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6 February 2017updated 08 Sep 2021 7:41am

Here’s what it would really mean if Britain was like Singapore

The British right talks up the Singapore model, but it doesn't quite get it. 

By Scott Anthony

During the Brexit campaign Singapore was held up by economic liberals as a potential model for Britain’s future. More recently the idea that the UK could become the ‘Singapore of the West’ has operated as a veiled threat to be waved in the direction of EU politicians: Conservative Party shorthand for saying we might row back on money laundering regulations and use the weak pound and lower corporate taxes to steal your foreign investment. Their vision of Singapore is a caricature, but what would it mean if the UK did actually want to learn from Singaporean example?

‘You can’t just say you’re going to be like Singapore,’ argues Parag Khanna, Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, ‘It has experienced quantum leaps in government  performance and nothing about Britain could match that, other than competitive regulation of financial services,  inherited architecture and aspects of literary culture.’

This may be so but Theresa May is not the first leader of the Conservatives to be attracted to the Singapore model. Margaret Thatcher became friends with Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, in the mid-1970s. In her memoirs Thatcher explains how admiration for Singapore’s meritocratic education system became respect for the ways in which Lee fashioned the city state to thrive in the post Bretton Woods era. Lee’s use of Jurong Industrial Estate – where hi-tech foreign companies were enticed with tax breaks and cheap labour – along with the planned expansion of the financial sector, provided a model that would be drawn on by Deng Xiaoping. It was a model that would also be replicated in the Docklands and parts of post-industrial Britain with the wooing of firms such as Nissan.

However, while the British state may have developed policies able to capitalize on the increasing mobility of capital other aspects of Singapore’s example have remained unappreciated. Singapore fetishizes technocratic governance. It obsessively models possible policy outcomes. Studies of comparative governance are the bedrock of political discourse. ‘If you fail to appreciate the importance of a deeply embedded knowledge base, professionalism, impartiality and empowerment of so-called bureaucrats in the civil service then you are really missing the point,’ says Khanna. ‘If you don’t think it’s possible to return to those days where professionals helped to steer political decisions,’ he argues, ‘then I have no hope for you.’

What Thatcher found in Singapore was a model for both breaking trade unions and reindustrializing Britain. Theresa May’s cabinet appear to think that the success of Singapore after it was ejected from Malaysia in 1965 offers a model for Britain to emulate after it leaves the EU. What Conservative politicians have not appreciated thus far is that one fundamental reason for Singapore’s ability to successfully ride the surf of globalization is the influence of Clement Attlee’s Labour administration and Fabian Socialism.

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“There are certain ideological beliefs that the People’s Action Party (the party that has ruled Singapore since independence) holds very closely,” explains Professor Chua Beng Huat of the National University of Singapore, “some of these were in place since the early 1960s when they were still a seriously left-wing party.”

Far from being a poster-child for free-market globalization the Singapore state is unapologetically interventionist. To take the most striking example, land is nationalized and the state takes responsibility for building and selling housing. Today around 90 per cent of Singaporeans live in public housing, a sovereign wealth fund underwrites public finances and Singapore Airlines is the international flagship of the country’s enormous state enterprise sector. The founding articles of the PAP were cribbed from the British Labour Party, and the legacy of that post-war social democratic moment remains foundational to the success of twenty-first century Singapore.

“I think in the UK that the quality of life of each successive generation after the Baby boom gets worse,” explains Chua. “But that’s the global inequality situation and in that scenario Singapore is better because of the public housing. The housing keeps Singapore stable.”

If Britain was serious about becoming the Singapore of the West, the state would not only have to reappraise its attitude to public servants, revolutionise its housing policies and intervene in industrial development it would also have to develop a completely new type of immigration policy. Singapore is a transitory place. Immigrants make up around a quarter of the people on the island at any one time. Theirs is an aggressively tiered immigration system with South Asian, low skilled or older workers invariably on tightly policed temporary work visas, while the younger, fertile and better educated are offered more generous terms. Population control is a policy tool deployed quite ruthlessly in the national social and economic interest. A version of the Singaporean system in the UK would upset Guardianistas as much as Kippers.

It’s also worth pausing on the emotional consequence of Singapore’s success. Since the split with Malaysia the nation has prospered against all odds, but with its political, economic and social life still rather out-of-synch from those of its nearest neighbors it’s a society that has to shoulder serious risk. The country’s prosperity is entirely dependent on a functioning global economy – its enormous wealth cannot be self-sustained. The Singaporean middle-class live in modest flats, cannot take car ownership for granted, and are compelled to save large amounts of their monthly income by the state because they have no pension. This may likely be the path of the UK’s future but it’s not the type of bourgeoisie that many Brits still believe they can join.

“Singapore will always be endowed with great anxiety,” explains Chua, “we’re now wealthy and in all kinds of rankings ranked very high, but we’re very paranoid people because no matter how successful it is the claim is that the whole thing could be unraveled very quickly if we made a strategic mistake.”

Since the mid-1960s success in UK politics has revolved around winning over the beneficiaries of post-war reform, the non-negotiable path to power involved both reassuring and sating the needs of an acquisitive and expanding middle-class. For demographic reasons this will likely change at some point in the next decade or so, but that change underlines the challenge of the present moment. If Theresa May was serious about making the UK the Singapore of the West she would have to adopt a range of activist policy measures historically associated with the Labour left, redefine the party’s philosophical approach to citizenship and put the frighteners on a segment of the population that has decided elections for the past fifty years. This may well be a manifesto for social stability and startling economic success, but it’s less likely a manifesto that could win an election for the Conservatives even though they are probably the only party that could make a success of it. Perhaps that’s why ‘Singapore of the West’ works so well as shorthand: it’s a rhetorical slight of hand so appealing that no one actually wants to peek behind it.

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