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Savior King or Ruthless Tyrant? An Aristotelian Analysis of Lee Kuan Yew’s Legacy

Savior King Or Ruthless Tyrant? An Aristotelian Analysis Of Lee Kuan Yew’s Legacy


This past spring, the death of Lee Kuan Yew marked the loss of one of the world’s most successful politicians. The former leader transformed Singapore from a poverty-stricken city-state into an economic powerhouse. Throughout his time in office, Lee was credited for being the politician from whom other noteworthy statesmen sought advice. After his death – almost 15 years after having governed as Prime Minister – Lee’s legacy was still the center of worldwide media attention. The Media coverage and commentary most often cited the controversial cost of Lee’s success: Singaporeans’ lack of political liberties. For this reason, media consideration of Lee’s legacy serves a larger purpose for political analysis, namely, the question of freedom’s place in determining the degree of goodness of contemporary political regimes. Singapore’s economic success appears to coincide with a high degree of political stability and possibly even general human flourishing. Understanding the type of regime Lee created, and the place of freedom within it, enables the political analyst to raise significant questions about the importance of freedom.

All of its riches make Singapore an interesting case study, particularly because the country is an autocracy. Comparative government scholars classify Singapore as an electoral autocracy. In these regimes, the government holds elections, but possesses such a momentous advantage over its opponents that elections are neither free nor fair.[1] Citizens in Singapore’s autocracy are so wealthy that the city-state is now richer than most democracies, including Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. The nation fosters professional and technical education in a manner especially conducive to intellectual progress. Moreover, Singaporeans enjoy both a high level of security and a large amount positive freedom (freedom to flourish and develop). Strict drug laws, for example, are intended to relieve Singaporeans from the psychological and physical harm of drug use and trade. Most people living in Singapore are genuinely happy due to their economic security. The state of Singapore confounds academics today because the quality of life for people in electoral autocracies like Russia, Zimbabwe, and Nicaragua is not typically adequate for human development.

Nevertheless, the media paint a picture of a black-and-white Singapore. International sections of worldwide newspapers describe Singaporeans as a people who trade civil liberties for a certain quality of life. Most articles are prefaced with some variant of the following statement: “For some, Lee Kuan Yew’s death marks the passing of a ruthless tyrant. For others, it is the tireless leader’s final reward.”[2] It seems that Lee must be seen either as a tyrant or a savior king. The media’s treatment of Lee greatly simplifies the small degree to which he limited freedoms in order to produce other social and political goods.

One reason for this difficulty is that the media reflect a commonly held view in our democratic times that a political society is either a liberal democracy or a tyranny. This long-entrenched view that anything other than liberal democracy must be tyranny goes back to John Locke and Immanuel Kant. Even more, modern scholars tend to understand democracy as the best regime, if not the final regime.[3] The liberal democratic bias of Western scholars compromises their ability to recognize a regime like Singapore that does not easily fit into this liberal democratic and perhaps even Manichaean perspective.

Accordingly, there is an advantage to reading ancient political theorists in order to understand exceptional cases in modern regime typology. Aristotle’s political thought proves superior to the liberal democratic perspective because, among contemporary states, Singapore is closest to what he would recognize as a polis. Gerald Mara and others[4] understand that the proximity of scholars to their own liberal culture hinders their ability to criticize regimes outside the dominant ideology. Lastly, Aristotle provides insight into many of the mundane philosophical questions regarding human good that are still crucial in politics today, but are missing in modern accounts of liberal democracy.[5]

A Practical Political Science

Long before modern commentators argued over Singapore’s “trade-offs” between freedom and security, Aristotle developed an entire practical political science based upon his observations of and insights into how different city-states blended elements, mostly democratic and oligarchic elements. According to his insights, successful regimes were made by governments that created stability from mixing regime qualities. He argued, “it ought to be the case in a government that has been beautifully mixed that it seems to be both things and neither.”[6] Contemporary media commentators cannot settle the “trade-offs” argument in part because the government of Singapore blends qualities of regimes so well that Singapore looks like both a democracy and an autocracy.

