A man floats in the infinity pool on the 57th floor of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, overlooking Singapore’s financial district.
Paolo Woods & Gabriele Galimberti—Institute
July 23, 2015 10:12 AM EDT

Clouds bruised the Singapore sky on Aug. 9, 1965, as Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew confirmed that the tiny island at the tip of peninsular Southeast Asia was becoming independent. There were few notes of celebration. Singapore had been cast off, expelled from Malaysia, itself a new nation. Lee, who would continue to dominate Singaporean politics for decades, wept in what he called his “moment of anguish” at the creation of a nation that never aspired to nationhood. So overcome was the Prime Minister that it took Lee 20 minutes to continue with his press conference. Outside, the drab mood was mirrored by the occasional drizzle. The air swum with humidity.

Half a century later, a country reluctantly birthed after race riots and regional recrimination between Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nations and a tiny, mostly ethnic Chinese enclave now ranks as one of the most prosperous countries on the planet, richer per capita than the U.S. or Britain, its former colonial master. A commitment to an open and transparent economy has made the city-state a favorite of multi­nationals, who bring along cash and foreign talent. Singapore is a truly global city, with many of its citizens schooled in both languages of modern ­international commerce: English and Mandarin.

The country’s diverse population of 5.5 million—its citizenry roughly 75% Chinese, with sizable Malay and Indian communities—lives in comfort, enjoying some of the world’s longest life spans. The water is potable and the golf courses are groomed. Even the tropical heat is neutralized by the omnipresent air-­conditioning, an invention that Lee famously singled out as the most important of the 20th century. “This is the Asian century, and Singapore is its capital,” says Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and author of Can Singapore Survive? (Spoiler alert: The answer, from one of the city-state’s most prolific boosters, is an unsurprising yes.)

But Western-style democracy, with its emphasis on individual liberties, has played little part in Singapore’s transformation. The city-state’s media is timid and its political opposition constrained. The government has had no compunction about meddling in all aspects of residents’ lives. At a National Day rally back on Aug. 9, 1986, Lee, who died in March of this year at age 91, laid out his strategy for national success: “I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if [the Singaporean government] had not intervened on very personal matters—who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right.”

Singapore never asked to be a country, much less a role model. But despite its minuscule geographic footprint—less than 720 sq km—the city-state plays an outsize role in global geopolitics and business. Its astounding success has led developing nations across the globe to invoke the Singapore way, a blend of state paternalism and market economics. At the Central Party School in Beijing, top communist officials marvel at how Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) has managed to stay in power since before Singapore was a country, without succumbing to the rot that has infested other long-serving political parties.

Yet the global popularity of the Singapore model comes precisely as the country itself is questioning whether its own triumphal past is the best guide forward. In some ways, Singapore is a victim of its own success, as an educated populace, increasingly exposed to alternative viewpoints through social media, begins to question whether yet another mall, yet another golf course, provides enough meaning. “If we don’t get to the next level,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is the son of Lee Kuan Yew, tells TIME, “then we will have malaise and angst and even disillusionment, which you see in many developed countries.”

Already, one international human-­resources survey found Singaporean employees to be the unhappiest in the Asia-Pacific region, even as their homeland hovers in the top 10 of human-­development index rankings. Singapore’s income inequality is second only to Hong Kong in the developed world. Discomfited by an influx of foreign workers, the electorate expressed its dissatisfaction in 2011, dealing the PAP its worst showing since independence. The next election could be held as early as this fall.

Outside Singapore’s manicured confines, the world is changing too. China and the U.S. are jockeying for influence and even pre-eminence in the Pacific. Singapore, long an American ally yet culturally tied to China, has offered itself up as an honest broker between the world’s top powers. “We often say it’s nice for Singapore to be taken seriously by anyone because we’re so small,” says Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “But the fact is that we play a valuable role as a chorus of approval and disapproval for both China and the U.S.”

Founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s concerns for his country were existential—and, as always, strategic. “When I project myself forward 100 years for Singapore, I cannot tell you that it will exist,” Lee said in a compendium of interviews called Hard Truths that was published in 2011. But Singapore’s elder statesman refused to engage in self-pity. “Yes, we are in the midst of a volatile region, but we are in the center of the world’s fastest-growing region with India and China, and if we don’t grow, we are stupid.”

