Land of the weird? More like the fabulous

From social welfare and education to chic Christmas shopping, Singapore is near the top of world lea

You can now chew gum in Singapore. Among the changes that have occurred here since I last visited six years ago - a population increase from four million to almost five million; the rise in the cost of car permits, which was as high as £38,000 in December (this doesn't include the price of the car); the arrival of the Indian middle classes at the Sentosa pleasure island and of Thai ladyboys at Club Romeo in the Orchard Towers complex - the permitting of gum will resonate loudest in the west.

The ban was lifted (supposedly for medical or teeth-strengthening purposes only) following pressure from Wrigley, its concerns brought to the table by George W Bush at talks in 2003. The US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement stalled over two issues - the war in Iraq and, ridiculously, the ban on chewing gum. The Singaporean prime minister gave way. What appears to be social liberalisation in an authoritarian city state is in fact an example of multinational corporate lobbying.

Tell people that you are going to spend a holiday in Singapore and the response is universal: "How weird." The chewing gum ban - like the notorious death penalty for smuggling drugs - has long symbolised Singapore's authoritarian form of government, which has planned and produced an apparently near-perfect economy in a city state whose centre is dominated by financial skyscrapers, hotels and shopping malls. You haven't experienced Christmas shopping until you've witnessed the queues outside Louis Vuitton and Gucci in the Orchard Road shopping centres.

Health and happiness

Weird? I find it less disturbing than those international hotels where a room costs as much as the maid's annual salary; or the cultural poverty tour where you stare at poor people in villages, pretend to eat the same food as them and perhaps even stay in a hut for a night. If having street upon street of shopping emporia is the price you pay for almost full employment, very low crime, a per-capita GDP that both the IMF and the World Bank calculate to be almost 50 per cent higher than the UK's in purchasing-power parity, and a life expectancy among the highest in the world for public expenditure that is among the lowest in developed nations, then, I say, bring on the Chanel.

The "bumboats" ferry not goods, but tourists: they plough up and down the river, belting out patriotic commentary about the wealth represented by the skyscrapers. Singapore's wealth is spread unequally, but in most sectors, including transport and real estate, the average salary is about £25,000 a year. And income tax is low, varying between 0 per cent and 14 per cent on the first £80,000, rising to a maximum of 20 per cent for earnings over £160,000. Sales tax is 7 per cent (a man weighed down by shopping bags burst out laughing when I told him that UK sales tax was now 20 per cent).

So, what's not to like about it? They have workfare, like us. They have tax credits, like us. They have a far better system of highly subsidised public housing than us - and one that ensures a mix of racial groups in each development. They have a good pay-as-you-go social insurance system that funds health care, housing and retirement.

The jobless get occasional grocery vouchers but are expected to rely largely on their families for support, as are the elderly. Families have legal responsibility for all dependants, young and old, as in Germany - a law that has contributed to what is one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, probably Singapore's biggest social challenge.

Health? The government doesn't spend much on it - roughly 1 per cent of GDP, compared to the UK's 8 per cent - leaving a combination of what is basically social insurance and co-payment to make up the rest. Yet the people are healthy and in 2000 the World Health Organisation ranked Singapore's system as sixth globally. The UK's came 18th.

Gum disease

What Singapore does invest in heavily is education - a far better stimulant of good health than medicine. It allocates more than double the funds it spends on health to education - a sixth of the government's entire budget - and with it produces one of the world's most highly skilled workforces, beating the UK hands down on the OECD's educational scales. Unemployment is rarely over 3 per cent and intensive skills upgrading is offered to those at risk.

The one thing that feels socially exploitative is Singapore's reliance on cheap construction workers from Bangladesh and India, paid £12 a day - but as thousands of them want to work here, presumably the money they send home is worth it. It's about a third more than a bank's call-centre workers in India will be paid.

The distaste that Singapore provokes is mostly just a patronising cultural attitude from old Europe: it's too plastic, too shiny. It "lacks soul". And chewing gum. Chewing gum has long been touted by sociologists as a symbol of empty consumerism - its base, chicle, is extracted from overtapped trees by Mayan peasants in the Yucatán Peninsula at $5 a kilo to feed western consumers, who then spend millions cleaning it off their streets. Why do other people insist that Singapore have it?

The same people who generally profess to abhor Britain's imperialist legacy often seem happy to impose their own cultural expectations on countries that "ought" to be more culturally diverse - for which, read "poor, smiling, wearing colourful national costumes and performing a dance for tourists". In Singapore, the children wear chinos, not cheongsams, and they dance in the fake snow pumping from the foam machine outside the Tanglin Mall. But they aren't dancing for the tourists and there is nothing fake about the smiles on their faces. Tell them that Singapore is weird.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide