Last week I was in Singapore attending an academic conference. I was last there 10 years ago, having first gone to Singapore in the 1960s. There are glaring contrasts with Singapore’s northern neighbour Malaysia (where I had been the week before), some not unfavourable for Singapore’s neighbour.
The immediate differences between the two countries are obvious.
Singapore has a first-world standard of living, much easier for an urban city state to achieve than a country such as Malaysia, with its significant rural population, and with very different legacies left by their British colonial rulers– the British wanted Singapore for êntrepot trade, Malaysia purely for its natural resources, with little else being developed, apart from basic infrastructure and the rudiments of adequate governance.
The Brits thus gave Singapore a head start in developmental terms, and Singapore has taken advantage of it, albeit with immense democratic deficits, a situation it alas shares with its northern neighbour.
Singapore is well-administered. Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Singapore 7th out of 176 countries, ahead of Germany, Australia, Canada, Japan, the US, and the UK. By contrast, Malaysia ranked 55th.
Singapore imagines itself as the Switzerland of Asia, right down to a financial sector which allows a façade of rectitude to overlay an array of dodgy practices, such as tax evasion.
Strict policing of public conduct ensures that everything is spick and span—no spitting, no chewing gum, no defecating canines, no littering, no feeding pigeons, no gay sex, no walking nude at home if visible to a member of public, no graffiti, no jaywalking, and not flushing a public toilet also merits a fine.
Singapore lacks an independent judiciary and a free press (The Reporters Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index ranked it 151st out of 180 countries— behind even Malaysia, which was ranked 144th).
The British-educated Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015), regarded as the founding figure of modern Singapore, was an anglophile with an especial fondness for the age-old British practice of caning and whipping.
In Singapore, these can be meted-out for such offenses as lurking with intent, attempting to commit a robbery, necrophilia, prostitution, sodomizing an animal, intentionally obstructing a railway locomotive, causing hurt by means of poison, harassing a borrower, and drunk driving, among over a hundred other offences. Caning is mandatory (with the number of strokes also stipulated) for many of these offences.
Another legal stratagem devised by Lee (who was a lawyer before he entered politics) was the introduction of absurdly stringent libel laws. Virtually any criticism of Lee and his associates could constitute a libel in the eyes a compliant judiciary. The inevitable lawsuit followed, with a demand for massive punitive damages, which the acquiescent judges duly deliver. Lee’s opponents, by now bankrupt, had no alternative but to remain silent until they were no longer bankrupt. If they opened their mouths after this, another round of libel proceedings could ensue, so their silence was in this way forever enjoined by Singapore’s legal system.
Lee’s son is now the leader of Singapore, and what worked for his father seems to work for him. So not much has changed politically.
A shopkeeper with good English told me the government wanted citizens to be “robots”, who would “work hard and not ask questions”.
Umm, I wondered to myself, surely every government, from those of the former Soviet bloc to Theresa May today, wants something like this as well? Which only goes to show that few, if any, governments in history have done their subjects well.
The shopkeeper also professed an admiration for Trump– “at least he’s shaking things up”. I held back from getting into this discussion. It was obvious the man was so desperate to see something, perhaps anything, shaken-up in Singapore, that he projected this desire onto the Orange Swindler.
Thinking about this later, I wondered if I should have said to him that Singapore’s reputation as a place where there is little sleaze and corruption would go down the crapper in a jiffy if a Trump-equivalent (complete with ghastly family) emerged there. But then he might have been prepared to put up with this as long as things were “shaken-up”.
Singaporeans wishing to escape their super-sanitized environment hop across the border to Malaysia in order to have fun and engage in the occasional bout of mischief.
Singapore’s “authoritarian democracy” is really not a template to be emulated. For one thing, the conditions for its success are so path-dependent that it is virtually impossible to replicate them elsewhere. For another, docile citizens rarely make, collectively, for a vibrant cultural and intellectual life.
Nonetheless, several Asian countries, and even a few western ones, regard Singapore as a model. Prosperity accompanied by the merest patina of democratic arrangements ensuring everything is neat and orderly, and nicely in its place– what’s not to like about this?
I am now back in relatively ramshackle and corrupt Malaysia, with a slight sense of relief. Singapore is an Asian approximation of Plato’s Republic, and I recall thinking during an undergraduate class on Plato that his republic was a highly uncongenial place. Visiting Singapore nearly 50 years later, some enjoyable moments aside, only confirms that undergraduate impression.
Human beings need to remain somewhat unsanitized if they are to flourish.
Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.