Singapore's Independence: What Was the Point?
By Bryan Caplan
In his From Third World to First, Lee Kuan Yew admits that his original political motivation was simply nationalism:
The Japanese occupation… aroused my nationalism and self-respect, and my resentment at being lorded over. My four years as a student in Britain after the war strengthened my determination to get rid of British rule.
I returned to Singapore in 1950, confident of my cause, but ignorant of the pitfalls and dangers that lay ahead. An anticolonial wave swept me and many others of my generation.
Nationalists normally buttress their arguments for independence by insisting that their “mother country” is holding them back. But at least by the late 60s, Lee explicitly rejected this view:
The accepted wisdom of development economists at the time was that MNCs [multi-national corporations] were exploiters of cheap land, labor, and raw materials. This “dependency school” of economists argued that MNCs continued the colonial pattern of exploitation that left the developing countries selling raw materials… Keng Swee and I were not impressed… If MNCs could give our workers employment and teach them technical and engineering skills and management know-how, we should bring in the MNCs.
Now you could say that Singapore’s results are proof of the wisdom of Lee’s quest for independence. But not so fast. Lee not only envies the success of Hong Kong under continued British rule; he seems to attribute its success to the weakness of democratic and nationalist checks upon its policies. Furthermore, Lee admits that his strategy of cooperation with the communists to overthrow British rule could easily have ended in disaster:
In retrospect, it was our good luck that Singapore did not come to greater harm from some of the high-risk policies and actions that we embarked on. We worked with the communists in a united front; we could have been chewed up and swallowed as happened to social democrats in Poland and Czechoslovakia after World War II.
Lee may be the father of independent Singapore; but his own account of the facts suggests that Singapore’s economic miracle would have begun 10-15 years earlier if the nationalist movement had never existed. I have to ask, then: What was the whole point of Singaporean independence?
P.S. If you retort, “What was the whole point of American independence?,” I’m one step ahead of you.