Doing change like Lee Kuan Yew

A young, stern, Lee Kuan Yew, hammering out a nation. [Photo source: The Straits Times]

By Joe America

Over the years, I’ve written blogs that look for “big easy” solutions to the congestion in Manila. They typically end up recommending the relocation of commerce out of Manila to places like Clark, Cebu, and Mindanao.

The root of Manila’s problem is the nation’s poverty and all the people who head to the big city to look for work. They find squalor, the cheapest shacks available, drugs for relief, and low-end jobs in transportation or retail. The economy is built from the bottom up, and it is a dirty, sloppy, congested mess.

Today there are a lot of top-down workers there, too. They drive the nice cars on the road. Managers of call centers and businesses, bosses of this or that, bankers, business owners, lawyers, government honchos, retired rich people and the like. And there are a lot of middle class workers who are employed doing the work.

The ‘big easy’ solution

A wild, radical, quick and easy solution would be to ban anyone with a family income of less than P12,000 a month from living in Manila.

Poof. Keep the income, get rid of the congestion and the low-end economy and shine the city up. End the drug problem. Issue permits for exceptions (students, the ill, etc.).

It would require that jobs be created elsewhere whilst doing this. A national work program, perhaps. Roadwork and cleaning, trash hauling, latrine cleaning, painting things, planting things, building this or that . . . low end jobs, really, that the government can subsidize to create a lot of them.

Well, Clark’s “Green City” is an actual step in the direction of de-congesting Manila but, like building a subway, it is so slowwwww due to legal conflicts and negotiations and finding investors willing to take the plunge. And the time it takes to build buildings in the Philippine style, one bag of cement at a time.

But the pain is now.

We do need big solutions. Bold ones. Now.

And so I nod, noting that the President is an authoritarian and authoritative kind of guy who is willing to take big picture action even if people die for it. The thought slowly arises, drifts up from the foggy bottom of ideas, takes shape, and I wonder if we could actually “do it like Singapore”? Specifically, “do it like Lee Kuan Yew did it”.

“Do it like Singapore, like Lee Kuan Yew!!”

Many Filipinos recite how Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) was a dictator (he wasn’t) and had the power to make good change happen (he did). Senator Cayetano would have us believe Manila is like Singapore today (it isn’t). But LKY actually took the big, bold steps that built Singapore from a pit of racial strife, economic malaise, and corruption into a healthy, rich, modern city-state. Along the way, he got bonus results. Singaporeans became better educated and informed, enjoyed a better standard of living, had better medical care, and lived longer.

Let’s talk about that. Filipinos generally only know the big picture about Singapore’s success. Let’s get into some specifics. What exactly DID LKY do starting way back in the 1960’s?

  • He established clear big, bold goals: end corruption, get unemployment down by industrializing, and provide housing for everyone.
  • He rejected populist programs. He established meritocracy and multi-racism as core principles. He mandated bi-lingualism in the schools to underpin commerce (English) and retain the native languages (Mandarin, Malay, or other Chinese language).
  • He linked the salaries of top government officials and judges to the salaries of top professionals in the private sector to help recruit and keep the best talent in government.
  • He passed the “Prevention of Corruption Act” and established effective enforcement through the “Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau”. The Bureau had the power to conduct searches, make arrests, investigate bank accounts, and take other steps that gave it teeth. The head of that Bureau reported directly to LKY.
  • He expanded public housing dramatically, from 22,975 units in 1959 to 667,575 in 1990.
  • He worked with communists rather than against them.
  • He built up the armed forces and established military alliance with Taiwan for training. He implemented conscription requiring that all able bodied men age 18 and over serve in National Services or the Armed Forces.
  • To expand the economy, LKY set out to build a manufacturing and financial services base, welcoming foreign investments and multinational corporations. He built modern roads and transportation infrastructure and “sold” Singapore to major corporations as a modern gateway to Asia (the “Garden City”). It took about 15 year for this vision to come to fruition.
  • He introduced a “stop at two” family planning campaign to keep Singapore’s population from outpacing economic growth. He used economic and education “disincentives” for families that had more than two children. The program was so successful that, 30 years later, Singapore started offering incentives to encourage more babies.
  • He introduced two very controversial social programs:
    • He believed in corporal punishment and established a caning program that now punishes 43 offenses involving personal violence. Drug addiction is among the crimes punishable by caning. Corporal punishment is permitted in schools and in the military.
    • In 1983 he encouraged Singapore men to seek wives who were highly educated and established a Social Development Unit that helped match people up. He did not like that Singapore had so many unmarried, well-educated women.

