After Lee, Singapore looks beyond his authoritarian legacy

Singapore (AFP) - The death of Lee Kuan Yew has generated calls for Singapore to escape the shadow of its authoritarian founder and his "culture of fear", and begin a debate on embracing freedoms needed to power growth and innovation.

But observers say the current crop of leaders will resist any change to the status quo that has for decades insulated them from criticism, particularly as they face a new generation of voters with a different vision for the future.

The 91-year-old patriarch who died Monday transformed Singapore into a high-tech industrial hub and financial centre but also entrenched a system notorious for one-party rule, the muzzling of the press and curbing of political liberties.

But opposition to government policies has become more strident in recent years after the Internet afforded Singaporeans an alternative venue to vent their frustrations outside the tightly controlled mainstream media.

And while there has been an outpouring of affection for Lee since he was hospitalised in February, even he was not immune to virulent online attacks from disillusioned citizens complaining about immigration, the cost of living and other hot-button issues.

- Need for national debate -

Younger, better-educated Singaporeans have become increasingly vocal about reforms and the pursuit of economic gain above all else, and some analysts hope Lee's passing will spark a national debate on the need to loosen up.

One of them is Lim Jialiang, a 24-year-old activist and sociology student at Nanyang Technological University who said many young people have little emotional attachment to the city-state's founder.

While they are saddened by his death, "what is important is that we find ways to get away from the myths about him after all this".

But prominent Singaporean activist and blogger Alex Au said Lee's death could have the opposite effect on the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) which is now led by the patriarch's son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

"Especially because Lee Kuan Yew has passed on, it is quite possible to imagine that the government under his son might feel even more insecure, and insecurity is a strong argument for keeping controls in place," he told AFP.

Au earlier this month was fined by the High Court for "scandalising" the judiciary in an online court case, for which he also apologised.

"In the long term if you look across different countries, liberalisation happens when either the popular pressure becomes irresistible or when a leader feels secure enough to want to leave it as his legacy. I don't think these two conditions are in place in Singapore," he said.

- 'Strongman gone, fear lessened' -

Independent film-maker Martyn See said Lee's death is expected to lift "the culture of fear that has dogged Singapore civil society for decades" but expects the government to resist any pressure toward greater freedom.

"The strongman is gone, the fear is lessened, there will be more people speaking up than ever before," said See, whose films have been banned by the government because of their political content.

"The authoritarian instinct will rear its head but it will not be prolonged because Singaporeans will decide that enough is enough."

But respected Singaporean academic Cherian George, an associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University, said the country's political controls are so entrenched they are no longer dependent on Lee's presence.

"The current leaders find it just too convenient to continue with a system that insulates them from the kind of contention and pressure that leaders in more open and competitive democracies face," he told AFP.

Analysts say there is a strong economic incentive for Singapore to loosen up as it shifts to high-value industries that require creativity and innovation, and that while Lee's firm hand guided to it to prosperity, those same values are now holding it back.

The tropical island also wants to shed its image as a dull, rules-based society and develop a vibrant local arts scene and attract more universities, think tanks and international research centres.

"Freedom, transparency and competition in the economy are essential drivers and expectations of a high-end economy," said Bridget Welsh, a senior research associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies at the National Taiwan University.

"Singapore has hampered its growth by holding onto an old model," she told AFP, adding that openness is essential "for economic dynamism".

See, the film-maker, said the examples of Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea "have proven that democratic freedoms can co-exist alongside economic prosperity".

"Singaporeans by now have realised that you don't have to trade your civil liberties with economic prosperity, especially the young. It's a false trade-off."