We interrupt this lovefest for Lee Kwan Yew with this important message

No, I’m not going to complain about the whitewashing of an authoritarian regime. I’m used to people trading off someone else’s freedom for GDP growth. Or forgetting that for every transformative dictator there are many more who take the country down the toilet.

Rather, I want to highlight this point from political scientist Tom Pepinsky:

The coverage of Singapore under the late Lee Kuan Yew consistently emphasizes a theme of rapid economic development in an inauspicious context, encapsulated by the slogan “From Third World to First.”

…Now, no one should doubt that Lee Kuan Yew was a developmentalist statebuilder par excellence. But Singapore at independence a third-world country? This narrative neglects the incredible legacy of openness, infrastructure, and stability that the British rule left this tiny country.

The graph below says it all. For every year since 1945, I have ranked all independent countries by real per capita GDP, the best measure we have of economic prosperity. I then normalize these to a percentile scale. Here is what we get.


…Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time.

True, Lee Kwan Yew started governing a few years before Independence from Malaysia, where we don’t have data. Conceivably the green line starts at Indonesia levels in 1959 and goes vertical before the observed data come in. Conceivably.

I invite the Singapore experts to weigh in. Miracles do happen. Like most miracles, however, this one might be mythical.