Updated date:

Singapore's Transformation From a Struggling Island Nation to a Thriving Metropolis

Born in Miami, Florida and grew up in California: five years in the heart of Los Angeles and seventeen years in the San Fernando Valley.

Singapore today.

Singapore today.

Yes, one man can make a difference, a man with a keen understanding of human nature and vision, that is. This man is Singapore’s minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who turned a developing nation into one of the world’s most developed countries. Singapore is often referred to as the Switzerland of Southeast Asia, thanks to his leadership and unswerving determination.

What's So Great About Singapore?

  • Singapore’s per capita income for its 3.7 million citizens exceeds that of many European countries.
  • Its education and health systems can compete with anything in the West.
  • Government officials are pretty much corruption-free.
  • 90% of the households own their own homes.
  • Taxes are relatively low.
  • The streets and sidewalks are pristine.
  • You do not see homeless people or slums.
  • It boasts an unemployment rate of less than 3%.

(This data comes from National Geographic Magazine's article, “The Singapore Solution.” )

Singapore has often been referred to an economic miracle because it has achieved so much in such a short time.

Lee Kuan Yew's Vision

In June 5, 1959, Lee Kuan Yew, a prominent member of the People’s Action Party, became the first prime minister of a pre-independent Singapore and remained in his post for twenty-six years. In 1965, when Singapore finalized its independence from Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew had his work cut for him. He started out with what most leaders would consider an impossible undertaking.

When Lee Kuan Yew was head of an independent Singapore, one of his first tasks was to have the sovereignty of Singapore recognized by the United Nations. In September of 1965, Singapore joined the United Nations. He believed that government officials should be well paid in order to curtail corruption. He also felt that an overgrown population would threaten economic progress. Therefore, he developed the Stop at Two Family Planning Campaign.

The Stop-at-Two Family Planning Campaign

The Stop at Two Family Planning Campaign was an aggressive method of discouraging rapid population growth that urged families that already had two children to undergo sterilization. Let's just say it worked a little too well, since Singaporeans are simply not reproducing. With a fertility rate of 1.29, Singapore population growth is largely dependent on immigration.

At the present time, in order to encourage larger families, the government is even giving married women baby bonuses for having three or four children. Extremes are bad, especially if family planning policies are misguided.

Singapore's Economic Growth

Economic growth is encouraged by what some Singaporeans refer to as the “big stick and the big carrot.” Everyone can see evidence of the big carrot by simply witnessing Singapore's impressive economic growth. The big stick is another matter: this is achieved by creating and enforcing many rules that are foundational for a well-ordered nation.

Strict Laws and Punishments

When entering the country, on each airport entry card, it is stated in red letters that the penalty for drug trafficking is “DEATH.” Minister Yew describes human nature as being animal-like. He believes that man can be trained and needs to be disciplined. This is accomplished by lots of rules. The enforcement of these rules is quiet strict. They are enforced with anything from fines to occasional outings. They also believe in practicing corporal punishment. In Singapore, caning is mandatory for at least 42 offenses.

Racial and Religious Harmony

Disruption in religious and racial harmony is simply not allowed. In order to preserve racial harmony and avoid many of the riots that had separated the country back in the 1960s, the government installed a strict quota system in public housing to make sure that ethnic groups can't create their own monolithic units. This is government-sanctioned and has been a very successful way of keeping different ethnic groups from fighting.

The "Cop Inside Your Head"

Singaporeans are so excessively compliant with the many rules that they have the rules internalized. One resident calls it “the cop inside our heads.” This has diminished the need for police surveillance. There is almost no theft, nobody steals wallets or engages in acts of vandalism. This is a country where conformity is commonplace and self-censorship is a very common practice.


Kiasu: A Quest to Get Ahead

There is a word that defines Singapore’s quest to get ahead and that is kiasu. Kiasu is a term that means afraid to lose. Singaporeans make it a must to be number one in everything. They are overachievers, and when something happens like in 2005 when Singapore’s port slipped behind Shanghai's in total cargo tonnage, it was treated like a national tragedy.

Assortative Mating

In his ambition to create a superior society, Minister Yew advocated what is known as assortative mating, the idea that college-educated men should only marry college-educated women. There was even a matchmaking agency called the Social Development Unit which was set up to promote socializing between men and women college graduates. Elitism in the area of marriage is just another tool of Minister Yew used for creating his metropolis, Singapore Inc.


Singapore is an environment that encourages advancement in every sense. Even the immigration policies are set up to encourage competition in the marketplace. Singapore has welcomed many educated Chinese immigrants that are prepared to fight for higher-paying jobs. This keeps everyone from becoming complacent and falling behind.


Even though, Singapore has a military position of neutrality and non-alignment, the way for Singapore to survive is to be vigilant. In 2009 their military budget was 11.4 billion, or 5 percent of the GDP, which is among the world’s highest budgets for military spending.

Life in a Controlled Society

Living in a very controlled society, where there is an emphasis on rote learning does have its negative consequences. One of the problems is that creativity is not encouraged. In order to correct this problem, Scape, a youth outreach group, came up with the idea of opening a graffiti wall where youngsters were encouraged to submit graffiti designs. On the other hand, the government has maintained a campaign against the use of Singlish, which is a language combination of Malay, Hokkien, Chinese, Tamil, and English. Singlish is how many of the trendier teenagers prefer to express themselves.

Lee Kuan Yew's Accolades

Lee Kuan Yew, has received many accolades for his leadership efforts. These include the Nobel Peace Prize, The Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, The Russian Order of Friendship Award, and numerous state decorations such as the Order of Companions of Honor, Order of St. Michael and St. George, and the Order of the Rising Sun as well as other honors that have been bestowed upon this truly influential leader.