Well, Boy Howdy, LKY received a lot of criticism along the way. But he weathered it, and ran a tight, disciplined ship. He limited public protests, controlled media, and took political opponents to court (for libel). The people had confidence in his work, based on results, and kept him in power.

Are you willing to be so bold?

You see, bold is upsetting. It does change things.

Interestingly, though, we also have a situation in the Philippines that can be viewed as opportunistic: the Duterte authoritarian style and people’s acceptance of that style. Many consider it bad, but it may be good. What would it take for the Philippines to “do a Lee Kuan Yew”.

Right now, President Duterte is wasting his political capital fighting drugs rather than building an economy, and he is putting a lot of risk into his relationship with China. He says he employs the “best and brightest” but seems to have hired lackeys who spin their messages to protect him rather than deal above-board. He kills citizens and brags about it. He sends investors off shaking their heads “no” rather than nodding “yes”.

He is a populist, using propaganda to paste over his weaknesses.

President Duterte is not Lee Kuan Yew by temperament, policy, or deed.

But . . . but . . .

If the Philippines is indeed going to “be like Singapore”, maybe government . . .  and we . . .  need to re-calibrate our thinking about how the President’s autocratic methods can be applied smarter and more purposefully to “do it like Singapore”.

Bigly. Boldly.


Toward goals other than drugs, giving away resources to China, or taking care of the Marcos family.

Toward a big, bold solution to Manila’s congestion, filth, and crime. I think drugs would dramatically diminish if the city were cleaned up starting with the desperate at the bottom and the corrupt at the top. Reducing drug usage would be a bonus result from taking care of the REAL problem.

* * * * * * *


72 Responses to “Doing change like Lee Kuan Yew”
  1. Marilet Meris says:

    Radical. But doable. I hope somebody from this government takes heed.

  2. karlgarcia says:

    a notch below torture and two notches below ejk, if caning decongests jails then I am for it.

    • Indeed. Good offsetting benefit considering how inhumane PH jail conditions are.

    • sonny says:

      Karl, if memory serves me right, the U-turns at certain places at EDSA decongested traffic bottlenecks. My impression is ’twas Bayani Fernando’s prob&solution as MMDA chief. Wanted: same kind of thinking? How did Marikina fare under the Fernandos? My idea: offer prize-money for all-comers from civil engineers (students & firms), finance-majors, urban-planning would-be professionals; objective: submit solution – HOW TO DECONGEST METROMANILA. Maybe deep-pockets people (Loida Nicolas & Manny Pangilinan or equivalent consortiums of individuals come to mind) resource the prize-money. I can dream, can’t I?

      • sonny says:

        Chempo resurrected this idea. He mentioned “parallel thinking/problem-solving.” 🙂

      • karlgarcia says:

        He could have been a good vp to Gordon, but they were not meant to be.
        They don’t have the machinery and support, Gordon was known as a results guy, not withstanding his hothead, Fernando was attached to Arroyo.(Minus the support)
        Insert Candidate Blank with most of their pluses and less of their minuses, then we have a winning team, not just a dream team.

    • Sabtang Basco says:

      Caning, stoning, beheading and in public would be good educational entertainment. But first, you have to pass thru the Cardinals and Archbishops.

      • karlgarcia says:

        Catholic pressure is a myth. If there is a will, there is a way. No noise prevents a determined sanamagan from doing what he wants. Pag gusto me paraan, pag ayaw me dahilan.

  3. Sup says:

    like Lee Kuan Yew was called strongmen right?

    Maybe the Philippines needs some strong women for the change needed?

