During that half century it has been a model microstate. How is it faring today?
On paper, very well. The governing People’s Action Party (PAP) of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s modern founder, won 83 of 89 contested seats in parliament and captured nearly 70 per cent of the vote in elections last September.
It was its best performance since 1991 for the party, which has governed continuously since Singapore became a sovereign nation.
“It was a good result for the PAP, but an excellent result for Singapore,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a son of the founder, remarked.
The country’s main political opposition, the Workers’ Party, retained six members in parliament, the same number it had won in the 2011 election.
Lee Kuan Yew’s “Singapore model” was a mix of semi-authoritarian, one-party rule; meticulous urban planning; laissez-faire economic policies; low taxes; and imported foreign talent.
His developmental state would ensure collective prosperity, premised upon social peace between its ethnic groups, and cooperative attitudes from labour unions and individual workers towards nation-building programs.
The island also enjoyed a strategic location at the crossroads between the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, and the little nation of 719 square kilometres became an international business and financial center.
Singapore has flourished, and it has consistently been ranked among the top five most competitive and globalized states in the world.
Lee, who died in March 2015, became prime minister in 1959, when the island became a self-governing British colony. He led Singapore into a federation with Malaya, in 1963.
After Singapore left the federation of Malaysia in 1965, Lee took the helm again as the leader of an independent nation until 1990, when he stepped down.
He was a proponent of so-called “Asian values,” in which the good of society takes precedence over the rights of the individual and citizens cede some autonomy in return for paternalistic rule.
Lee suppressed political opposition and imposed strict limits on free speech and public assembly. He was adept at filing libel suits that sometimes drove his opponents into bankruptcy.
The loss of personal freedoms in exchange for order and prosperity — the country has, at $56,000, one of the highest per capita incomes in the world — was a trade-off broadly accepted by older Singaporeans.
But among younger people, expectations are changing. Free-speech advocates have long criticized Singapore’s tight curbs on expression, but officials insist laws prohibiting the incitement of ethnic hatred are important for maintaining harmony in the country’s diverse population.
The island’s largest ethnic group is Chinese, who comprise almost three-quarters of the population. Another 14.3 per cent are Malay, and 9.2 per cent Indian.
Buddhism is the most widely practised religion in Singapore, at 33 per cent, followed by Christianity (19 per cent), Islam (14 per cent), Taoism (11 per cent) and Hinduism (5 per cent).
Lee promoted the use of English as the language of business and the common tongue among the ethnic groups, while recognizing Malay, Mandarin and Tamil as other official languages.
Battling a low birthrate, the government allowed an increase in foreign workers over the last decade and a half. Non-resident immigrants and permanent residents now make up 39 per cent of the nation’s 5.6 million people.
In March, a Japanese-Australian woman was sentenced to a 10-month jail term over blog posts that besmirched foreigners in the city-state. The articles “were intended from the outset to provoke unwarranted hatred against foreigners in Singapore,” District Judge Salina Ishak said.
A few years ago, Stanford University political scientist Larry Diamond observed that, “Singapore is the most economically developed non-democracy in the history of the world.”
But Singapore is changing, as debates over political rights and obligations, national identity, the rights of immigrants, and economic priorities continue to determine its future.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.