Even now at the age of 86, Minister Yew is still a greatly respected and revered by the people of Singapore. He is a man of unswerving character, who says “If you are going to lower me into the grave, and I feel something is wrong, I will get up.” His great leadership is evident in all the social advancements that has happened in just the last 45 years. When a small Island nation goes from being a developing country, with an unemployment rate of 10-12 %, not to mention a host of other problems, to becoming one of the most advanced nations in the world, that has an economic standard that would rival most countries in Europe and America, that is an accomplishment!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


69 on September 25, 2019:

Very good. I am writing a paper and this was and excellent source.

pramodgokhale from Pune( India) on August 03, 2012:

Anonymous 11

Yes Sir, I understand your argument about Lee Kuan Yew ,any political personality on the earth is not without critique ,Blue print is made by expert ,i agree and credit should go to him, but implementation is more important than it.i know you may differ with me.

In India Pandit Nehru who implemented five year plan successfully

and India was built.

Thank you.


Anonymous on August 03, 2012:

What you did not know was Lee Kuan Yew did not have the capacity to build up Singapore economically. He was good at spotting talent. He was fortunate to engage Dr Albert Winsemius , a UN affliated Dutch Economist, who set up the blueprint for Jurong Town Corporation, the education structure, the Port of Singapore (which was modeled based on Rotterdam). Credit is where credit is due. Dr Albert Winsemius was the father and architect of Singapore's economy.

What LKY was good at doing is to maintain autocratic control and use talents to build Singapore. He is no doubt a good leader but not an economic one.

Internetwriter62 (author) from Marco Island, Florida on April 01, 2012:

Thank you pramodgokhale, I agree Singapore is national marvel, especially since it has become such a success in such a short time. Mr. Lee Kwan Yew did do an amazing job, I just wish more governments would follow his example.

pramodgokhale from Pune( India) on March 30, 2012:

I had been to Singapore 20yrs back, I found all fascinating and small Asian island is the most busiest port in the world and competing Amsterdam.I appreciate quality of governance of Singapore government and great leader Mr.Lee Kwan Yew

I wanted to visit Singapore again.

Internetwriter62 (author) from Marco Island, Florida on October 02, 2011:

Thank you Conradgoh, I appreciate your kind words and all your support for this hub, I'm very honored since you are a citizen of Singapore and you like my work. I was fascinated myself when I read about Singapore in National Geographic and how your country has transformed into the Metropolis it is today in such a short period. It is a beautiful and amazing nation, and yes I do have to agree the rules and regulations has helped become what it is today. Thank for the link, It will be my pleasure to check out your website on Singapore.

conradgoh on October 02, 2011:

Wow wow. Seems like you know much about Singapore. I'm from Singapore myself! (: Modern Singapore is founded by Lee Kuan Yew, he transformed Singapore from a fishing village to what it is today. It is true that Singapore is bounded by many rules and regulations, however, that is what brought us thus far. Singapore is now a cosmopolitan city with many attractions, you can check them out at


Hubbers, do contact me if you wanna know more about Singapore. Will be glad to tell you more!

Internetwriter62 (author) from Marco Island, Florida on June 12, 2011:

Thank you for your thoughtful comment gmwilliams, I agree the world could use some stricter rules. It is because of the lack of respect that we are in the mess we are in. Singapore is a great model for many to consider following, their economy is not messed up and they have a great country.

Grace Marguerite Williams from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on June 10, 2011:

To Internetwriter62: Excellent hub about Singapore. This is why Singapore is a great city. Yes, Mr. Lee established some rules which is good. Most people need rules in order to act civilized and be respectful of others. You have indicated that there is very little crime in Singapore because of self-censorship. What's wrong with that!

The so-called freer societies who do not enforce rules and believe that people should do what they want has out of control crime in that it is unsafe to be out at night for fear of being mugged or worse. I applaude the late Mr. Lee on this. I further applaud him regarding the issue of mandatory birth control. There should be mandatory birth control. If there was mandatory birth control, all children would be planned, wanted, and would not have to grow up impoverished and unloved.

Internetwriter62 (author) from Marco Island, Florida on July 09, 2010:

Thank you Virtuenote, I agree with you Mr. Lee did an outstanding job of transforming Singapore. I know what he did he did for the good of his country.

virtuenote on July 09, 2010:

Very good hub about Singapore and the late Mr Lee. I am always an admirer of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He might be not very popular among Singaporeans when he first issued so many rules and prohibitions in Singapore. But they were needed for Singaporeans were very indisciplined those days. We can see the results now: Singapore has become one of the most wealthy countries in the world, even though it has no natural resources unlike Malaysia and Indonesia.

For me, I think Mr. Lee is a rare example of what I call "a good-hearted dictator".

Internetwriter62 (author) from Marco Island, Florida on April 18, 2010:

Thank You De Greek & Sandyspider, I agree, it probably is a great vacation destination, one word of caution though, don't bring gum, you get fined. I got most of my information from one of the best periodicals around and that is National Geographic Magazine.

Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on April 18, 2010:

Very informative.

De Greek from UK on April 18, 2010:

Great place to visit :-)

Internetwriter62 (author) from Marco Island, Florida on April 17, 2010:

Thank you Enlightenedsoul, after reading about this country's amazing transformation, I just had to write about it.

englightenedsoul on April 16, 2010:

Informative and well laid out hub. Rated up and bookmarked.

Internetwriter62 (author) from Marco Island, Florida on April 16, 2010:

Thank you Smireles. After learning about this amazing island nation, I would love to visit it.

Sandra Mireles from Texas on April 16, 2010:

Very nice introduction to Singapore.

Related Articles