    Just saw the Comelec chief cry on TV….who else can make a Comelec chief cry on nationwide tv other than his wjfe?


    SALN improves the Lie-ability off politicians…..

  4. The problem with Duterte is his mental inflexibility. His anti-drug solution is a Mayor’s Band-Aid, something many have already done.

    Meanwhile Customs caught shabu but lost a major part I have read – dibay-dibay that hitting how many neighborhoods for how long?

    Decongest Manila means make other cities and the countryside more attractive also. Tall order, hard work – Filipinos prefer action flicks.

  5. Sup says:

    i try to follow the senate hearing….headache….80% is in Chinese…Is this the Philippine future?

  6. Bill In Oz says:

    Somethings to think about :
    1 Lee Kuan Yew was running a city state..3-4 million people..The Philippines is 110 million. So a hugely different order of magnitude.

    2 : LKY ensured that Singapore had tight border controls. Hippies were not welcome. The poor jobless from Malaysia & Indonesia were not allowed in. And dissidents were happily shown the door to some other country such as Australia. ( I knew quite a few Singaporese in the 1960 & 70’s who came to Oz because they were too ‘radical’. They got student visas and stayed on afterwards.)

    3 : Even today in modern progressive Singapore, unskilled laborers entering Singapore are controlled. The have to have contracts with companies. And they cannot bring their families, They are but temporary residents while they work there. Modern China uses the same control measures to limit population growth in it’s cities. Migrant workers in the cities do not have residence permits. And families stay in the villages back in the provinces. The authorities that run Manilla need o introduce similar restrictions.

    • No question, Singapore is strict. The Philippines for sure has bigger problems, but I would focus strictly on Manila for the radical methods suggested here. A single-minded determination to clean the place up and move people out.

    • chemrock says:

      I think Joe is basically making a reference to Spore as an example that Manila too can prosper if we just have good no nonsense leadership who roll up their sleeves and get to work. There is no reason why Manila can’t do it.

      1. When referring LKY there is inevitably the argument that he could’nt have scaled it for Philippines. Sure Philippines is hugely bigger with bigger problems, but there are advantages over Spore. There are huge natural resources, Spore had none, absolutely nothing, in fact a good 1/4 of the island was covered with marshes . Philippines has a sizeable population, hence there is economies of scale for lots of ventures, we had a tiny population. We can go on with lots of comparatives. It’s situational, one just had to make the best of it.
      2. The hippy culture was viewed as decaydent at the time, and I think rightly so.
      3. Control over migrant workers — Spore is physically so tiny. Our prosperity attracted labourers from neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia in the early days. Without controls our tiny island could have literally sunk under the weight of migrant labourers. I think tight controls are natural in many other situations. Look at Australia and the crazy tight control you have at immigration on food items being carried into the country.

      As Lance pointed out in another comment in another blog, leaders and all citizens have equal roles to play to push the country forward. The credit to LKY boils down to his leadership and capability to sell his ideas to the people who co-operated. LKY did not take credit for everything. He valued talents and tapped the brains of local borns and foreign inputs. He welcomed ideas, including from lots of foreign experts of various fields. In Philippines we have 2 major problems at the moment — (1) the nation is way too divisive, (2) the stickiness of the idea of sovereignty prevents political willingness to listen to other experts.

      • Chem, you nailed it. The point is the commitment to success. If the PH has special issues, solve them.

        I’ve noted before that my first wife is Singaporean and her mother was a part of LKY’s bold family planning program. The pressure was just huge, and she was pleased to retire to go teach in Hawaii. Singapore was no easy walk in the park, nor would the PH be.

      • sonny says:

        “He welcomed ideas, including from lots of foreign experts of various fields. …”

        Chempo, this was part of the Meiji restoration program, I believe: rich Japan, strong Japan.

        • chemrock says:

          Sonny, we have a special programme called LKY Distinguished Visitors’ Programme. The last great brain power we tapped into was Antonin Scalia in 2016.

          You might wish to see who were invited since 1983 ….

