By Ying-kit Chan
When Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of independent Singapore, passed away on March 23, 2015, some Singaporeans, amidst a nationwide outpouring of grief, wondered if his death would destabilize the nation or have an impact on their future. This may sound absurd to foreign observers. Yet for many Singaporeans, it is a legitimate question, given that Lee created Singapore out of his unique view of the world. Even after Lee’s retirement from actual policymaking in 1990, his visions of personal excellence and national progress continue to shape the mainstream bureaucratic opinion about how the nation should be run.
Contrary to popular opinion, Lee did not have absolute power over Singaporean politics. For one, Lee knew that many of his views were controversial, and only revealed them in his memoirs after he had retired from active politics. One of the few ideas Lee let loose before stepping down from premiership was that IQ is hereditary and largely immutable. To him, IQ manifests itself in academic performance and the caliber to govern a nation. Good genes breed merit, which is essentially synonymous with intelligence and implanted in a person from birth. Genes make elites out of children and adults. Genes determine who would succeed in life and staff his meritocratic government. His revelation came long after the tumultuous phase of nation building in the 1960s and 70s. With his political acumen and keen sense of the situation, Lee knew that stating his personal opinions explicitly would risk censure or create a divide in the society. After all, it took him and his aides-de-camp quite a while to construct the nation from an amalgam of racial categories created by the British colonial authorities.
Lee was educated in the finest British tradition and could have inherited some of the Victorian-era assumptions about class, gender, and race in his thinking. No foolproof method exists to prove this nebulous thing we call “influence,” but knowing about Lee’s background may be instrumental to understanding how he had arrived at some of his most controversial views later in life.
In the 1940s, Lee received prestigious scholarships to attend Raffles College (Singapore) and the London School of Economics for a while before transferring to the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), where he graduated with First Class Honors in Law. He returned to Singapore in 1950 armed, as historian Michael D. Barr observes, with Arnold J. Toynbee’s progressivist ideas and cyclical view of history. Toynbee was a professor at the London School of Economics, famous for his magnum opus A Study of History, which discussed how the rise, progress, and decline of civilizations stemmed from the leadership of creative minorities composed of elite leaders. Toynbee asserted that a successful civilization was one in which its established elites could respond creatively to challenges. When these elites failed to cope with crises, new elites took over and revitalized the civilization through means that were more creative than those of their predecessors. Since his party the People’s Action Party (PAP) came to office in 1959, Lee had regularly quoted Toynbee’s “Challenge and Response” thesis in cabinet meetings. Dismissing the fatalism of Toynbee’s argument, Lee believed in a pattern of behavior whereby ruling elites can perpetuate themselves by staying creative and adapting adequately to new challenges.
An elite himself, Lee wanted his children to become elites too. He sent his sons first to Chinese-medium schools and then to the University of Cambridge in the 1970s. Despite the popularity of the Beatles at the time, Lee’s sons maintained their crew cut without him instructing them to do so. He attributed this to their Chinese upbringing. Lee had been an excellent student. His sons were equally successful in college. He attributed this to their good genes. Later in the 1990s, he would pass his opinions off as “Asian Values,” a set of thinly veiled Confucian ideas about how economic success of a nation could be attained through the dominance of altruistic elites, who were naturally endowed and nurtured from a young age to succeed and lead a compliant and diligent populace.
To Lee, intelligence is 80 percent nature and 20 percent nurture. As early as the late 1960s, just a few years after Singapore’s independence in 1965, Lee revealed his views on the relationship between genes and talent. In one of his speeches, he argued that unless the better-educated citizens reproduced at a higher rate, the future of their progeny would be at stake because less economically productive people—the “social delinquents”—would live off the nation’s scarce resources. In his National Day speech in 1983, Lee made his ideas about heredity, intelligence, and their implications for future social policies explicit. Convinced that the innate qualities of elite Singaporeans had created and sustained the nation’s impressive economic growth, Lee stated that his government would sift out the talented students through the educational system and focus its limited resources on grooming them for economic, political, and social leadership in adulthood. In his opinion, these selected few should constitute no more than five percent of the entire population. Approximately 150 of them would form the core of political leadership and steer the nation toward further progress. Beginning with education, Lee instituted in 1984 the Gifted Education Program (GEP), which held the Ministry of Education responsible for recognizing exceptionally intelligent students and developing a special, high-level curriculum to educate them and develop their learning potential.
