Prime Minister Kuan Yew Lee visiting housing project.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visits a housing project. Credit: Larry Burrows / LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

SINGAPORE — A first-time visitor to this 21st century city-state would struggle to picture it as a backwater British colony, which it was until it won independence in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s last colonial leader and its first prime minister, led the young nation on an unprecedented modernization campaign before stepping down in 1990 after 31 years in office.

Singapore today is Lee’s vision realized.

The Singapore skyline at dusk, a city-state and global economic force with one of the world's best public school systems.
The Singapore skyline at dusk, a city-state and global economic force with one of the world’s best public school systems. Credit: Robert Rivard/San Antonio Report

Born in 1923 to a wealthy Chinese family, the Cambridge-educated lawyer survived Japanese occupation in World War II and became the country’s first elected prime minister in 1959 after the British relaxed colonial rule and allowed self-government. Singapore was then made part of neighboring Malaysia in 1962, a failed experiment in nation-building. Three years later, the world’s only island city-state with a population of 1.8 million people was granted its independence as a sovereign nation.

“For me, it is a moment of anguish,” Lee Kuan Yew said after the failed merger with Malaysia. “All my life … I believed in the Malaysian merger and unity of the two territories. You know that we as a people are connected by geography, economics, by ties of kinship. … It literally broke everything that we stood for … now Singapore shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of the people in a most just and equal society.”

The story of Singapore’s last years as a British colony and its first 10 years of independence and nation building was on display at the National Museum, an early stop for a delegation of 37 Texas educators and community leaders who traveled there in October to study Singapore’s high performing system of public schools, technical institutes, and universities.

Lee, only 36 when he rose to power, became the world’s longest-serving prime minister, presiding over the island’s one-party democracy for 31 years until his resignation in 1990. Even then, he was succeeded by his son, Lee Hsien Loong, while the patriarch transitioned to “Minister Mentor.”

The firm control of government held by his People’s Action Party (PAP) then – and to this day – allowed Lee to exert extraordinary influence over the country’s development as a society and as a major trade hub in the Far East, with an economy based on industrialization, banking, trade, and manufacturing finished goods for export.

Despite the young nation’s ethnically diverse population of Chinese, Malaysians, and Indians, Lee succeeded in shaping a social structure where all Singaporeans shared common Confucian values.

Above all, Lee believed in universal education, knowing that his country lacked natural resources and would instead have to develop human capital to flourish. Read more about Lee in this Washington Post obituary published in 2015.

Instructors at Singapore's Institute for Technical Education College Central show Texas educators a Boeing Dreamliner learning laboratory.
Instructors at Singapore’s Institute for Technical Education show Texas educators a Boeing Dreamliner learning laboratory. Credit: Robert Rivard/San Antonio Report

The rapid development of a modern city with enough housing to provide for a majority of the population, coupled with a fast-evolving public education system that was free and open to all, has elevated Singapore to once unimagined levels of prosperity and importance. Lee made sure that the country’s drive to achieve world-class education outcomes was embedded in the national DNA.

For those who want to delve more deeply into the life of Lee and the development of modern Singapore, his autobiography From Third World to First: The Singapore Story – 1965-2000 is an essential read. Lee, a prolific memoirist of his long time in public office, was the author of multiple books on Singapore’s transformation in the years after winning independence from British colonial rule.

“Singapore depends on the strength and influence of the family to keep society orderly and maintain a culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety, and respect for elders and for scholarship and for learning,” Lee wrote in his autobiography. “These values make for a productive people and help economic growth.”

By the 1980s, Singapore was one of the four so-called Asian Tigers whose rapid economic growth, embrace of technology, and growing importance as a financial center made Lee a recognized world leader at the head of one of Asia’s most highly educated societies with per capita income among the highest in the world, second only to Japan in Asia.

Above all, Lee created a meritocracy, a country with a culture that emphasized individual character, shared civic values, and high social and economic expectations. It was conceived and endures as a Singapore First identity in an ethnically diverse population. Such standards are evident at every level of society: in business and commerce, in education and public service, in the city’s booming tourism industry, and in the government’s decision to teach English to every Singaporean as a universal language in a multilingual society.

It wasn’t always that way. Singapore is a case study in nation-building over a 50-year span, a short enough time period that its architects lived to see the results of their vision and labors. That’s one reason Singapore was an ideal, if distant, destination for the group of Texas public school educators and supporters who traveled there as part of an Austin-based Educate Texas learning mission.

Educate Texas is a public-private partnership whose goal is “strengthening the public education system so that every Texas student is prepared for success in school, in the workforce, and in life.” The organization counts as its partners some of the nation’s most important foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation, but it also partners with the Office of the Governor, the Texas Legislature, and the Texas Education Agency, the very entities that would have to support any major changes in Texas public school funding and oversight.

