Since Deng Xiaoping visited in 1978, Chinese leaders have looked for lessons in stewardship from Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, a city-state with 0.4 percent the population of China and a landmass about half the size of Shanghai’s Pudong district.
Countries around the world have lavished praise on the Singapore Model -- a state ruled by a single party, defined by robust economic growth, low crime and startling cleanliness -- that brought international renown to Lee, who died Monday. None took Singapore’s example as seriously as China, which sends hundreds of Communist Party cadres to the city-state every year to study it.
“They think that the so-called Singapore model, single-party rule maybe can provide them something to maintain the Communist Party’s rule without losing too much in the process,” said Huang Jing, who has taught classes full of Chinese officials as a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
Echoes of Lee’s influence are evident in China’s economic reform plans, announced in 2013, to allow a greater role for the market while maintaining the party’s grip on power, and in President Xi Jinping’s bid to eliminate rampant corruption. China is also seeking to emulate Singapore’s shift away from a manufacturing boom that put it on the path to growth.
Lee was an “old friend” of the Chinese people and pioneered the nation’s ties with Singapore, Xi said in a telegram to Singapore President Tony Tan, according to a statement on China’s foreign ministry website. “Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was the founder of Singapore, and a strategist and statesman who was widely respected by the international community.”
Lee died at 91 and his body will lie in state at Parliament House from Wednesday after a private family wake, the Prime Minister’s Office said Monday in a statement. A state funeral service on March 29 will be followed by a private cremation ceremony.
Chinese officials frequently express their admiration for Singapore’s blend of authoritarian state-capitalism, its low crime and cleanliness. Deng was the first senior Chinese official to visit Singapore, meeting Lee a month before he was formally named paramount leader at a party gathering in December 1978. It was at that event that Deng gave his backing to reforms that would lead to 30 years of economic growth.
Deng toured Singapore with a 36-member delegation, visiting the country’s Housing Development Board and Jurong Town Corporation to see firsthand Singapore’s public housing and industrialization program.
Xi also praised Singapore in November 2013, when he met with a group of intellectuals in Beijing.
“He did mention that China learned from the Singapore experience in the early days of reform and opening up,” former Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said after attending that meeting. Yeo left the Singapore Cabinet after losing his parliamentary seat in a 2011 election and is now vice chairman of Kerry Group (HK) Pte.
A 2012 article in Study Times, the journal of the Communist Party’s Central Party School, spelled out the reasons China liked the Singapore Model so much. It detailed how Lee’s People’s Action Party set up a system to select talent in a “rigorous, systematic way” and formed grassroots organizations to keep “in close contact with the masses.”
Lee turned Singapore into one of Asia’s wealthiest nations by emphasizing efficiency and incorruptibility, which helped the city lure multinational companies to build a manufacturing sector focused on exports. The government also maintained tight control of major companies, with state-owned investment company Temasek Holdings Pte. holding strategic stakes in businesses from Singapore Airlines Ltd. to DBS Group Holdings Ltd.
Ethnic Chinese make up more than 70 percent of the former British colony’s 5.5 million people, and include Lee, whose great-grandfather emigrated from southern China in the 19th century.
Lee’s own attitude toward China was mixed. In the 2011 book “Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going,” he voiced support for Deng’s decision to unleash the military on unarmed protesters during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. In his 2013 book “One Man’s View of the World,” Lee put Xi in the same class as Nelson Mandela.
Yet he also said China’s creative output would never match that of the U.S. because the Communist Party doesn’t allow the free exchange of ideas. And he chided its leaders for telling others to be more respectful.
“They tell us that countries big or small are equal: we are not a hegemon,” Lee said in the book. “But when we do something they do not like, they say you have made 1.3 billion people unhappy...so please know your place.”
In 2012, Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper reported that China Central Television was preparing a 10-part series on Singapore’s governance. It cited unidentified sources as saying that Xi had personally endorsed the project.
Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, said he was approached by the filmmakers to chat and told them the notions they had about Singapore no longer held, especially after a 2011 ballot in which the PAP won re-election by the smallest margin since it split from Malaysia in 1965.
“They have this idealistic image of Singapore that does not exist in reality,” Bo said, adding that when he told that to the filmmakers, they never contacted him again. “The Singapore model is actually in decline.”
Chinese state media have themselves grappled with that question. An article in the Chinese state-run People’s Daily newspaper acknowledged that China had seen “waves of Singapore fever.” It said Singapore is too small for its model to be copied wholesale.
Nonetheless, the 2012 article left little doubt about China’s respect for the Singapore Model.
“Singapore’s appeal is not restricted to China,” Beijing-based freelancer Huang Shuo wrote. “The person seen by many as having created the economic miracle, Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, is seen by many developing states as their superhero.”