Singapore is many things to many people.
To some right-wingers in the West, Singapore represents what a low tax, low regulation regime can achieve. In Britain, for example, many Conservative politicians argue that post-Brexit U.K. should become a “Singapore-on-Thames”, offering businesses lower tax rates and a lighter regulatory climate as compared to its neighbours in the European Union.
To others in the political left, Singapore’s socialist leanings serve to be a model for practical reform. The New York Times alone has published multiple opinion pieces that argue that Singapore’s healthcare and education systems have “lessons for an unequal America”.
Singapore is all of these things, and none of them at the same time.
Defining Singapore’s politics
Singapore’s policies broadly have a dual imperative: spur economic growth through the accumulation of global capital and ensure social stability.
These imperatives go hand-in-hand. By attracting foreign investment and catalysing economic growth, the government reduces discontent and increases stability. In return, social, and political stability make Singapore a predictable and safe bet for multi-nationals looking to set-up shop.
What’s missing is the cultural dimension that is fiercely contested in other countries. Even when issues about identity and culture are brought up, they are debated in relation to these imperatives. Take the repeal of Section 377a (the law that banned sex between two men), for example. Before the repeal got announced there was much talk about how any move should avoid a “sudden, destabilising change”. When announcing the repealed itself at the National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasised the fact that most Singaporeans were ‘ready’ for the change.
This doesn’t mean that Singapore is completely devoid of ideology like some political commentators point out. Quite the contrary. By prioritising these imperatives over others, you make an ideological choice about what it means to govern and what effective governance looks like. These might be the right choices – the government and many Singaporeans believe that stability and openness ensure the island’s survival – or the wrong ones, but they are choices nonetheless.
Singapore as an easy example
While the broader aims of government are defined, individual policies which are mostly subordinate to these aims, are not. They come in contradictory and messy forms.
Massive investments in healthcare, housing, and education, which might be seen as socialist to the outsider, improve the quality of human capital. Conversely, free market policies like low tax rates are complemented by large-scale interventions in the economy. According to one estimate, almost 18% of Singapore’s economic output is produced by state-owned or related enterprises (like Singapore Airlines and Singtel). All of this makes global capital more palatable to Singaporeans, and Singaporeans more attractive to global capital.
These policies, which have a wide range of ideological inclinations, can hence be picked, mixed, and matched by politicians, academics, and journalists in the rest of the world to create a narrative about Singapore’s success. A narrative that often suits their interests.
This is particularly the case considering that people outside Singapore have little to no knowledge about Singaporean politics. Why would they? What happens in a tiny island-state that has very little sway in international affairs, is unlikely to have an impact on their lives.
Singapore can hence be anything you want it to be.
Singapore, is, however, something you want to be because of the images it evokes.
To some, the island is almost a utopia. A place where everything is orderly and is in harmony. A futuristic city where the airport is a massive bio-dome, where man-made super trees dot the spaces below massive skyscrapers, and where streets are clean, people are well-fed and content. All qualities that are desirable for imitation but also vastly over-simplified.
Part of this is due to a deliberate branding exercise. As early as 1967, the country’s leaders grasped the importance of imagery and aesthetics, vowing to transform the island into a “Garden City”. In just over three years, 55,000 trees were planted along highways and streets. When Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew discussed the initiative in his memoirs, he described its importance in relation to global capital. To him, ample greenery in an environment clean of litter would show that Singapore was a well-organised city and a great destination for tourists and investments.
Recent developments seem to be a natural extension of this. When the Marina Bay district was being planned, the Urban Redevelopment Authority stressed that it would become a “waterfront city in a garden”. The agency encouraged landscaping and sky-rise greenery amongst the skyscrapers as the district would be “Singapore’s face to the world”. When the district reached maturity, the government supported documentaries that showcased the construction of the district and positioned Singapore as the “City of the Future”.
What can others learn from Singapore?
Singaporean policies often fail to be useful in overseas contexts. Not every country is a small island-state in the middle of one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, led by a dominant party. Replicating its policies can hence be ineffective, or even impossible.
More than anything, if there’s one thing that others can learn from the Singaporean example, it’s that discourse around policy and politics require nuance. No one set of ideologically coherent policies is going to lead to utopia or uniform outcomes for different groups. Even in the imagined utopia that is Singapore, problems such as social and economic inequalities exist. Simple slogans like “Singapore-on-Thames” or “Africa’s Singapore” hence cannot be the be-all and end-all.
The simplification of Singapore and cherry-picking of its policies are also emblematic of the simplification of politics as a whole. Citizens who seem jaded with the status quo, want something that is radically different. They might not know what it entails, but they crave the images of futurism, order, and harmony that comes with a conjured utopia. Images of something that might not even exist.