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Singapore's Transformation: Struggling Island Nation to Thriving Metropolis

Singapore today

Singapore today

Singapore's Transformation Story

Yes, one man can make a difference—a man with a keen understanding of human nature and vision, that is. This man was 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's article, "The Singapore Solution.")

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

Lee Kuan Yew's Vision

On 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 26 years. In 1965, when Singapore finalized its independence from Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew had his work cut out 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 total fertility rate of 1.12 per female, Singapore's 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 described human nature as being animal-like. He believed that man can be trained and needs to be disciplined. This is accomplished by lots of rules.

The enforcement of these rules is quite 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 couldn'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 where 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 was 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 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.

Up until his death in 2015 at the age of 91, Minister Yew was still greatly respected and revered by the people of Singapore. He was a man of unwavering character who said: "If you are going to lower me into the grave, and I feel something is wrong, I will get up."

His great leadership was evident in all the social advancements that happened over many 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 with 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.