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

Updated on May 27, 2019
Photo by Christopher Chan
Photo by Christopher Chan

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. Lee Kuan Yew 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.

According to National Geographic Magazine, in an article titled “The Singapore Solution” It is stated that Singapore’s per capita income for its 3.7 million citizens exceeds that of many European countries, the education and health system can compete with anything in the West, government officials are pretty much corruption free, 90 percent of the households own their own homes, taxes are relatively low, the streets and sidewalks are pristine and you do not find homeless people or slums. Singapore also boasts an unemployment rate of less than 3 percent. Singapore has often been referred to an economic miracle, because it has achieved so much, in such a short time.

In June 5th 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 it’s 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 was an aggressive method of discouraging rapid population growth, by urging families that already had two children to undergo sterilization. Let just say, it worked a little too well. At the current time, Singaporeans are simply not reproducing, with a fertility rate of 1.29 and not a whole lot of intercourse going on, Singapore population growth is largely dependent on immigration. At the present time, in order to prevent the extinction of the Singaporeans, 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.

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 done by creating and enforcing many rules that are foundational for a well ordered nation. When entering the country, on each airport entry card, it is stated in read letter 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.

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 do not create their own monolithic units. Whether or not, this is government sanctioned, this has been a very successful way of keeping different ethnic groups from being pined against one another.

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 common place and self censorship is a very common practice.

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 like when Singapore’s pore port slipped behind Shanghai in 2005 in total cargo tonnage, it was treated like a national tragedy.

In his ambition to create a superior society, Minister Yew advocated what is known as assortative mating. Assortative mating is the idea that college educated men should only marry college educated women. There was even a match making 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.

It is an environment that encourages advancement in every sense, even the immigration policies are set up to encourage competition in the market place. 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.

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 a group called Scape, a youth outreach 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, 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!


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    • profile image


      9 months ago

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

    • pramodgokhale profile image


      7 years ago from Pune( India)

      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.


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      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 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      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 profile image


      8 years ago from Pune( India)

      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 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      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 profile image


      8 years ago

      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 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      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.

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 

      9 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      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 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      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 profile image


      9 years ago

      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 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      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.

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      10 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      Very informative.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      10 years ago from UK

      Great place to visit :-)

    • Internetwriter62 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

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

    • englightenedsoul profile image


      10 years ago

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

    • Internetwriter62 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

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

    • Smireles profile image

      Sandra Mireles 

      10 years ago from Texas

      Very nice introduction to Singapore.


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