to Singapore some time ago, spent hours in line to view the casket, it seems finally getting to view it past 3:30 AM. It is hard for us to imagine the attachment they must feel to him. He led the government for over thirty years and heavily influenced things for over twenty more. His party has never been out of power. His son is the new prime minister.
That Singapore is a one-party state (defacto) with authoritarian overtones (e.g., its very high per capita usage of the death penalty, limited freedom of the press) doesn't seem to bother the Singaporeans I have known, that I can tell. Lee said that this was the nature of Asians -- they want and need strong government.
Lee viewed multiracial society as inherently unstable, it seems. He was an advocate of Singapore maintaining a primarily Chinese racial character (without persecuting the minority races), with a comfortable Chinese racial majority. (If any White American public figure of today said anything comparable ["We need to protect the USA's majority-European racial character", e.g.], we all know that he would be mercilessly demonized by the media and would likely be expelled from public life.)
Lee said: "I have to amend [British parliamentary democracy] to fit my people's position. In multiracial societies, you don't vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion. Supposing I'd run their system here, Malays would vote for Muslims, Indians would vote for Indians, Chinese would vote for Chinese. I would have a constant clash in my Parliament which cannot be resolved because the Chinese majority would always overrule them. So I found a formula that changes that..."
"There are some flaws in the assumptions made for democracy. It is assumed that all men and women are equal or should be equal. Hence, one-man-one-vote. But is equality realistic? If it is not, to insist on equality must lead to regression." Lee wrote this. A typical Westerner of today would feel uncomfortable, weak in the stomach, at hearing this kind of talk; it is akin to blasphemy for the true-believing Westerner. "The problem...is the system of one man, one vote when we have to get quality leadership to the top. If we leave it to natural processes it will be a contest of television performances as in the West. And the best television performers and rally entertainers are not necessarily the best leaders who can deliver good government." I challenge anyone to argue that this is not a rational and sound criticism of democracy.
So let's say that Lee Kuan Yew got away with saying a lot (things Western public figures are no longer allowed to say). On the other hand, Singapore hasn't had much time for individuals' free speech. I have read U.S. journalist Robert Elegant's 1990 book Pacific Destiny, a survey of each the countries of East Asia, with discussions of their recent pasts, cultures, politics, economic situations, and likely futures based on then-current trends, interspersed with the journalist's own extensive experiences all across East Asia. The writer, Elegant, tells of his decades-long-running animosity with Lee Yuan Yew. "We have known each other since 1954, but not have been terribly fond of each other," Elegant wrote this around 1989. (Elegant is an impressive figure: a White American, Yale educated, fluent in Chinese and Japanese, and a journalist for U.S. news magazines and newspapers from the 1950s through at least the 1990s.) It seems that this animosity was kindled by Lee Kuan Yew's regular defamation lawsuits against Elegant. Elegant sometimes published things critical of the Singapore government, you see. Other journalists had the same problem.
Elegant respected Lee all the same, and the Singapore chapter in the Pacific Destiny book is mostly a mini-biography of Lee Kuan Yew. Elegant comments on this by saying something like, "To discuss Singapore is to discuss Lee Kuan Yew." He boldly attributes Singapore's success to the man. Lee is cordial in the interview for the book (Elegant published long quotations of all his interviews in the book, recorded on a tape recorder). Alas, Lee respected Elegant, too, as perhaps the USA's most eminent journalist in Asia of that era.
The entire Singapore chapter of Pacific Destiny is good (the entire book is good). Here is another excerpt:
This bizarre scene, viewed in the right light, can be a metaphor for Singapore itself. The very same man who was booed off the stage in 1954, had, a few decades later, achieved world fame and acclaim as a respected statesman. He will be a secular saint to Singaporeans for many, many years to come.
I admire Lee Kuan Yew, from what I know about him. Whatever his faults, he had the intellectual and moral courage to say what he believed was right and not waffle around, bending this way and that with each passing breeze. This is true leadership and is admirable.