April 5, 2017
Recommended READ: John Curtis Perry titled Singapore Unlikely Power.
John Curtis Perry
- Tracks the meteoric rise of Singapore to the status of first-world dynamo in just three decades
- Shows how longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew adopted a resolutely pragmatic approach to economic development rather than following any one fashionable ideology
- Offers an accessible, comprehensive, and colorful overview of a city-state that has perfected one of the world’s most influential political-economic models
Singapore is not quite what Brexiters think it is
Not long ago I took a walk up a steep, narrow road in western Singapore, with dense jungle on either side, to visit a memorial housed in a colonial-era bungalow commemorating the final battle before Britain surrendered to Japanese forces in February 1942.
On that site 75 years ago allied soldiers ground out a grim rearguard action, fighting hand-to-hand to defend the linchpin of imperial Britain’s position in Asia. Winston Churchill dubbed their rapid and humiliating defeat “the worst disaster, and largest capitulation, in British history”.
Gaze out from that same hilltop today, however, and you get a grand view of modern Singapore, from the towering cranes of its container port to its towering downtown skyscrapers — in other words the heart of the global trading hub that some in Britain hope to emulate after Theresa May’s decision last week to trigger Article 50.
When Mrs May said earlier this year that no Brexit deal was “better than a bad deal”, the UK prime minister was issuing a threat. If negotiations go badly, Britain will walk away and metamorphose into a minimally regulated tax-haven, ready to pinch business from the continent — a self-styled “Singapore of Europe”. There is a deeper historical parallel here, given that Singapore once endured a kind of disorderly exit of its own. Having won independence after the second world war, it joined a new Malaysian federation in 1963, only to crash out two years later. Against the odds, it then transformed itself from a humid, malarial entrepôt into a rich financial hub, providing a template Britain may now try to follow.
It is easy to mock this comparison. The historical parallels are a mess for a start, not least because Singapore left its own union with such great reluctance. On the day break-up was triggered in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew, the stern national patriarch who led the country for many decades, wept openly on national television. Many things the Brexiters think they admire about Singapore also turn out to be only half-true.
Singapore is indeed a competitive market economy with relatively low tax and a threadbare social safety net. But rather than a model of laissez-faire capitalism, its state is actually highly interventionist, from its famous chewing-gum ban to wide-ranging public ownership of everything from banks to airlines.
Its success as a financial hub, meanwhile, is based not only on openness to capital and goods, but also people. Extraordinarily high immigration has seen the island’s population double in 30 years. Today, not far off a third of its 5.8m people are foreigners, from Filipino nannies and Bangladeshi builders to Japanese bankers. The government has tightened migration rules recently, but still expects to add 1m to its population by 2030 — hardly a policy migration-averse Brexit backers would want to copy. Yet having moved to Singapore last year, it seems to me that this south-east Asian island might provide at least one useful lesson as Britain anticipates its post-Brexit future — namely, the anxiety that flows from navigating the uncertain currents of globalisation all on your own. For all the undoubted successes of its economic development, Singapore is still a small country surrounded by much larger neighbours.
From Malaysia to the north and Indonesia to the south, not to mention regional powers such as China and India, its leaders have learnt to cope with the special vulnerability that comes from never being able to dictate terms. As Prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew used to lecture his people that they were price-takers in the global economy, and that they must adapt to the world as they found it. Singaporeans took his words to heart, becoming among the world’s most go-getting, highly skilled workers. But the process left a nagging uncertainty. There is even a local Chinese dialect word for this: “kiasu”, meaning fear of falling behind, an often remarked upon national trait.
As it contemplates its future outside the EU, a similar feeling of British kiasu is likely to grow. Back in 1942, the fall of Singapore forced a shocked nation to confront the vulnerability of its teetering empire. Today, those in Britain looking east for inspiration might once again find a more anxious role model than they care to admit.