In its next half-century, Singapore will surely continue to leverage its geography, even if world powers wage dangerous geopolitics nearby. The deeper question, though, is whether the city-state that has always maximized its limited resources can finally tap the most important one: its own people. Alvin Tan, a civil-society stalwart and founder of the Necessary Stage, a local theater company, thinks the innovative spark needed to carry Singapore forward depends on the country loosening up. “Obedient sheep aren’t known for their creativity,” he says. “But we are beginning to have a little courage in our different voices.”

In a mall—of which there are no shortages in Singapore—a woman in heels teeters on stage next to a pair of blond girls speaking Mandarin as part of a campaign to encourage bilingualism in Singapore. “How cute they are!” the hostess says. “I guess they know that China is the prettiest place on earth!”

Among the crowd of spectators is Jim Rogers, the girls’ father, who moved his American family to Singapore in 2007 so his children could learn Mandarin. (China was too polluted for the Rogers clan, no matter how “pretty” it may be.) An investor who made his fortune alongside George Soros, Rogers believes that the U.S. is in decline and that China’s rise is inevitable. “China is the only country that can be the dominant nation of this century,” he says. “Singapore is positioning itself for that reality.”

In 1966, even as the Cultural Revolution was wracking China, Lee Kuan Yew began enforcing Mandarin instruction in schools for ethnic Chinese. It didn’t matter that Lee was a Cambridge-educated Anglophone. Nor did it bother him that for most Chinese in Singapore, Mandarin was not their mother tongue. (Singaporean Chinese generally spoke southern dialects like Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew, which are incomprehensible to Mandarin speakers.) Lee had guessed that China would eventually rebound, transforming Asia and the world, and he saw an economic imperative in Mandarin. A 1988 government campaign urged white collar workers: “Speak Mandarin more often. It’s endearing and convenient.”

Despite China’s emergence, Singapore is also betting on America. Prime Minister Lee has welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama’s diplomatic and military pivot to Asia. Lee has allowed American combat ships to operate out of Singapore, and the Singaporean military receives training in the U.S. Such ties may irk China, but Lee is unapologetic. “As a small country, we have to have our own independent stand, otherwise nobody will take us seriously,” he tells TIME. “In the case of the strategic balance in the region, we think that Americans make a constructive contribution and are an important player.”

Singapore’s commitment to Mandarin has proved attractive to mainland Chinese immigrants. Surveys of wealthy Chinese show that Singapore, Canada and the U.S. are the most popular foreign destinations for the country’s wanna­be émigrés. Pan Qi, a native of China’s eastern Zhejiang province, first came to Singapore after winning a scholarship for a master’s degree in logistics. He returned to China in 2013 but only put up with the bad air and shady business climate for a year. Now he runs IT and event-planning companies in Singapore and holds permanent residency. “It’s safe, clean and green here,” he says. “It’s the place where I want to settle down.” Still, Pan notes that the lingua franca at one of his companies is English, not Mandarin. “English,” he says, “is still the language of business in Singapore.”

Two years ago, Singapore released a white paper that forecast a population of citizens, permanent residents and other foreigners that could reach 6.9 million by 2030, a 20% increase over the current numbers. Given that Singaporean citizens, who numbered about 3.3 million in 2014, aren’t reproducing at anywhere near the rate needed to sustain themselves, immigration would have to fill the gap—and mainland Chinese were expected to contribute a good chunk of Singapore’s expanded population.

The white paper caused an uproar, at least by Singapore’s tame standards. Already, roughly one-third of Singapore’s labor force was foreign. For all the cultural commonalities, anti-mainland Chinese sentiment had flared in 2012, after a Chinese immigrant rammed his $1.4 million Ferrari into a taxi after running a red light, killing himself and the occupants of the cab. Rich Chinese are being blamed for driving up property prices and other living costs for Singaporeans. Meanwhile, Chinese laborers, who along with other Asians fill low-end jobs in fields like construction and hospitality, are accused of deflating wages and straining Singapore’s public works.

