Singapore: In Search of Some Big Ideas

January 4, 2016

Singapore: In Search of Some Big Ideas

by Michael D. Barr, Flinders University

Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore’s ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), enters 2016 enjoying the comfort of a magnificent electoral victory in the 2015 general elections. In that election — the first since the death of patriarch Lee Kuan Yew — the PAP won almost 70 per cent of the popular vote. It was not the ruling party’s highest-ever vote, but coming off the back of the 2011 general election, in which the party scored its lowest vote since independence (60 per cent), it was a tremendous relief.

Since then there have been official efforts to puncture any nascent sense of complacency, both in Cabinet and among PAP supporters. But the government still enters 2016 knowing that it has another five years to fix the problems created by half a decade of policy and administrative errors that cost it so dearly in 2011.

Managing Success and Spreading the Benefits

The 2015 general elections showed that in the absence of a tried and tested alternative, Singaporeans are ultimately willing to forgive almost any policy or administrative failure. This leaves the government with a relatively free hand to tackle the rather formidable challenges on its desk. Significantly, many of the challenges it faces are municipal and small-picture in nature, reflecting the limited horizons of politics in the city-state. These include building new flats and railway lines; breaking the weekly cycle of train breakdowns; keeping a cap on both the rate of immigration and the cost of living; installing and spreading a new raft of welfare benefits without building an expectation of entitlement; avoiding man-made floods in downtown Singapore; and spreading health coverage while keeping costs down. These are the front line challenges in Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew.

Even in the international arena, the front line issue is remarkably ‘domestic’: stopping the haze from Indonesian forest clearance. The Singapore government has no direct control over this but the government is universally expected to fix it. Such is the burden of cultivating an image of being all powerful.

Seeking New Ways of Doing Business

Lurking behind these small-picture issues (which are, of course, important in everyday life) lies a series of challenges that are very much big picture and long-term. Most notable is finding new ways of doing business. So much of Singapore’s business model for the last half-century or more has been based on being ahead of the pack, but now the ‘pack’ is catching up.

The Port of Singapore rode the first wave of containerisation, but now everyone is containerised. Changi Airport set a new standard as a regional hub, but its edge has now been blunted by Dubai. Singapore pioneered export-oriented industrialisation, sucking in American capital and spewing forth goods for American consumers, but neither American capital nor the American consumer market is quite so rich these days — and in any case they have plenty of other options now.

In the early 1980s Singapore was also ahead of the world in investing in China, and made itself integral to a China-based international manufacturing network. Singapore is still integral, but Chinese growth has slowed to less than 7 per cent per annum, and — just as in the case of the United States — China has many more options now.

Lee Hsein Loong

In Search of New Big Ideas

Singapore is now desperately in need of some new big ideas, but finding them is easier said than done. The government has seen these challenges coming since the 1990s and has made many attempts to build alternative sources of enterprise for the island, but with limited success. Its efforts to establish itself as a hub for biotech research have returned very little. Its attempts to become a regional education hub have suffered many failures, most notably the collapse of the University of New South Wales Asia in 2007. And the ongoing life of its educational successes (such as Yale-National University of Singapore College) depend entirely on the government continuing to pump big money into its ventures.

Combating Complacency

Singapore has had more success turning itself into a medical tourism hub, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps it is indicative of the problems faced by the post-Lee Kuan Yew generation that the government’s most successful ‘new economy’ venture is a pair of casinos — which is really not a very new idea at all.

In the meantime the efforts to limit the inflow of foreign guest workers is making it much harder to conduct business because the economy is still geared to the tired old model that relied on cheap and compliant labour.

Singapore- No Tolerance for Corruption

Given these challenges, it is perhaps remarkable that one of the more significant dangers for the government is a return to the complacency that led it to this point in the first place. If the general election of 2015 was full of rainbows for the government, the biggest cloud on the horizon now is complacency. A nice problem to have, perhaps, but one that could prove inimical to good government Singapore-style.

Michael D. Barr is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review


5 thoughts on “Singapore: In Search of Some Big Ideas

  1. Singapore’s educational system needs to be revitalized. Their people like to work for government and stay at stable jobs like working for the government and living in the housing estates. Otherwise they just want to make money.

  2. Singapore faces reality and that also by transparency-accountability-ethics-honesty-strict enforcement of laws-deterrent penalties. Some countries do not appear to believe in all the above but rewards via discounts for delinquents . transparency-accountability-ethics-honesty appear to be just slogans and
    strict enforcement of laws-deterrent penalties just announcements for the the media in the name of being ‘perihatin’.
    Regular ‘holidays’ overseas at other’s expense and in the name of ‘working’ and on the way visit designated abodes of their respective ‘gods’ to remind the ‘god’ that due homage is being paid and thus ‘he’ is to protect them.

  3. Contemporary Singapore reminds me of past city-state powers like Venice.
    Would be helpful for the planners in Singapore to see how Venice rose and fell – is it because Venice lost control of the spice trade after the Portuguese discovered an alternative route to India and the Far East?
    The trade of Venice was negatively impacted?
    (I’m just guessing. Perhaps the history experts can enlighten us here).

  4. PKL – not just lost control of the spice trade. I venture to guess that the spice trade was vastly reduced in importance after the invention of refrigeration.

  5. Singapore,post LKY,is about preserving and managing success, expand on it, not necessarily with big ideas,but new skills,experience and technology know-how in today’s rapid changing environment and circumstances without boundaries, that need to be accompanied with humanity and environment friendly attitude that come with material investments and profits.

    This in itself has provided both the opportunities and challenges ahead for Singapore by reinventing old ideas in ” prospering thy neighbours” of renew wealth and stability that can be sustained at a higher level in the region with closer cooperation or mergers in the socio-political and economic domains, or in parts, the state of Johor in Malaysia and islands beyond Batam in Indonesia.

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