          LKY had several trusted, capable, brilliant leutenants from the same ideological pool, one of whom was our first deputy premier Dr Goh Keng Swee, an economist. Dr Goh once famously told his subordinates…. whatever problem we have, someone else somewhere has already thought about it, let’s learn from them and tweak it to our needs.

          No great invention came about out of the blue suddenly. It came about by incremental steps. There is no shame in building from someone’s work, as long as contributions are recognised and appreciated.

          • sonny says:

            Thank you, chempo. Sadly, it seems the present collection of leaders are less inclined to use this proven truism of build upon shoulders of giants in the past. IMO.

      • “As Lance pointed out in another comment in another blog, leaders and all citizens have equal roles to play to push the country forward”


        I would add the ability of lower, or lesser leaders, elected officials, in our case state governors and city mayors, to effectively go around the national leader, executive branch, ie. Trump’s climate change policy.

        CA Gov. Brown (a Democrat), under Pres. Obama (Democrat), opened up off shore drilling and fracking in California, there was next to no push-back, but because Trump’s now seen as denying climate change, now everyone’s closely looking at off-shore drilling and fracking over here now.

        NH, what would be the physics equivalent, Fermat’s principle or simply this,

    • Sabtang Basco says:

      Singapore is city-state of immigrants like the U.S.
      Those that immigrated to these two countries accept the fact they are visitors and visitors should follow the house rules not their rules where they came from.

      Philippines is not a land of immigrants despite their textbooks falsely say it is a “melting pot of Asia”. No, Philippines is not a melting pot. It is a country run by minority colonists lording over Filipinos like Americans over Native Indians.

      Filipinos like Native Indians never progress. Both believe it is their land and nobody should be telling them what to do and how they do it.

  7. madlanglupa says:

    Singapore is an island and hence LKY was able to carry out many of his programs, but scaling all of his accomplishments of a “nanny” state to a country many times bigger is an impossibility without having like-minded officials from the barangay level up to provincial governor (we’re still plagued with autocratic politicians), as well as greater policing and military powers. To make things complicated, illiteracy is rampant hence making it difficult for some people to understand laws and rules.

    • Focus just on Manila. There are a LOT of literate people. Many of the illiterates would be moved out if the programs were structured to provide low-wage jobs elsewhere.

      • madlanglupa says:

        The real problem are the politicians, they do love to make use of anything just to add more years in office or allow their relatives and families to run for office. This includes allowing informal settlers to set up houses in exchange for votes and handouts.

      • josephivo says:

        And what is Manila? Many resettlement programs of the past created similar poverty stricken areas just outside Metro Manila. Look at Bacoor, Imus, Dasmariñas, GMA just to name a few neighboring municipalities in the south. Send them to Mindanao again to dilute the Muslim population?

        Low-wage opportunities are very limited, competing with Bangladesh in unsafe sweatshops? Stop automation and return to manual jobs in the electronic industry? Send back the concrete mixers and road laying machines and do all roadwork by hand again?

        Makati without slums means Binay without voters…

        Pull or push?

        • josephivo says:

          Forgot to add that the traffic problems on Aguinaldo high way and many other roads in Cavite are as bad as on EDSA.

        • A fine argument to accept the status quo, throw up our hands and wail “why me, o’ lord”, and let that be our solution.

          • Sup says:

            Maybe a little drop in the water but please stop those yearly anniversary celebrations for it takes to much money/ time and traffic from the regular work time .
            BIR 113 year with Duterte, today 116 year PNP with Duterte (and Erap) Etc. Etc. Etc.
            Other countries do not celebrate yearly..
            Other countries also don’t give medals by a president, a representative will do the trick.
            All those celebrations are in Manila (Most of them anyway)
            The President and all higher ranking can spend so much more time doing important things for the country…right?

          • josephivo says:

            No, learn from what the Trump opposition is doing in the US. Unite, contact your local politicians to tell what you want.

            The people with (potential) power exist. What are the enlightened majors, governors? Try to identify, then organize support.

            Don’t be afraid of odd coalitions for partial objectives (excluding fanatics as ISIS).

