Mr Lee Kuan Yew did not seek to remake only Singapore; he wanted to remake Singaporeans too. His government’s social engineering efforts ranged from changing social habits that were a legacy of coolie ancestors to even, controversially, who should have babies so as to breed talent.
“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens,” he said in 1987. “Had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse ... we would not have made economic progress if we had not intervened on very personal matters.”
To make Singapore “a First World oasis in a Third World region”, he told The New York Times, “we built the infrastructure … The difficult part was getting the people to change their habits so they behaved more like First World citizens, not like Third World citizens spitting and littering all over the place.”
The carrot was used and, more often than not, a big stick.
There were campaigns — more than 200 in the ’70s and ’80s — and the Keep Singapore Clean Campaign in 1968 was one of the first. There were fines for littering, jaywalking, spitting, urinating in lifts, failing to flush toilets and smoking in certain areas. (Mr Lee was himself a smoker who quit in his 30s when it caused him to lose his voice in election hustings)
With typically blunt imagery, Mr Lee said: “Mine is a very matter-of-fact approach to the problem. If you can select a population and they’re educated and they’re properly brought up, then you don’t have to use too much of the stick because they would already have been trained. It’s like with dogs. You train it in a proper way from small. It will know that it’s got to leave, go outside to pee and to defecate.
“No, we are not that kind of society. We had to train adult dogs who even today deliberately urinate in the lifts.”
To improve the image Singaporeans presented to tourists, a concerted effort was made with the launch, in June 1979, of the annual National Courtesy Campaign. Being polite, Mr Lee said in his speech, was a desirable attribute which was found in cultivated societies.
Still, it was another measure that the Republic became famous for around the world.
For many years, Mr Lee had been concerned about used gum stuck to pavements, buses and lifts, which made for costly maintenance, but had resisted a ban. But when the MRT began running in 1987 and vandals’ gum prevented doors from closing, the Government banned chewing gum in 1992.
The Government’s reach extended to the bedroom. A population boom in the early years threatened to overwhelm the fledgling nation’s housing, education and medical infrastructure, as well as strain the economy as well. So, the Stop at Two policy was born.
The Family Planning and Population Board was set up in 1966 to achieve zero population growth. Abortion was legalised and voluntary sterilisation encouraged among lower-educated women. Disincentives were imposed on those who had more than two — including reduced benefits in housing allocation, maternity leave and tax deductions, and lower priority for school places.
But by 1980, population growth had fallen below replacement level — to 1.5 per cent, from 2.8 in 1970 — which the Government realised only upon analysis in 1983.
Referring to criticism that it had been wrong, Mr Lee wrote: “Yes and no.” Without lower population growth, unemployment and schooling problems would not have been solved, he argued. “But we should have foreseen that the better-educated would have two or fewer children, and the less-educated four or more.” In hindsight, “we would have refined and targeted our campaign differently” right from the 1960s, he said.
In recent years, the Government poured money and effort into trying to get Singaporeans to have more babies, but the low birth rate has persisted. Mr Lee dismissed as “absurd” the accusation that the Stop at Two policy was to blame. Couples’ reluctance was caused by changed lifestyles and mindsets, he wrote, which no amount of financial perks could alter. “I cannot solve the problem and I have given up,” he said, leaving the task to the new generation of leaders.
GRADUATE MOTHERS SCHEME
Even more controversial was what arose from that 1980 census about better-educated women having fewer children. Mr Lee articulated his controversial eugenicist idea of breeding talent in his 1983 National Day Rally, televised live to the nation.
He told Singaporeans with trademark bluntness: “If you don’t include your women graduates in your breeding pool and leave them on the shelf, you would end up a more stupid society ... So what happens? There will be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation. That’s a problem.”
He wrote later in recollection: “The press named it the Great Marriage Debate. As I had expected, the speech stirred a hornet’s nest.”
The next year, Mr Lee and then Education Minister Goh Keng Swee decided to grant graduate mothers priority in the best schools for their third child. The controversial Graduate Mothers Scheme proved divisive among the public and the Cabinet, with egalitarians such as Deputy Prime Minister S Rajaratnam outraged. The backlash contributed to the People’s Action Party’s 12-percentage-point drop in votes in that year’s General Election, and the scheme was dropped soon after.
But Mr Lee continued to hold on to his view that humans were gifted unequally by nature. He had cited studies of identical twins brought up separately, which found evidence that about 80 per cent of a person’s make-up was from nature and the rest from nurture.
While government policies could help equalise opportunities at the starting point, he wrote in Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going: “I tell people frankly God has made you that way ... I can give you extra tuition, better environment, but the incremental benefits are not that much. And their peers with bigger engines will also make progress. So the gap will never be closed.
“Still ... we are always trying: Give them extra tuition, give them extra attention, encourage them. So when I receive an honorarium for my speaking engagements, I donate the money to give out scholarships and prizes to the lower end to encourage them to do well and upgrade from ITE to polytechnics and so on. Occasionally, some do make it.”
One measure of this era that did survive, however: The Social Development Unit (now called the Social Development Network), set up in 1984 to facilitate socialising between men and women graduates. While the Government’s matchmaking efforts drew some ridicule over the years, Mr Lee averred: “Traditional methods of choosing marriage partners had been ruptured by universal education. The Government had to provide alternatives to the family matchmakers of old.”
More in our Special Edition this afternoon (March 23).