On its face, it's preposterous that the small country of Singapore, only a little larger than the city of Toronto, could be the model for vast and populous China. But on a visit in 1978 to Singapore – and to its prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew – Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of China, was taken by surprise. He realized that a small Chinese community, 75 per cent of the country's population, was not terribly excited by the visit of the ruler of the ostensible centre of their great civilization. They had a confidence of their own.
Mr. Deng learned that well-paid workers, civil servants who were not corrupt, foreign investors who paid taxes, good city planning, clean air, low crime, congestion charges for road use, officials who were not chronically subjected to purges, accommodation of Malay and South Asian minorities (both Muslim and Hindu), and a prime minister who was only mildly dictatorial were all quite compatible with prosperity and order.
Of course, the People's Republic of China could not be made into Mr. Lee's Singapore, as if by simply putting it under an extremely powerful magnifying glass. But Mr. Deng's visit and Mr. Lee's influence can be fairly said to have changed China and the world.
Mr. Lee, who died last week, was not always so self-assured. He almost panicked in 1965 when the rulers of the rest of the nascent country of Malaysia (the "-si-" was for Singapore) decided that Singapore was too distinct a society for them.
Going his own way, he created a remarkable economic success story, but with a democratic deficit. However, unlike other authoritarian rulers who claimed to be inspired by Mr. Lee, he at least kept to the bounds he had set. There was no bloodshed or banishment, no purges or prison camps, and hardly any corruption. But neither was there freedom of assembly, an open Internet or a free press.
Which may explain why, on the day of Mr. Lee's funeral a 16-year-old, Amos Yee, posted a video on YouTube called "Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead!" Not surprisingly for Singapore, the boy has been arrested and charged for "a deliberate intention of wounding religious or racial feelings."
It's time for a post-Lee Singapore to finally let go of heavy-handed paternalism, and grant its people more freedom. Singapore's authoritarian streak isn't the cause of its prosperity.