TRIBUTES are pouring in for Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, who died in the early hours of March 23rd (Singapore time). But Mr Lee’s grand stature belies the oddity of the island city-state, separated from the southern tip of Malaysia by a narrow strait, which he helped to build. Only 30 miles (48km) across at its widest point, it takes up little more than half the space occupied by New York’s five boroughs; with 5.5m inhabitants it is much less populous. On a per person basis Singapore is far richer than its neighbours in the region, and it is the only country in South-East Asia in which ethnic-Chinese citizens make up the majority. How did it come to be?
Singapore’s modern history began in the early nineteenth century, when Stamford Raffles, a British administrator based in Java, chose to develop the island as a trading post for the East India Company. It was one of three cities which later formed a wealthy British colony known as the Straits Settlements (the others were Melaka—which is not far from Kuala Lumpur—and Penang, an island just off Malaysia’s north-west coast). Singapore’s colonial governors encouraged workers to migrate from Britain’s colonies in South Asia; they also welcomed ethnic-Chinese traders and labourers who moved from mainland China and from across South-East Asia, and who eventually formed the island’s largest single ethnic group.
In 1959 Britain granted Singapore a large degree of self-rule. Mr Lee, leader of the People’s Action Party, became prime minister after a landslide election victory. Singapore’s new leadership thought the island’s interests would be best served by uniting with the neighbouring Federation of Malaya, a confection of sultanates which had recently shrugged off British rule. Singapore joined the federation in 1963, which from then on was called Malaysia. But the arrangement was short-lived. Singaporean politicians chafed at provisions written into Malaysia’s constitution which granted the federation’s ethnic-Malay majority special privileges. Malaysian leaders, for their part, felt that Singapore’s predominantly Chinese populace threatened their country’s Malay heritage, and feared the new state would suck wealth from the mainland. These tensions probably contributed to race riots in Singapore in 1964, which left dozens dead. In August 1965 Malaysia’s parliament voted to expel Singapore from the federation. It was with tears, not joy, that Mr Lee announced the island’s independence.
Despite its unusual birth—and perhaps because of it—Singapore has become enormously successful. By investing in its port, now one of the world’s busiest, the government capitalised on Singapore’s strategic location at the entrance to the Strait of Malacca. To make up for its lack of other natural resources, the country opened its doors to foreign businesses, which brought skills and riches (today about 30% of Singapore’s 5.5m inhabitants are on temporary work permits). But Singapore’s size and location have also encouraged paranoia: the government maintains mandatory national service and until recently required bomb shelters to be built in many new homes. Civil libertarians complain that its governments have driven growth at the expense of political freedom. And for all its wealth, citizens of “the little red dot” worry that their country is overlooked abroad. While observers around the world debate Mr Lee’s legacy, Singapore frets that few can find it on the map.