A low-tax libertarian paradise whose government mandates where citizens can live so as to avoid the creation of racial ghettoes. An anti-communist stronghold during the Cold War, now cultivating close links with China. A country that holds free and fair elections, which the ruling party never loses.
Welcome to Singapore, the subject of Jeevan Vasagar’s new book Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia. Cited abroad as either an exemplar or a cautionary tale, depending on one’s political views, the city-state’s remarkable transformation from colonial backwater into one of the richest countries in the world has had an outsized impact on the world’s imagination.
The spark for Vasagar’s new history of the former British colony was the debate over Brexit in his home country, the UK, when some Leave ideologues argued that Singapore’s low taxes and ability to trade freely around the world was a model to emulate.
“It is odd, on several levels, for the former coloniser to look to its ex-colony as an example,” Vasagar told me. But then the references to Singapore in the political discourse he was hearing were rarely grounded in reality: “Nobody had a clear sense of what it really was.”
Vasagar has a personal connection to Singapore. His mother was born just across the border in Malaysia, while his father immigrated to the city-state from Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). He was raised in the UK, but made regular trips to the country as a child and returned as a correspondent for the Financial Times in 2016. His insider-outsider perspective shaped the book. “I had the sense of seeing the evolution of the country from the inside,” he said. “One of the things people have a hard time understanding about Singapore is why its citizens accept the social contract and sacrifice their liberty for the things they’re getting in return.”
The sacrifices can indeed be drastic. Singapore isn’t a dictatorship, exactly, but neither is it a democracy. There are regular elections but the ruling party never loses, helped by the complex electoral system, which favours incumbents. There are few formal limitations on speech but many media outlets, including the dominant Straits Times, maintain an unwritten list of “OB markers” – short for “out of bounds” – topics which reporters are forbidden from covering, which can include questions about race relations or the country’s water supply.
Under Lee Kwan Yew, the country’s founding father, political opponents could be jailed for decades without trial. Chia Thye Poh, an alleged communist sympathiser, was imprisoned for 23 years and held under house arrest for another nine. The government has in recent years taken a softer line on dissidents, who are still repressed but can now expect to spend days – rather than years – in jail. In 2000, a corner of Hong Lim Park was turned into a “Speakers’ Corner”, modelled on the one in London’s Hyde Park, the only place in the country where most protest is permitted.
Yet the ruling party has offered a dramatic trade-off. In the space of a single lifetime, Singapore has risen from an impoverished nation when it became independent from Malaysia in 1965 to being richer, per capita, than the United States. Singapore’s authorities managed this feat by courting Western investment and leading an active industrial policy, turning the country into a global manufacturing centre for essential components such as semiconductors.
Singapore’s marriage of capitalist prosperity with limited freedom is said to have convinced China’s former reformist leader Deng Xiaoping that such a model was possible, contrary to the Western consensus which held that a growing middle class would come to demand greater political rights. “It is very clear that Deng thought that there was a lot worth copying in Singapore,” says Vasagar. He stresses, however, that this point should not be overstated: while Singapore is certainly an authoritarian state, it permits a degree of political and individual freedom unthinkable in Xi Jinping’s China.
The degree to which the “Singaporean model” relies on a paternalistic state might surprise libertarians who cite the country as an example to follow. For instance, citizens are forced to place a fifth of their salary into a government retirement fund. Singaporeans are restricted in where they can live, a consequence of the government’s policy of maintaining a balance between the country’s three main ethnicities – Chinese, Indian and Malay – in each neighbourhood and preventing the emergence of racial ghettoes. As the country strove to densify its limited land post-independence, residents were forced out of traditional huts and into modern high-rises, though many resented their new homes and had difficulty adapting to life in them.
The future for Singapore is fraught, Vasagar told me. The city-state’s anti-communist stance during the Cold War tilted it economically and politically towards the West, but how the country will deal with the rise of China is much less certain. “Singapore has so often benefited from great power competition,” he says. “But there is this powerful sense of Chinese identity for a lot of Chinese Singaporeans – and then you have [Singapore’s] economic relationship with China, which wasn’t replicated during the Cold War. That’s going be a hard tension for Singapore to navigate.”
Climate change, too, is likely to prove a challenge for the tiny island, hundreds of square kilometres of which are built on land reclaimed from the sea. Singapore is heating at approximately 0.25 °C per decade, double the global average. Overuse of air conditioning heats up the air outside buildings, raising temperatures on the streets. And while Singapore can build protections against rising sea levels and ocean flooring, the small country “doesn’t really have the option of retreat – unlike bigger states it has little space to yield”, explained Vasagar.
Whether Singapore’s success can be emulated remains uncertain. The conditions that led to its rise are not easily replicated. But then closely studying the country is not always the point for those outsiders citing it. “Singapore is a place where people see what they want to see.”