30 March, 2015

I digress. . .

Every so often I feel the need to go off on a tangent, to leave writing, food, and dogs behind and blog about something meaningful maybe to no one but me.

This is one of those times.

On March 23, the world lost a great man. His motives were questioned by some, his means by more, but none can deny his accomplishments.

Lee Kuan Yew was, for three decades, Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore.  In fact, he was the country's first prime minister.

He was, in every way, the founding father of modern Singapore, dragging it from Third-world status to First-world financial power.

I lived in Singapore from 1969 to 1973 and had the privilege to me Lee Kuan Yew on several occasions. I made no claims of close friendship but I, like everyone who lived in Singapore, benefited from his decisions.

His government was paternalistic at a minimum, viewed as dictatorial by some.  I can remember signs in department stores depicting "acceptable" hair lengths for men and stating that you could cut in front of customers not meeting those acceptable limits. Public school children were given mandatory monthly haircuts, paid for by the government, as well as an excellent bi-lingual education.

I also remember inspectors coming to our house to check for standing water, be it in a rain ditch, a flower pot saucer, or a fish pond.  Any offense was punishable by a $250 fine.

Draconian? Maybe, but Singapore is free of mosquitoes thanks to these laws.  Our house, with huge sliding doors and windows, had no screens and no flying bugs.  Spiders, yes, mosquitoes no.

Lee banned chewing gum, spitting, littering and vandalism, and not flushing a public toilet. All are punishable by fines of $300 to $1000. He also mandated bi-lingual education for all and care for the elderly. 

Caning, first introduced to then colonial Singapore by the British in the 17th century. Lee Kuan Yew continued and supported the punishment. To this day, caning is still legal and practiced. In a mild form, caning is used to punish male (only) students in primary and secondary schools for serious misbehaviour.  Some 35 criminal offenses are punishable by caning, including hostage-taking/kidnapping, robbery, gang robbery with murder, drug abuse, vandalism, rioting, sexual abuse (molest), and unlawful possession of weapons. Caning is mandatory punishment for  rape, drug trafficking, and illegal money-lending.

Sounds extreme, but as a college-aged female, I felt perfectly safe walking home alone at 2 a.m.  Can you say the same about New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles? And whenever I did walk home alone, I invariably met city workers hand sweeping the streets of any debris.  Imagine a city with no trash, no graffiti, minimal crime.

Today, Singapore is a 224 sq-mile city-state.  Almost all residents are bi- or tri-lingual speaking English, Malay, Mandarin and/or Tamil.

In 2014, Singapore was ranked fourth in environmental performance and second as the freest economic economy. It is the 14th largest exporter and the 15th largest importer in the world, and has the highest trade-to-GDP ratio in the world. The country is currently the only Asian country to receive AAA credit ratings from all three major credit rating agencies.

A long way from the poverty ridden possession it was under British control.  Lee Kwan Yew can not take sole credit for the transformation, but he was certainly the guiding force behind most of it.

RIP Lee Kuan Yew.