Aristotle understood freedom as one among many aspects of a regime. This insight contradicts that of modern scholars who typically rank freedom within their regime typology as the highest good and on a scale that ranks democracies as the freest regimes and therefore the best and totalitarian regimes as the least free and therefore the worst. Aristotle’s insight, on the other hand, provides a reference for classifying regimes based on the common good. The difference between the two classifications is that the one measures only degrees of freedom while the other measures from degrees of stability and freedom created by acting good.

The crux of Aristotle’s argument is that durability stems from a positive moral advantage. Governments that last for a significant amount of time do so because they consistently work for the common good. Freedom, for Aristotle, fits into regime classification because it is necessary to achieve a particular state of human development. Aristotle calls this state ‘leisure’ and it occurs when citizens are free to pursue knowledge for its own sake without the constraint of having to work for food or requiring external pleasures for happiness. For Aristotle, the above scenario is the ‘noble regime’ just as democracy is Fukuyama’s best regime.

Yet, Aristotle’s classification system is not without qualification. The noble regime is an ideal state. To reconcile the ideal with the real, Aristotle argues that a practical, more realistic regime lasts longer when it emulates the noble attributes of an ideal regime.[7] In Singapore, we find a state that emulates the qualities of the noble regime, but is bound by the shortcomings of its practical attempt to mix various regimes together. Lee Kuan Yew seemed to possess the Aristotelian insight that successful regimes last due to a stability created from mixing regime qualities. So, while pursuing what he thought was the common good, Lee mixed the qualities of kingships, aristocracy, tyranny, and oligarchy.

Kingship & Aristocracy

Every democracy aspires to a state wherein citizens elect the most capable leader. Although Aristotle agrees that statesmen with exceptional political tact exist, he does not believe the masses should rule over them. Such a man is a king. In a kingship – Aristotle’s best practical regime – a supreme politician conducts himself with an eye towards the common good rather than his own advantage. Lee’s superior practical wisdom [phronēsis] gave Singapore kingship qualities. No onlooker doubts that Lee Kuan Yew was primus inter pares[8] (first among equals) in taking Singapore ‘from third world to first.’ Under Lee’s direction, Singapore’s economic success grew rapidly. In 1959, half of all Singaporeans were residing in squatter huts.[9] Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was $2,186. By 1979, Singapore’s GDP per capita was $8,362 SGD, by 1999 it was $19,983 SGD, and in 2010 it was $29,083 SGD.[10] And despite stepping down as Prime Minister in 1990, Lee was still seen as Singapore’s most prominent politician until his death.[11] The possibility of Lee taking advantage of Singapore’s tumultuous start through war or unending labour was always present;[12] and still, Lee Kuan Yew chose the more difficult route of endowing his subjects with wealth and peace.

Media supporters of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy essentially argue that freedom, indeed, comes from a virtuous leader. Lee’s kingly virtue partly derived from his belief that national safety and economic success were best for Singaporeans. After independence from Malaysia, Singapore was fraught with ethnic violence between its Chinese, Malay, and Indian residents. Lee vowed to create peace for all ethnicities in his speeches to parliament in 1965: “into the constitution of the Republic of Singapore will be [sic] built-in safeguards insofar as the human mind can devise means whereby the conglomeration of numbers, of likeness – as a result of affinities of race or language or culture – shall never work to the detriment of those – who, by the accident of history, find themselves in minority groups in Singapore.”[13] When Lee subsequently eradicated racial tensions, his actions for the common good resulted in new freedoms for Singaporeans. A former Nominated Member of Parliament, Calvin Cheng, used the media to offer an account of life in Singapore today:

“Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night falls. Freedom is knowing our children can go to school without fear of drugs… Freedom is fresh air and clean streets, because nothing is more inimical to our liberty of movement than being trapped at home because of suffocating smog. These are the freedoms that Singaporeans have, freedoms that were built on the vision and hard work of Mr Lee, our first Prime Minister. And we have all of these, these liberties, while also being one of the richest countries in the world.”[14]

Lee Kuan Yew’s supporters argue that Lee is savior king because of the abundant positive freedoms Singaporeans now enjoy. A leader with citizens’ economic and security well being at heart, who has unequivocal political tact, relieves them from the restraints of poverty and violence. He allows people freedom to control their own destinies.