In 1984, the Singaporean government also launched the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme to boost fertility among married, educated women and a sterilization program to decrease fertility among the uneducated. The government prioritized college-educated mothers for housing and their child’s school admissions and subsidized their deliveries in hospitals. As sociologist J. John Palen points out, such programs emphasized the educational level of the wife rather than that of the husband. According to official figures released in 1983, 69 percent of Singaporean men with tertiary education married wives with a lower educational level. The government hoped to rectify this “problem” by ensuring that both marriage partners would be degree holders in order to pass their genes forward to the next generation.
In the 1960s and 70s, Singapore had requested parents to “stop at two” to curb overpopulation, and a series of government incentives and disincentives in family planning led to low birthrates in the 1980s. Lee was alarmed that as of 1983, 16 percent of graduate women remained single compared to 5 percent of men. Also in 1984, the government set up the Social Development Unit (SDU), which organized dating activities such as all-expenses-paid-for love-boat cruises and social events akin to mass matchmaking sessions for graduates to interact with fellow graduates of the opposite sex. The National University of Singapore, then the nation’s only university, was instructed to even out the male-female student ratio to create dating opportunities for both male and female undergraduates. The second component of the eugenic-based policy, the sterilization program, offered married women whose educational level was not beyond junior high school and whose monthly household income was less than 750 Singaporean dollars a grant of 10,000 Singaporean dollars to undergo sterilization of their own accord.
There was a backlash against these pro-natalist programs which favored college graduates. Thousands of female polytechnic students signed petitions and wrote articles to the government-controlled local newspapers critical of these programs (that the editors decided to publish such pieces was remarkable). Unmarried female college graduates themselves were frustrated with the government for publicly airing their singlehood and implicitly accusing them of prioritizing their own interests over national ones. They argued that the root of the problem was deeply structural, complaining that their juggling of both career and family duties was difficult in the implicitly patriarchal Singaporean society. They said that this was compounded by a lack of empathy for their difficulties from their male Singaporean counterparts. In fact, male Singaporeans had unflatteringly joked that SDU implied “single, desperate, and ugly.” In the General Election of December 1984, the PAP won only 64.8 percent of the votes—a plunge of 12.9 percent from its share of votes in the previous election, possibly as a result of their intervention into family planning. As Palen observes, there also appeared to be widespread, but never publicly acknowledged suspicion among the Indian and Malay minority groups that the government implemented the new programs to produce more Chinese, who were generally more educated and hence were the programs’ target audience.
The widespread discontent among the populace forced Lee and his government to generally scale down their pro-natalist programs and specifically disband the sterilization program. In the late 1980s, the government decided that it also needed citizen-workers of lower educational backgrounds to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign manual labor and extended the pro-natalist programs to include all mothers. As the number of migrant workers in Singapore rose during the 1980s and 90s, Singaporeans began to stereotype these workers by linking them to higher crime rates and the spread of contagious diseases. True to its elitist slant, the Singaporean government tacitly believed that most children of lowly educated workers would take up manual jobs as adults. However, birth rates across the board remained low as Singapore became a highly affluent and consumerist nation where having children, even if subsidized, could be a burdensome, expensive affair for most citizens.
Lee’s idea of eugenics lived on in the education policies even after it wound down the pro-natalist program. The GEP continued into the twenty-first century, now in the guise of the Integrated Program (IP) that allows academically able students to skip the high school final examinations that are required for the mainstream students and directly take their pre-university entrance examinations. Another version of the GEP existed in the streaming exercise for elementary school students, which lasted until 2008: after their fourth year in school, they were streamed into EM1, EM2, and EM3 (English and the Mother Tongue of Chinese, Malay, or Tamil as first, second, and third languages respectively). Speaking from his own difficult experience of learning Mandarin Chinese, Lee concluded that few students would become the all-rounder bicultural, bilingual scholars who can master both English and their own “racial” language. These students, in Lee’s opinion, are genetically endowed or naturally wired to learn multiple languages. The Ministry of Education continues to offer some of the linguistically inclined EM1 students the choice of learning a third language, which can be French, German, Japanese, or Malay.