'Singapore Soul,' a public art installation outside the Ocean Financial Centre by Catalan sculptor Jaume Plensa, pays tribute to the city-state's multicultural milieu.
“Singapore Soul,” a public art installation outside the Ocean Financial Centre by Catalan sculptor Jaume Plensa, pays tribute to the city-state’s multicultural milieu. Credit: Robert Rivard/San Antonio Report

The Educate Texas group’s expenses were underwritten with funds provided by Charles Butt, Chairman and CEO of H-E-B, the state’s biggest individual advocate and corporate supporter of public education.

“We were fortunate to assemble a stellar group of Texas leaders who were able to learn about the drivers and environment that have led to Singapore’s impressive academic gains over the past 50 years,” said George Tang, managing director of Educate Texas. “Through conversations and visits with leaders throughout Singapore’s educational system, we were impressed by their strategic and purposeful design of their systems to support the country’s economic growth.”

I was one of four Texas journalists who traveled with the group.

An Island of Diversity

Singapore wins praise not only for its culture of meritocracy, but also for its belief that diversity is a strength rather than a weakness. Chinese make up 75% of the population, and by sheer numbers play a dominant role in government, business, and almost every other aspect of public life. Malays account for 13%, Indians for 9%, with everyone else, including Westerners, accounting for the remaining 3%.

The changing demographics in Texas often become a point of political and social contention, which plays out in disputes between Democrats and Republicans over public education funding, immigration policy, and various other issues that, at their base, are all about the state becoming more polarized socio-economically.

Religious tolerance also has been a hallmark. The island is 34% Buddhist, 14% Muslim, 11% Taoist, 7% Catholic, 5% Hindu, and 11% Christian non-Catholic. About 17% do not identify with an organized religion. Such religious diversity has not led to social tension on the island. So far, Singapore has escaped acts of terrorism and violence on its soil that have become commonplace in the Philippines as well as Malaysia and Indonesia. Leaders have expressed concern that Singapore could become the scene of such acts, and, thus, have taken measures to secure the country.

While the Chinese clearly are the dominant group in every way, the education leaders we met with and the schools we visited reflected the lack of racial, ethnic, or religious tension. I noticed a predominance of Chinese in high performing schools and a diverse ethnic mix in the polytechnic campus we visited, although students seemed to socialize mostly within their own ethnic groups when seen eating, studying, or just hanging out. It’s hard to gather more than anecdotal evidence in the space of a five-day visit.

The Chewing Gum Ban

It is no longer true that chewing gum is banned outright in Singapore, although it once was under Lee in the 1990s. Gum still is not imported for sale. My second trip to Singapore in the 1980s as a Newsweek editor was to meet with government officials upset with the newsweekly for critical coverage of the call for the ban by Lee and other officials, as well as foreign press attention to the country’s laws against homosexuality, a self-censored domestic press, and Lee’s low tolerance for critics.

Singapore under Lee was a nation that unapologetically sacrificed individual rights for what was seen as the common good and social order. The only resistance at home, however, was in the misdemeanor category, which provoked the infamous chewing gum ban.

Discarded chewing gum by delinquents in public housing tower elevators and elsewhere became a nuisance, and when the government launched its $5 billion Mass Rapid Transit rail system in 1987, vandals began placing chewing gum on door sensors that interfered with the train doors’ closing.

Officials were unhappy with Western media coverage of Lee and such controls, and what they believed was too little attention being paid to the Little Red Dot, the nickname for the tiny nation and its remarkable economic and social transformation. Lee was seen in the West as both a democratic visionary and an autocratic ruler for life. Much of what he accomplished would have been difficult or impossible in a Western nation with multi-party rule and more democratic institutions.

The view of Singapore and its port waters from the rooftop of the Marin Bay Sands Hotel.
The view of Singapore from the rooftop of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Credit: Robert Rivard/San Antonio Report

Singapore is a more relaxed, self-confident society today where the media and individuals enjoy traditional freedoms of expression, even if the ruling party shows no signs of ceding significant power to others.

“Don’t worry: It’s legal now to possess chewing gum in Singapore,” one of our hosts joked on our first group meeting at the storied colonial-era Raffles Hotel. “Just don’t throw it on the street.”

In fact, you still can’t buy chewing gum in the country. But Singapore today is a cosmopolitan and progressive country, and its cleanliness, absence of street litter, and building graffiti are enviable qualities. It’s one of the greenest cities on the planet, and the government and business together are taking the same all-in approach to achieving greater sustainability just as they did decades ago to build a more educated populace and booming economy.

It’s impossible to place Singapore’s education excellence in context without understanding the country’s roots, its culture and its one-party rule. For the Texas educators visiting, many of the best practices on display would prove difficult to export back home.

The country’s drive for education excellence and its deep respect for educators seem adaptable to other places searching for better education outcomes and open to change. Singapore’s methods for selecting and training teachers and principals, and making training and evaluation a career-long endeavor, would work anywhere. That’s the subject of the third article in this series.

Sunday: What Singapore Can Teach Texas About Public Education

Monday: Singapore: Lew Kuan Yew’s Vision Realized

Coming Tuesday: Singapore: A Meritocracy of Teachers & Principals

Coming Wednesday: Singapore: Where the Future is Now

Disclosure: H-E-B and its chairman are contributors to the Rivard Report.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.