Lee’s unsurpassable political tact also gave Singapore the qualities of a kingship. For example, Lee Kuan Yew personified the man of modesty necessary to appear kingly. Aristotle observes that tyrants distrust their friends who naturally envy their power.[15] Lee Kuan Yew’s circumstances, on the other hand, allowed him to forge what he claims was “camaraderie under [the] intense pressures” of nation building.[16] In his long biographies, Lee never fails to properly state ‘we’ in reference to his companions Keng Swee, Raja, Sui Sen, and Kim San,[17] and others, when building an independent nation.

At this point, one should point towards Singapore’s meritocratic elite and claim that the People’s Action Party, which Lee Kuan Yew once led, is an aristocracy. Aristocracy occurs when a few virtuous citizens – with political tact and good intentions – govern as equals. Indeed, the PAP’s meritocratic system meant that Lee’s closest allies were some of the brightest men in Singapore. The standard for recruiting members to the PAP, for instance, is at least five intense ‘interviews,’ and a day and a half psychological exam. Still, how can Singapore be an aristocracy if scholars argue that “the oil that lubricates [the elite] is personal power?”[18] The answer lies in Aristotle’s notion that stable regimes last longest when employing multiple characteristics of different regimes. Leaders as politically savvy as Lee Kuan Yew are rare. Nevertheless, Aristotle notes that equality is necessary amongst those with equal capabilities in order for justice to exist.[19] Although Lee’s colleagues are not of the same political caliber, they are nonetheless incredibly talented. A system with pronounced aristocratic qualities offsets such injustices. A kingship with aristocratic tendencies means never having to worry about jealous politicians plotting against the king. Still, Lee’s masterful mixing of regime types does not mean the end product lacked shortcomings in its achievement of justice.

Tyranny & Oligarchy

Why, after millennia of molding political landscapes, do populaces still hold leaders to a utopian ideal instead of a human standard? Lee Kuan Yew was a brilliant politician, but like many gifted people, he lacked the several virtues beyond the political ones that prevented him from becoming a perpetual king in the noble regime. Although economic success and security were virtuous goals, Lee treated all other ideals that his citizens valued as secondary. The king and his aristocracy were intolerant of other versions of the common good, for instance. Moreover, Lee’s inordinate emphasis on material well being was too extreme to foster Aristotle’s noble regime. It appears that, in Singapore, all noble goods that did not directly establish wealth or security – liberal education, political choice, freedom of expression – were lost.

Like most people, Lee Kuan Yew was flawed. Aristotle understood the practical cliché that no one is perfect. For the philosopher, a true kingship is nearly impossible since even those with political virtue may not accept others with “reasonable and well intentioned” views.[20] Likewise, the PAP’s contemptuousness arising from its famed meritocracy is vehemently intolerant “of alternative views expressed by the general public.”[21] In reality, the Undesirable Publications Act makes it difficult for journalists to criticize the government online or in print. Those brave enough to speak against the PAP should know that the government has never lost a defamation lawsuit.[22] And if that is not enough, freedom of association is curtailed because of the requirement for political organizations to apply for a permit to assemble outdoors. Such permits are almost always denied.[23] In 2011, Chee Soon Juan (SPD) was fined $20,000 SGD for publicly speaking without a permit.[24] Lee’s intolerance of diverging opinions has, unfortunately, lead to a “culture of self-censorship” in Singapore that makes it difficult for the opposition to campaign.[25] In this way, media, like the New York Times, are correct to assert that Lee was “an autocrat who silenced critics and sent opposition leaders to jail, suppressing dissent and intimidating the press.”[26] Such criticisms highlight the fact that political freedoms, especially in regards to the opposition, are limited in Singapore.