      • josephivo says:

        The solution needs many initiatives. Starting by having the investors for all new towers and subdivisions paying for the surrounding infrastructure, including efficient public transport. Also defining maximum densities per area/barangay and demolishing everything that exceeds the norm. Implement the contraception laws and penalize parents of pregnant minors. Increase dramatically the tax on cars and petrol and invest the money in efficient public transport – buses with priority lanes and defined stops, f*ck the individual cars. Fast track potent appropriation laws to speed up infrastructure works and passages through subdivisions… List is endless and all to be done in parallel and at once.

        • You are hired. You could do it like LKY. If only the current leadership were not so defensive and single-minded.

        • chemrock says:

          If we are looking at city level, one idea is twinning. But not Binay’s selfish idea of twinning for political gains. I’m talking twinning for real growth and development. One way is for a weak city to find a stronger one who is willing to assist in various ways. If possible, even go for a foreign city where there can be some degrees of trade off for future benefits. I’m not quite sure whether the laws of Philippines permit this. Malaysia allowed this and it encouraged a lot of co-operation between Singapore and Johore (the Malaysian state closes to Singapore). Many Johore-Singapore initiatives need not have to go for Federal approval. If Philippines law permits, and if I were a small city mayor, I’ll twin with say Tokyo, or Singapore, or others, someone out there who is willing to assist and who could benefit from what my small town can offer.

  8. andrewlim8 says:

    Has anybody noticed that the two atomic bombs dropped in Japan were nicknamed Fat Man and Little Boy, and they could very well refer to Trump and Kim Jong un?

    • edgar lores says:

      Who’s the Fat Man? Kim or Trump?

    • Sabtang Basco says:

      Donald Trump met his match, Kim Jong Un. It is fun to watch these insane “leaders” at each other using their big mouths.

      What are ya gonna do, Trump? Are you gonna do it?

  9. edgar lores says:

    …And LKY accomplished all of that without butchery!

  10. josephivo says:

    It is more than just the leader, the right beliefs are more important than the choice of the type of government.

    Look at the economic miracles of Singapore, Korea, Japan and China, all of them initiated by the central governments, none by the free market. Not the few rich individuals but the community was seen be the priority. What is good for SM (mega malls) or Jolibee (fast food) is not always good for the Philippines.

    Not the economists, not the financiers will drive the change. Leaders with assertiveness are needed, with the belief that change is possible and the belief in processes. People with an engineering, military or business background are required, not trapos, economists or lawyers.

    Reduce inequalities. The rich invest most where it is the safest, thus abroad, the poor consume next door and make the local economy boom.

  11. I am not doubting the solution, just wondering. If Manila was like Singapore, would you live there? A wise man said 400 years ago: “He who is tired of Manila, is tired of life”. Lee Kuan Yew did marvellous things, but…

    • Bill In Oz says:

      Mathew your wise man does not live in Manila NOW. Now for most who live there it is a noisy, over crowded, polluted pain in the arse.

    • Ah, very good, Matthew. Maybe we’d retain fireworks and put the Baywalk back and have more ice skating rinks and a big museum. It bears thinking about, so the pearl shines the soul a bit. Thanks for that point.

    • sonny says:

      The man can get out of Manila but Manila cannot get out of the man, I say.

      • As for Joe’s proposed experiment, I don’t think Manila is it.

        You have to compare like with like, and the closest i know of , to Singapore , would be Cebu island. island for island.

        Both enjoy a certain percentage of homogeneity (Visayans), yet have diversity too, deep quiet ports, yet easy access with other islands , not strangers to foreign investors, also that sea lane between the southern tip of Cebu and north Mindanao is where US Navy ships (and i’m sure Australian too) ply, so open to int’l sea traffic.

        No one’s yet considered Cebu, for this Singaporean experiment. the question is who’s the guy/gal from Cebu that’ll be LKY?

        • Sabtang Basco says:

          What is holding Philippine progress are the last-remaining left-over old Filipinos that romanticized their nationalism and patriotism with the idea Filipinos can do it.

