LKYLee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, died today, aged 91. Even his most churlish critics cannot dispute the pivotal role he played in pushing the tiny country into a super league of global significance. As a foreigner in Singapore, my biggest grievance about his passing is that I never had a chance to talk to the only Singaporean who had something genuinely interesting to say and the unfettered confidence to speak it loudly. Mr. Lee built a country where human rights, civil liberties and freedom of speech were seen as impositions to the nation’s prosperity. A controlled and aligned complex of political, industrial and social entities all helped the various moving parts that make up a nation state work toward the only three letters that really mattered to Mr. Lee’s Singapore: GDP.

There is nothing particularly controversial about this narrative. It is generally accepted by all at home and abroad as Singapore’s story and Mr. Lee has never apologized for it. Even if you could unscramble eggs to fix those parts of Singapore that are less palatable, would you want to? There is a strengthening strain of thought even in western liberal societies that both democracy and freedom of speech are overrated. That countries like Singapore have got it right: security and prosperity should be non-negotiables.

The biggest question now Mr. Lee is gone is to what extent a secure and prosperous Singapore can continue without a more open political environment. My own personal view is drawn from my limited experience as a western reporter for a western media outlet in Singapore, and all the prejudice that comes with. There is nothing uniquely Singaporean about being told by public relations officers that they didn’t like the story you wrote (even if they couldn’t fault it factually). What did knock the wind out of me was the heartfelt conviction by Singaporeans educated at some of the world’s best institutions that the very foundation of the country’s success would sink into the Straits if alternative voices got too powerful. Much has been written about Singapore’s corseted media landscape by foreign and local academics. Sadly not much of it has been read or widely debated, especially by the people that should be reading and debating it: Singaporeans.

There are indeed concrete barriers that make a culture of openness in Singapore difficult: state censorship, rules around media ownership and licensing, defamation suits and a raft of laws around hate speech and sedition. All these contribute to Singapore’s poor results in global press freedom rankings.

But the harsh rules are only one part of the story. The biggest issue is Singaporeans’ great reluctance to tell fresh narratives about the country they live in and the country they want it to be. This applies to media personalities, entertainers, artists, activists and especially opposition politicians. Countries with more draconian regimes such as Myanmar or Pakistan boast a much more dynamic culture of debate and diversity of thought. This is Mr. Lee’s legacy, the fear of being unorthodox.

A wonderful tale

I have read a few of Mr. Lee’s books about his rise to power, the emergence of Singapore as a nation and his thoughts on the world. He could be remarkable in his eloquence, statesmanship and vision and outright awful in his cruelty, ungraciousness and chauvinism. This is the package of the man – we take it as a whole. He had a compelling story to tell and he told it well. As a Singaporean politician, this fluidity of expression was seen in his wild hand gestures at the podium, something seldom seen among local policymakers today.

Sadly, through his efforts to keep his agenda moving, he denied the rest of his nation the voice or opportunity to tell their stories so emphatically. The result we have today is a culture of insipid and co-opted punditry, derivative media content, a lack of local innovation and a pervasive culture of fear and self-censorship. Those that have found alternative avenues for expression use all the oxygen to, oddly enough, complain about things that Singapore does well at (such as public transport, the public savings scheme and healthcare), or worse, on xenophobic rants. Other issues such as treatment of foreign workers, gay rights or capital punishment remain the concerns of a bookish, inconsequential few. The big danger for Singapore is that a weakness of thought, toxic populism and social indifference are now setting the nation’s policy agenda at the leadership level.

Over the next few weeks, Singaporeans will be treated to the established narrative on all Mr. Lee did to make Singapore the economic success it is today. But over the next few years, the narrative around the moral shortcuts he took to get there won’t be so easy to dismiss as fringe or revisionist. Singapore’s textbook analysis of itself has always questioned whether it could survive with a more open culture of debate and commentary. It might not have a choice in the matter. If Singapore wants to glean any passing inspiration from Mr. Lee as it considers life without him, it should look more at his boldness of thought and vision and less at the rules and boundaries he imposed. Some might ask what right I have as a foreigner to give advice to this country and its people. Put it this way: I wouldn’t say anything if I wasn’t at all fond of the place and its history.