Part of the problem lies in the threat that Singaporeans might not understand the common good in the same way as Lee Kuan Yew. Lee’s superior political virtue is incompatible with contrary notions of governance. As a result, the Singapore government limits opposing political ideas by biasing elections in their favour. For instance, the PAP gerrymanders by redrawing electoral lines, which is, in the West, completed by independent agencies. Singapore’s ‘independent’ elections body (Singapore Elections Department) is actually run by the Prime Minister. Furthermore, the PAP calls nine-day snap elections that do not allow the opposition enough time to organize a fruitful campaign. Indeed, Aristotle argues that all tyrannical leaders employ various tactics to take away citizens’ power,[27] in part by limiting political freedoms. In this way, Canadian magazine Maclean’s correctly quotes Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson when it writes, “Lee’s ‘tremendous’ role in Singapore’s economic development was beyond doubt. But it also came at a significant cost for human rights, and today’s restricted freedom of expression, self-censorship and stunted multiparty democracy.”[28] Critics scold Lee for hording power through the strategic limitation of political freedoms. However, he is not a “ruthless tyrant” who rule entailed a “significant cost for human rights.” This is especially true when one considers that cruel, arbitrary punishment typically results in regime change, whereas Singapore remains stable due to Lee’s successful regime engineering.

The final regime characteristic, one that defines Singapore as a nation, is the People’s Action Party’s oligarchic fascination with wealth. The PAP is adamant in their conception of a ‘good life’ for Singaporeans.[29] It was not until 1999 that the “definition of success” was widened from cash, car, condominium, credit card, and career to “character, courage, commitment, compassion and creativity.”[30] The PAP conceptualized the ‘good life’ as necessity and sustenance, not contemplation, art, culture, or happiness. Instead of educating the citizenry towards freedom and self-improvement “for the purpose of improving the regime,”[31] Lee’s government educated citizens to become excellent at surmounting economic turmoil. Accordingly, Singapore’s political elites have economic skill rather than political tact.[32] The problem with such a fascination with wealth is that it takes away from the qualities that lead to a noble regime or even a true kingship.

Significant economic progress does undermine the healthy pursuit of other ideas regarding human development such as art or happiness. Aristotle explains that leisure – active contemplation that, in itself, creates happiness and relaxation – is not possible for those preoccupied with business.[33] The PAP’s obsession with economics means that Singaporeans are more concerned with material wealth than contributing to politics[34] and local community.[35] One can speculate about whether the lack of community involvement in Singapore is related to the fact that many Singaporeans do not believe “most people can be trusted.”[36] Even more so, the PAP’s extreme focus on economic security explains why individuals, when asked to rate their priorities, have “no interest in ‘appreciating arts and culture.”[37] The well being of the community is lost without civic virtue from liberal education. As a result, the PAP’s preoccupation with wealth influences the internal freedom of Singaporeans – the freedom Aristotle values – whether they notice it or not.


In the context of comparative regime typology, Singapore is confounding case. Singaporeans live without a number of freedoms that citizens in the West value. Yet, 85% of Singaporeans are ‘very or fairly satisfied’ with how the government is run in Singapore.[38] How can an autocracy be “considered one of the best places to live in Asia, if not the world?”[39] Two elements kept Singapore stable under Lee Kuan Yew’s rule. The first element was his political tact. Lee’s ability to mix different regime qualities ensured that the political elite governed calmly and with reason. The second element was Lee’s commitment to what he thought was the common good. Interestingly, neither element derives from freedom. The only thing preventing Lee from becoming a king in the ideal regime were his own human flaws. The father of Singapore did not trust in the capabilities of others. As a result, he restrained freedoms that allow other citizens to pursue the common good. Lee also focused too single-mindedly on the economy. In doing so, he prevented the flourishing of human development. Still, no one can deny that Lee’s kingly qualities gave Singaporeans freedoms that Western citizens can only find in their dreams.



[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pg. 5.

[2] Carlton Tan, “Lee Kuan Yew Leaves a Legacy of Authoritarian Pragmatism,” The Guardian, March 23, 2015, World,

[3] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 2006), pg. 42, 45.

[4] Gerald M. Mara, “The Culture of Democracy: Aristotle’s Athenaion Politeia as Political Theory,” in Aristotle and Modern Politics: The Persistence of Political Philosophy, by Aristide Tessitore (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), pg. 309; Stephen McCarthy, The Political Theory of Tyranny in Singapore and Burma: Aristotle and the Rhetoric of Benevolent Despotism (London: Routledge, 2006), pg. 1.

[5] Aristotle, Politics, trans. Joe Sachs, (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2012): 1255b20; Martha C. Nussbaum, “Aristotelian Social Democracy,” in Aristotle and Modern Politics: The Persistence of Political Philosophy, ed. Aristide Tessitore (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), pg. 47.

