Monday, March 23, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew v. Ferdinand Marcos

Lee Kuan Yew, the leader of Singapore from the time of its founding in 1965 (upon its separation from Malaysia) until 1990, has died. Singapore was a poor city-state with no natural resources in 1965 and Lee pursued policies that, amazingly quickly, made it one of the richest nations on earth on a per-capita basis (in 1965, Singapore's per-capita GDP was $500; fifty years later, it is $55,000).

Not all Lee's policies were what an advocate of democracy might wish. As an article about him in Foreign Policy notes:
... the miracle wasn’t without its price. Lee kept his political project on a tight leash, dampening free speech, muzzling his critics, and squashing political opposition before it could take root. [...] 
In polite company, it’s generally preferred to refer to Lee as a “soft” authoritarian — although it doesn’t feel that soft butting heads with a man who leaves you destitute, imprisoned, or beaten with a cane.
Lee didn't dispute the above. In an interview five years ago he was asked how he would be remembered. He replied:
I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial ... Close the coffin, then decide.”
In my experiences with the Philippines, I've often reflected on Lee and Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine leader who was almost an exact contemporary (Marcos ruled from 1965 to 1986). Both were Asian dictators who took over impoverished former colonies at the same time.

What I have wondered, as you may have guessed, is what would have become of the Philippines if it had had a leader like Lee Kuan Yew. Would it have prospered? That we cannot know, but we do know what happened under Marcos:
GDP per capita
1965: $187
1986: $535
2013: $2765
To compare the two countries -- in 1965, Singapore had a GDP per capita less than 3x that of the Philippines. Today it is close to 20x. But blaming Marcos may be misguided; as the numbers indicate, the country has done about the same in the post-Marcos years as it did during his reign.

Still, it is interesting to think about whether the country might actually prosper under honest and visionary leadership (however undemocratic). It seems unlikely, though, that the Philippines will ever get such leaders, since the people seem to be addicted to electing the same elite families, plus an occasional movie star or two.

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