Sunday 25 May 2014

Is Singapore the Perfect Country for Our Times?

Singapore a 'canary in the gold mine of globalisation'
Republic testament to how countries can reap success from free trade
By Andres Martinez, Published The Straits Times, 24 May 2014

YOU land at Changi Airport after flying for what seems a lifetime, and you're naturally disoriented, even before you hit the customs booths that feature bowls of mints, dire warnings about the death penalty for those bringing in drugs, and digital comment cards asking if the service was to your liking.

Duck into a public restroom and you'll be exhorted to aim carefully and to "flush with oomph" for the sake of cleanliness. Outside, it's tropical sticky but impeccably clean, in a city that is inhabited by Chinese, Malays, Indians and a multiplicity of guest workers from around the world - all speaking English.

Singapore is an assault on one's preconceptions. Singapore calls itself the Lion City but it would be more accurate to call it the Canary City - the canary in globalisation's gold mine.

Arguably no other place on earth has so engineered itself to prosper from globalisation - and succeeded at it. The small island nation of 5 million people (it's really just a city but that's part of what's disorienting) boasts the world's second-busiest seaport, a far higher per capita income than its former British overlord and a raft of No. 1 rankings on lists ranging from least-corrupt to most business-friendly countries.

On the eve of celebrating its 50th anniversary next year as an independent nation, Singapore is proof that free trade can and does work for multinationals and ordinary citizens alike. So long as globalisation continues apace, the place thrives.

Singapore's defining achievement is summed up in the title of its former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's memoir, From Third World To First.

When it split from Malaysia a half century ago to become a separate nation of dubious viability, Singapore had little going for it, other than a determination to become whatever it needed to be - assembly plant, container port, trustworthy banking and logistics centre, semiconductor hub, oil refinery, mall developer, you name it. But the brilliance of its founding fathers - OK, it was mostly one father, Mr Lee - was in realising that the precondition for any and all of this to happen was good governance. Over a recent week of meetings and briefings with Singaporean business and government leaders sponsored by the non-profit Singapore International Foundation, two offhand remarks bore this out.

The first was a statement by one business leader that he has never had to pay a bribe in his lifetime. To an American audience, that may seem like a fairly modest boast but as this speaker noted, it'd be a difficult claim to make in neighbouring South-east Asian countries (or developing nations anywhere). Growing up in Mexico, my dad, a businessman who'd never set foot in Singapore, would often go on and on at dinner about how our country needed a Lee Kuan Yew. I had a vague sense of what dad meant but only now do I get the vehemence behind his sentiment. You couldn't get by in Mexico back then without paying bribes, constantly.

Like Americans, Singaporeans worship the concept of meritocracy. Unlike Americans, Singaporeans entrusted their society to an all-knowing one-party technocracy, a civil service that has delivered the goods across two generations, including affordable, publicly built housing for a majority of the population, and a system of private lifetime savings vehicles that are the envy of policy wonks the world over.

Society's cohesive glue, in addition to English, is a collective form of the "Singlish/Chinese" term kiasu, which roughly translates into a fear of losing or being left behind.

Kiasu usually refers to the extraordinary lengths to which people - individually and collectively - have gone to ensure success. And the motivating anxieties are not hard to discern in a nation-state so small it must rely on other countries for the water it drinks and the space to train its armed forces.

What if China and some other Asian state go to war over disputed islands? What if Shanghai or Hong Kong leverage their domestic markets to overshadow you as Asian financial hub? What if the Malaysians cut off your water? The brutal Japanese occupation during World War II and the recent heart-wrenching dip in trade during the financial crisis of the last decade are stark reminders of how quickly things can sour for a vulnerable canary in a gold mine.

Even now, at the height of its success, Singapore doesn't get much love from the legions of foreigners who avail themselves of its First World amenities.

It's almost obligatory for Westerners visiting or residing in Singapore to complain about the "sterility" of the place and joke about the carefully manicured boulevards and pristine shopping malls - contrasting Singapore unflatteringly to the grittier authenticity and "character" of nearby Cambodia and Vietnam. It's indeed easy to mock Singapore if you haven't lived in a poor country, and it's a form of colonial prejudice to begrudge Singaporeans their lack of Third World "charm". We prefer our tropics to be exotically chaotic, thank you - not tidier and more efficient than the Swiss.

But the interesting wrinkle here is that Singaporeans themselves seem to be joining in the second-guessing about the price of development. Opposition parties are gaining some ground in parliamentary elections, capitalising on unhappiness with strained public services, soaring prices and an influx of super-wealthy foreign investors that resulted from the Government's openness to rapid growth.

Having taken care of its population's basic needs and then some, it must be galling for Singapore's relentlessly pragmatic leadership to see a surge of yearning for rooted authenticity. The few older neighbourhoods that have not been demolished - including the first generation of public housing complexes - are now heralded as historic landmarks, and Singaporeans treat their old botanical gardens as sacred ground. At the Singapore Government's world-renowned scenario-planning futures think-tank, one analyst confided that she is looking into the uptick of nostalgia and what it might mean for policy.

This ill-defined sense of nostalgia - presumably an irrational sentiment in a place that's gone from Third World to First in record time - reflects the tensions inherent in globalisation.

You can leverage all of your comparative advantages to succeed in the global marketplace, and transform yourself accordingly, only to end up feeling some unease at having your distinctive sense of place eroded.

Until recently, Singapore was among the most welcoming places to outsiders, with one out of every three residents born elsewhere. But with fertility rates dropping, the country opened the floodgates to immigrants to ensure continued growth and prosperity, turning immigration into a lightning rod.

This being policy-wonk heaven, one of the triggering events to a national debate on the issue was a government White Paper discussing the target of reaching a population of 7 million. A more spontaneous event was a modest riot late last year in the city's Little India quarter.

This was the subject of the second offhanded remark that struck me most during my recent week in Singapore, when a government official, off-script, said with some relish: "Imagine that, we had a riot: We must be a real place."

A general unease about Singapore's identity and concerns about overcrowding (the price of a Honda Accord is set at more than US$100,000 or S$125,000, in what has to be the bluntest form of congestion pricing anywhere) have forced the Government to slow down its intake of immigrants and taper its growth projections. The move was a testament to how responsive Singapore's system can be to its citizenry's needs and desires, without being terribly democratic.

It was a testament, too, to how perfect Singapore and its paternalistic, technocratic cosmopolitanism is for an age of interdependence that prizes connectivity over a sense of place.

There are many cautionary tales to globalisation's downside but no better canary in the gold mine of globalisation's tenuous triumphs than Singapore.

The writer is the Washington editor of Zocalo Public Square and vice-president of the New America Foundation.

This article is taken from

Zocalco Public Square, a project of the Centre for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University, is a not-for-profit "ideas exchange" that blends live events and humanities journalism.


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