[6] Aristotle, Politics, 1294b30.

[7] Ibid, 1314a30.

[8]Diane K. Mauzy and R. S. Milne, “Singapore Politics under the People’s Action Party,” (London: Routledge, 2002), pg. 5.

[9] Jon S. T. Quah, Public Administration Singapore-style (Bingley: Emerald, 2010), pg. 200.

[10] The Maddison-Project,, 2013 version.

[11] Bertelsmann Stiftung, Country Reports: Transformationsindex – Singapore 2014, report, History and Characteristics of Transformation, accessed February 21, 2015,

[12] Aristotle, Politics, 1313b10.

[13] Singapore, Ministry of Culture, National Archives of Singapore, Speech Made by the Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, When He Moved the Motion of Thanks to the Yand Di-Pertuan Negara, for His Policy Speech on the Opening of Parliament on the 14th December 1965 (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 1965), pg. 41.

[14] Calvin Cheng, “Singapore’s Success and the Myth of Trade-offs,” Straits Times, March 27, 2015, Commentary,

[15] Aristotle, Politics, 1313b30.

[16] Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000 (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2000), pg. 759.

[17] Ibid, 758.

[18] Michael D. Barr, “Beyond Technocracy: The Culture of Elite Governance in Lee Hsien Loong’s Singapore,” Asian Studies Review 30, no. 1 (2006): pg. 8.

[19] Aristotle, Politics, 1282a20.

[20] Waller R. Newell, “Superlative Virtue: The Problem of Monarchy in Aristotle’s ‘Politics'” The Western Political Quarterly 40, no. 1 (March 01, 1987): pg. 175.

[21] Kenneth Paul Tan, “The Ideology of Pragmatism: Neo-liberal Globalisation and Political Authoritarianism in Singapore,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 42, no. 1 (February 2012), pg. 73.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Bertelsmann Stiftung, Country Reports: Transformationsindex, report, Association/Assembly Rights.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Bertelsmann Stiftung, Country Reports: Transformationsindex, report, Freedom of Expression.

[26] The Editorial Board, “Lee Kuan Yew’s Mixed Legacy in Singapore,” The New York Times, March 23, 2015, The Opinion Pages,

[27] Aristotle, Politics, 1314a20.

[28] Stephen Wright and Jeanette Tan, “Singaporeans Mourn Death of Founding Father Lee Kuan Yew,” Macleans, March 23, 2015,

[29] Theodore Geiger and Frances M. Geiger, The Development Progress of Hong Kong and Singapore (Hong Kong: Macmillan, 1983), pg. 201.

[30] Jon S. T. Quah, Public Administration Singapore-style, pg. 202.

[31] Stephen McCarthy, The Political Theory of Tyranny in Singapore and Burma: Aristotle and the Rhetoric of Benevolent Despotism, pg. 103.

[32] Garry Rodan, “Singapore “exceptionalism”? Authoritarian Rule and State Transformation,” in Political Transitions in Dominant Party Systems: Learning to Lose, ed. Edward Friedman and Joseph Wong, Politics in Asia (New York, New York: Routledge, 2009), pg. 238.

[33] Aristotle, Politics, 1338a.

[34] Benjamin Wong and Xunming Huang, “Political Legitimacy in Singapore,” Politics & Policy 38, no. 3 (2010): pg. 530.

[35] Siok Kuan Tambyah, Soo Jiuan Tan, and Ah Keng Kau, “The Quality of Life in Singapore,” Social Indicators Research 92, no. 2 (June 2009): pg. 350.

[36] Bertelsmann Stiftung, Country Reports: Transformationsindex – Singapore 2014, report, Political and Social Integration.

[37] Siok Kuan Tambyah, Soo Jiuan Tan, and Ah Keng Kau, “The Quality of Life in Singapore,” pg. 350.

[38] Bertelsmann Stiftung, Country Reports: Transformationsindex – Singapore 2014, report, Political and Social Integration.

[39] Siok Kuan Tambyah, Soo Jiuan Tan, and Ah Keng Kau, “The Quality of Life in Singapore,” pg. 338.

Nicolette StuartNicolette Stuart

Nicolette Stuart

Nicolette Stuart is a graduate in Political Science from the University of Lethbridge in Canada.

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