Despite the 1980s backlash, the inheritability of intelligence remained Lee’s pet topic in the years that followed, and indeed to the end of his life. He described his belief that intelligence is genetically determined as a “hard truth” that has kept Singapore going. In his eyes, no amount of government intervention and social engineering can significantly change a person’s lot in life as it has already been predetermined by the quality of the genes that they are born with. Government officials can equalize opportunity at the starting point for all, but they cannot ensure equal outcomes. For Lee, no reason exists to hold back the would-be financially and socially able for the sake of egalitarianism. In his opinion, the ablest Singaporeans, by virtue of their own success, can bring jobs and distribute the economic surpluses to the less able. Without having to enact a social welfare system, the government can delegate the task of resource redistribution to well-off Singaporeans and the charitable and voluntary organizations.
Yet one may still argue that while Lee was not an egalitarian in terms of his education and reproduction policies, he was one with respect to the distribution of resources in the society. Lee provided lower-end students with extra attention, scholarships, and tuition to ensure a level-playing ground for them, but he still believed that only a few of them could succeed financially, professionally, or socially in life. He wanted to create, in place of a welfare system, a social model in which the amount of property citizens own depends on their capabilities. He achieved his objective by giving housing ownership to citizens, who could have apartments in their name, which would enable them to increase their wealth. A self-professed and widely recognized pragmatist, Lee believed that few would sacrifice for the abstract idea of the nation. He accepted human nature as it is and based his system around it. From his perspective, Singaporeans would only fight for their nation if they had a stake in it.
The Singaporean government’s elitist policies, grounded in eugenicist assumptions, had successfully nurtured some of the brightest students of the nation and attracted them to civil service with overseas college scholarships and “super-scale” salaries that were pegged against top earners in the private sector. However, the social consequences of these policies, while not readily apparent, are dire. The government’s “selective breeding” and perpetuation of college graduates has created an entrenched class of elite bureaucrats and ministers who, in recent years, have been accused by non-PAP politicians and political commentators of having lost their sense of reality and touch with the everyday lives of ordinary Singaporeans whom they are supposed to serve. Many students who excel academically and enroll in the nation’s best schools come from affluent backgrounds and enjoy tuition and other forms of educational and institutional support.
To be fair, this is a phenomenon shared by most societies in the world. However, the Singaporean government is unique in that it justifies the legitimacy of its leadership under the banner of meritocracy, which, in its ideal form, means selecting and empowering political leaders based solely on ability and talent. Officials maintain that every Singaporean student enjoys equal access and opportunity to education, implying that the student’s failure to perform is a personal responsibility. However, as Barr suggests, Lee’s elitist logic endows his government with a false sense of legitimacy. He had designed a political system that produced outcomes that accorded with his preconceived notions. He also used the outcomes to prove that his elitism was correct. Barr presents the example of town councils, which are administrative, territorial units responsible for maintaining public works (partly paid for by residents in their annual payment of service and conservancy charges) and addressing the everyday concerns of residents under their jurisdiction. Lee argued that his government had successfully harnessed the nation’s talent pool, leaving non-ruling parties with less capable and qualified administrators and candidates. He cited the poorly run non-PAP constituencies as evidence that non-PAP politicians were incompetent. However, the Housing and Development Board (HDB), which constructs and maintains the public housing blocks in Singapore, allocates less funds and services to town councils operated by non-PAP members of parliament. The performance of town councils has been a main consideration of the Singaporean electorate, and many voters choose the PAP for its perceived efficiency in running them.