The reality is often more complicated, especially for poorer foreign laborers who come on nonresident visas and cannot qualify for Singaporean permanent residency as wealthier and more educated expats do. Li Tao was promised a well-paid chef’s position in Singapore by a middleman back in China, only to endure months sharing a rat-infested, windowless dorm room with other Chinese workers. He claims he’s owed months of back pay. “Every foreign worker who comes to Singapore experiences some level of ­deception,” says Luke Tan, an NGO worker who is helping Li sue for his wages. “The system is exploitative.”

Ironically, it was Chinese migrants who organized Singapore’s first full-fledged strike in more than a quarter century. In 2012, mainland Chinese bus drivers stopped work in retaliation for what they felt was discriminatory behavior by their state-backed employer. The strike was deemed illegal, and the ringleaders and other participants were jailed before returning to China. “Singaporeans are so docile that we wouldn’t be likely to organize like that,” says Jolovan Wham, a social worker who advised the bus drivers. “We lack that fighting spirit.”

Singaporeans have endured countless government initiatives instructing citizens on how to behave—and a fighting spirit is not among the recommended behaviors. A 1985 campaign encouraged the consumption of frozen pork. One seven years before that promoted frozen fish. The island banned the import and sale of chewing gum in 1992, backed up by the threat of jail in some cases, although gum for therapeutic purposes can now be sold. “For half a century, we’ve basically had one perspective on TV, one perspective on radio, one perspective in the newspapers,” says Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, who has been briefly imprisoned for his political activism. “It’s the kind of mental conditioning that means that people in Singapore will defend the government even against their own interests.”

The Singaporean government continues to litigate against criticism, a habit that, over the years, has forced international publications to pay damages for content deemed defamatory to the nation’s rulers. Last year, Lee sued Singaporean blogger Roy Ngerng after he posted online commentary suggesting the PM misused state pension funds. Ngerng was found guilty of defamation and is awaiting sentencing. In July, a 16-year-old blogger named Amos Yee was sentenced to four weeks in jail for posting online content that was judged obscene and intentionally religiously insulting by Singaporean courts. “We are overly respectful of our politicians,” says veteran human-rights advocate Braema Mathi. “Our laws demand that of us.”

With the rise of social media, Singaporeans are now being exposed to diverse points of view. (And, it must be admitted, despite the threat of defamation suits that hangs over political activists and journalists, many of their books criticizing the PAP’s long tenure can be bought in Singapore.) A public gathering for gay rights in June—sexual relations between men remain illegal in ­Singapore—brought nearly 30,000 people together. A rise in religiosity­—not just in Islam among the Muslim Malay population but also in evangelical Christianity among Chinese Singaporeans—also points to a search for meaning beyond what the PAP prescribes. PM Lee himself has updated his father’s model of success. “The tactics we were able to use in the 1960s, 1970s—let’s have a campaign, mobilize everybody and, therefore, social pressure—stop littering, or stop spitting, or be courteous to one another,” he tells TIME, “I am not sure that kind of approach will work anymore.”

Lee’s big worry is that Singapore might simply “dissolve into the world.” More than 200,000 Singaporeans—English-speaking, globalized individuals, who make up 6% of the city-state’s citizenry—live abroad. “If the center is not special, and you’re comfortable everywhere in the world, you end up like the Greeks,” Lee says. “A lot of talent in America and Australia and Britain, but in Greece itself, the system doesn’t work, and that’s the problem.”

The PAP, which is the only political party in the developed world to have remained in power for so long, can hardly be compared to the hapless Greek government. But does Singapore’s dominant party consider political reform necessary to ensuring the nation’s survival? “The danger is that people start equating Singaporean national identity with the PAP,” says Catherine Lim, a writer and political commentator. “We have to be more than our government.”

Yet Lim, who emigrated from Malaysia when she married a Singaporean nearly five decades ago, has little incentive to depart. “As I get older, I realize that I have no wish whatsoever to leave Singapore, even for holiday,” she says, sitting in an air-conditioned café on the most famous commercial thoroughfare, Orchard Road. “Everything I need is here. This is home.”

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