          The next generation Filipinos will create a well-planned city like Taguig City. Businesses are already moving away from gridlocked Makati to Taguig’s planned Global City. As what Donald Trump said to let Obamacare Implode and build from the destruction. Metro Manila is imploding. Out of that implosion will be satellite cities.

          Metro Manila cannot be re-invented and re-engineered. Many are already comfortable with the pollution, traffic gridlock and the stench of unplanned progress. Eventually these people will move out. They cannot move to Taguig because of strict city ordinances. They will move someplace or stay in place. They will rot. Manila will never be no more.

          The key to Philippines traffic gridlock is city planning. Filipinos should not try their hand in City Planning. They tried it for several decades, they failed and they keep failing. It is time to seek experts from abroad before they get overtaken by other third world countries.

    • Sabtang Basco says:

      I am tired of Manila, I moved out so I will not get tired of life.

  12. NHerrera says:

    Why can’t Manila’s problem be as simple as KJU’s nuclear missile problem? 🙂

    • Sabtang Basco says:

      It is not as simple as what you say. NK has the brain power. They have the technology. They can make NK better, stronger. They have the capability to make the first third world country’s atomic bomb faster better than before.

      Filipinos “sent” satellite to space. If Filipinos had followed the news, it was actually the Japanese that sent first Philippine satellite to space. Fake news.

  13. Sabtang Basco says:

    Here are whys the traffic gridlock
    1. Extremely poor City Planning
    2. Industries are concentrated not dispersed
    3. Population explosion caused by anti-prophylactic religious backlash

    1. Increase vehicle taxes to the point Filipinos cannot afford it like in Singapore
    2. Stop issuing jeepney franchises
    3. Copy Uber & Lyft vehicle transport requirement
    4. Disperse industries
    5. Free condoms, IUDs and morning after pills
    6. LRT+BRT+MRT

    • karlgarcia says:

      In addition.
      Limit car ages to ten.
      Make future house construction good for three vehicles.
      For those with no garage don’t buy cars.
      Franchises are aleady limited,the problems are the colurums.
      Disperse industries after fixing the transport problem.
      Road widening can’t happen because of the posts network system nationwide. You look at Silang Cavite, you see widen roads with posts intact so what is the use of road widening?
      Progress? NIMBY, photobombers ,and history.

      • Sabtang Basco says:

        They widened road and not moving the electrical post? Now, that is brilliant! Funny brilliant.

        • karlgarcia says:

          In other places, establishments had their parking slots removed due to road widening, so just tow them everyday till kingdom come.

  14. Mr Freddy and Mrs Lourdes Oeij says:

    Why don’t you go into politics? You seem to know what the solution is for the Philippines. If a well intentioned leader like President Duterte is encountering problems from the oligarchs, the elite, the meddling Catholic Church, the Yellowtards, the media, the interfering Western World and so on let’s see how anyone can surpass what President Duterte has accomplished to date and deliver even better results. The Filipino people have given his administration the vote of confidence in the recent May 2019 elections, are you saying that these voters did not use their good judgement? . Do you think a one term president can achieve all his objectives? It took LKY and his govt to turn Singapore around from 1959 up to now (approximately 60 years) Same govt mind you!
    The Philippines is not a speed boat that you turn around in a jiffy. The Philippines is more like an aircraft carrier that needs more time to turn around.

    • Okay, thank you for representing the view from Duterte backers, which I will not attempt to refute because my experience is that most backers are stuck defending their choices even if thousands are dead without due process or investigations, drugs are more prevalent and cheaper than before, the seas have been turned over to China without protest, and investors are going to other nations with less corruption, less red tape, and more reliable decisions from leaders. The one-term argument is a good one, though, and therein lies the real tragedy, that you and millions of other Filipinos did not see that view as the nation was on the rise under Aquino, and could be THE rising star of Asia, but for all the propaganda and lies dispensed by those backing China and Duterte.

      And kindly remove ‘tards’ from your vocabulary, as it is rude and offensive to many. I’m sure you don’t want to be known as a rude name-caller who insults those with mental health issues.

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