The massive outpouring of grief shown by Singaporeans following the death of Lee Kuan Yew yielded the impression that he had formed a personality cult around himself, and by inference, that Singaporeans were cowed into submission and coerced to vote for the PAP in the elections. According to this logic, Singaporeans were dismissed as an indoctrinated lot whose political timidity was evident in their uncritical support for a regime that had robbed them of their personal freedoms. However, such an opinion denies that Singaporeans, who enjoy high levels of literacy and access to the Internet and social media, have the capacity to make their own informed judgments. It may be safe to say that Singaporeans have traded in some of their personal liberties for PAP-engineered prosperity and stability, somehow knowing that no perfect formula exists to balance economic liberalism with state control.
The success of the PAP political model is that despite growing income inequality, poor Singaporeans can still share in its prosperity and enjoy the benefits of economic growth in the form of cash payouts, health subsidies, and tax exemptions. Some of the foreign investment that enters the economy does trickle down to the population. Most Singaporeans genuinely believe that their government is more good than bad. In elections, even disgruntled Singaporeans agree that while they should teach the PAP a lesson by casting their vote to the opposition, they should also ensure that the PAP receives enough votes to stay in power. One common reason voters give for supporting the PAP, which has a penchant for fielding candidates with master’s and even doctorate degrees, is that the opposition candidates are too “weak,” which essentially refers to these candidates’ weaker academic credentials. This presents a glaring example of how Singaporeans have internalized Lee and the PAP’s ideology—a flimsy linkage as it stands—that qualifications indicate not only intelligence but also the caliber to govern a nation.
In an article written for The Washington Post, political scientist Kenneth Paul Tan describes how Singapore is adjusting its meritocratic system in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. In recent years, the Singaporean government has begun to acknowledge the possible association of meritocracy with elitism and sought to broaden its definition of talent to include the talent displayed in, say, liberal arts and other non-technocratic pursuits. As it stands, however, bureaucratic inertia exists to ensure that the meritocratic system with its elitist (or, even more fundamentally, eugenicist) underpinnings can only be tweaked and never be overhauled, for it legitimates the position of the ministers who are considering their own improvement. At least the system they have been running, regardless of its imperfections, is still running, and they have little reason to upset the status quo.
The idea of giftedness—in our case, the gift of genes—remains a scary proposition to have, even if it is now made less explicit. As Pierre Bourdieu mentions, it entraps the underprivileged classes in predetermined roles by making them “aware” of their “inability” that is a result of an inferior social status. In other words, a whole generation of Singaporeans, especially those who spent their adolescent years during what geographers and sociologists call the “eugenics phase” of Singapore in the 1980s, were persuaded that they owed their social fate to their individual nature and lack of gifts. It may be stretching the narrative too far to call them a “lost generation,” but it was possible that many children at the time, especially those who were branded as “EM3” students with learning difficulties, had been brought up thinking that they were intellectually inferior and should be content with their lot in life. The government might have scaled down or fine-tuned its educational system to downplay its elitist and eugenicist overtones, but certain perceptions have lived on.
In 2003, the Singaporean government launched Biopolis, a life sciences hub that aims to infuse Singaporean biomedical research institutes with global biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. In doing so, sociologist Catherine Waldby argues, the Singaporean government aimed to “recalibrate the relationships between the biological and political life of the Singaporean population.” Singaporean citizens are designated as the chief tissue donors and research subjects. Biopolis avows to work in the nation’s interest by tracking gene environment interactions in metabolic diseases—the “diseases of Western affluence”—that have developed in the Singaporean population due to rapid industrialization over the past decades. It conducts household visits to take detailed questionnaires regarding diet and family history of diseases. It also gathers volunteers who, for the rest of their lives, have to be followed up every three to five years to track the emergence of metabolic diseases. Only time will tell if Biopolis sticks to its task of helping Singapore move on from its eugenics phase, or whether it too will draw “scientific” links between genes and intelligence.
Ying-kit Chan is a PhD candidate in the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University. He has published several articles on late Qing China and postcolonial Singapore in academic journals, and is researching the federalist movement in Qing-Republican Guangdong Province.