Critics call Singapore an autocracy. But I never felt more free than when I lived there

By Sahana Singh

Between my early life in India and my current life in the United States, I spent 14 years in paradise: Singapore. From clean water and crime-free streets to reliable public transportation and easy access to libraries, the state government anticipates all the basic needs to provide its residents a good quality of life and eliminate the stresses that can impede personal progress. But in the coverage that followed the death of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Monday, Western media has painted a very different picture. They describe a crushing autocrat that chained his people and stripped them of basic freedoms. My experience was quite the contrary. Outside of this tiny island utopia, I never felt more free.

My husband whisked me and our baby away to Singapore in 1998 after landing a job there, despite my fears about adapting to an unfamiliar culture. When we first arrived and checked into a hotel, I called room service and asked for a jug of filtered water – a standard health precaution. The hotel employee dismissed my concerns: “You can drink water from the tap in your bathroom.” At first, I was horrified by the suggestion. In India, water filters were as common as TVs and refrigerators in middle- and upper-class homes. But here, I soon discovered, the state maintained a high-quality water treatment process that delivered purified water nationwide. Not only was Singapore’s water drinkable straight from the tap, but it always gushed with good pressure, even on the top floors of the tallest buildings. It was my first introduction to a government that works.

In my first days in Singapore, I worried about safely getting around town, especially with a baby. I had never used local trains and feared ending up in a dangerous neighborhood. But what would be reasonable fears for a newcomer in most countries were gratuitous in Singapore. Everywhere were street signs and directions in English, clearly marked and intelligently placed, as if invisible planners were anticipating your next question. On my first try, I navigated to Orchard Road, the nation’s retail hub, and back to my hotel without having to ask anyone for directions.

There was no litter in Singapore’s streets. Every building looked clean and every walkway looked newly washed. The national library had numerous branches, stocked with wonderful books. With my baby in a stroller, I could go practically anywhere. It was like an India I had always dreamed of: clean, green and hassle-free.

How was this possible? Singapore gained its independence nearly 20 years after India, and yet, the island nation now boasts a remarkably diverse economy, the world’s top airline, clean rivers, and a thriving trade port – all achieved in just a few decades. Certainly, Singapore benefits from being a fraction of India’s size, with a population of 5.5 million people covering just 275 square miles. But by any measure, it developed at a staggering speed. The engine behind that transformation was the governance of Lee Kuan Yew, the man whose vision took this little dot of a city-state “from third-world to first.”

But not everyone shared my admiration. At the time, a friend of mine from the U.S. told me nothing could make her move to Singapore: “I would hate to live in a country where my freedoms are curtailed,” she declared loftily. I could only laugh. There I was, freer than anytime I had been in my life. I had just found a job I loved. I could go see a movie with friends and return by myself late at night. I could fall asleep in a taxi, after reeling off my address, and the driver would safely take me home and gently wake me up. Singapore maintains an efficient – if strict – judicial system, fundamental to living in a low-crime society while practicing individual freedom. I had tasted the real freedom that came with security.

Many point to the price Singapore’s citizens and residents pay for achieving that security. The government imposes strict laws with steep fines and punishments for even minor transgressions: Breaching the ban on selling gum can fetch a fine north of $70,000. Vandalizing property can lead to caning. These kinds of sentences may be an affront to American ideals, but in Singapore, like many Asian countries, ensuring the greater good is paramount to self-determination. Americans, it should be noted, also pay a price for the premium they put on individual liberties.

Westerners ridicule Singapore for restrictions on personal expression and protest, but overlook how the nation provides more freedom than some of the most-lauded democracies. In Singapore, there was no gun-culture like America’s or neighborhoods with street gangs to be avoided. As my daughter grew older, I could easily let her move around the city with no worries about her safety. Around the country, there are plenty of mosques, churches and temples in close proximity, along with Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist national holidays. The national government is highly transparent and virtually incorruptible, functioning better than some chaotic, so-called democracies. And yet the world asked why the average Singaporean, who had good schooling, a job, affordable housing, healthcare, child-care and elder-care don’t protest from roof-tops?

Yes, Lee Kuan Yew was not a paragon of the kind of democracy that throws up populist political leaders. Yes, his acerbic remarks would never have won a TV debate or an election in the U.S. But he was not one of the self-serving, corrupt dictators that developing countries produce so often. It would be folly to deny him his due credit for building a nation regularly listed as the world’s best place to live. He accomplished in one generation what took other newly developed countries three or more. He delivered the strong medicine needed to transform a nascent and suffering country into a mature nation, capable of punching far above its weight. Perhaps another leader would have given a sweet placebo, or worse still, poison. May Singapore never squander the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew.


This reminds me to be grateful of the freedoms we have. All too often we are focused on the negatives, but fail to consider all that has been taken for granted.

The truth is at the end of the day, while I will continue to look critically and disagree on some things, there is no place quite like home. I will continue to ponder about the things that are not quite right with this country, with this government, but only because there is still space for improvement. Let us not forget to be thankful for all that we already have.

Regarding LKY, to the diehard fans, there is nothing wrong with being a fan. He has done a lot for our nation and most, if not all of us, could never have done what he has done. I only ask that you understand what you are saying. If you respect the man, please know what you are respecting him for instead of blindly accepting what you read and end up repeating myths. If you respect the man, please do not just jump on the bandwagon, shallowly changing profile pictures (nothing wrong with it if you genuinely mean it) and talking about things you don't know anything about. Instead understand him, understand his heart for Singapore, and adopt the right attitudes and do your part to make this nation a better place. If you respect the man, please do not worship him because he doesn't want that, he is a great man not a god.

To the critics, there have been articles talking about how he is not that great, and I understand that sentiment. The sheer fanboyism irks me sometimes especially since a some of it is blind. But please, this is period of mourning. When any ordinary man dies, we remember the good things he has done and appreciate them. All the more for then, for a figure such as him who has achieved so much for this nation. This man is at the end of the day the father of modern Singapore, and thus a father figure to many. He is not perfect of course, but he deserves all the respect. As the nation mourns for this loss, let us mourn together. The time for critiques will come, the man himself had said 'what they think of me after I'm dead and gone in one generation will be determined by researchers who do PhDs on me'. There will be a time for academia, for discourse on the modern history of Singapore, but the time is not now.

Finally, to those who are capitalising on this for your own personal gain or glorification, I suggest you quickly dig a hole and hide yourself in it. Ahem.