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Singapore’s founding father thought air conditioning was the secret to his country’s success

Yvan Cohen/LightRocket via Getty Images

Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, died this weekend. He's being remembered as the man who transformed Singapore, since taking over in 1959 until leaving power in 1990, from an island with few natural resources into one of the wealthiest nations in the world by per-person average.

His rule combined capitalism and pragmatism, as well as authoritarianism (he banned critical media and crushed his opponents with defamation lawsuits, for example). Often, at the heart of his approach was attention to detail: get the basic conditions for prosperity right, and success will come.

There's a great example of this in an interview he gave for New Perspectives Quarterly's fall 2009/winter 2010 issue (thanks to Branko Milanovic for the tip). Asked about the secret to Singapore's success, Lee highlighted the importance of tolerance among different ethnic groups (the country is Chinese-majority, with sizable Indian and Malay minorities). But he also flagged up another factor that might surprise you: air conditioning.

Question: Anything else besides multicultural tolerance that enabled Singapore's success?

Answer: Air conditioning. Air conditioning was a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It changed the nature of civilization by making development possible in the tropics.

Without air conditioning you can work only in the cool early-morning hours or at dusk. The first thing I did upon becoming prime minister was to install air conditioners in buildings where the civil service worked. This was key to public efficiency.

Air conditioning might seem like a strange thing for Lee to cite in Singapore's 100-fold increase in per capita GDP between 1960 and 2011. But it's typical of his thinking: the basic things really matter.

It's a philosophy that can be seen elsewhere in the way he shaped this nation. Take his attitude to corruption: Lee believed that if he paid civil servants highly enough, they'd be less likely to steal from the public purse. Indeed, today Singapore is one of the least corrupt countries in the world.

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