TL;DR – The fact that Singapore is still “alive and intact as its own tiny city-state” is amazeballs.
It’s been five years since LKY’s passing. The man may be gone, but what he’d built and the people he’d helped shape are very much still alive even now. The values and the spirit live on.
For a while, some Singaporeans may have wondered if Singapore has lost it, if the Singapore government is no longer as clever and gutsy, if the PAP has, as Tan Cheng Bock has described, lost its way.
But first things first, what is the Singapore way?
One Guardian article had once described Singapore as “a prosperous city-state with an intensely pragmatic people under the spell of a peculiar brand of ‘soft’ authoritarianism.”
Whatever. Betcha most Singaporeans don’t really care if we’re more left, right or centre, so long as the economy’s booming, jobs are plenty, wages are going up and our asses are traveling. They don’t call us pragmatic for nothing.
We’re so teensy tiny, barren of any natural resources. Heck, we don’t even have water. But we top most of the best-of-best lists, beating out other countries in terms of PISA, home ownership, best this and best that.
We boost of efficient bureaucracy, a corruption-free government, clean air, safe streets, excellent schools, affordable healthcare, very high home ownership, and one of the highest per capita income in the world. And we have the senior Lee to thank for much of that.
Some people have said you’re so tiny so you’re so easy to govern and manage! Of course, you’d do well.
The reverse works too, you know. That we’re so tiny we shouldn’t even survive. How many tiny city-states have you seen in the world that have lasted over a hundred years? And we’re talking about a city-state without oil, minerals, diamonds, or anything that we can export for money. Nothing. Zilch.
So how have we come this far in just 55 years?
Nope, it was none of the Western-style systems or ideologies that did the trick. Yes, I’m aware that people have described South Korea as a centralised democracy, Taiwan a more decentralised civic-participatory democracy, India too is a democracy, while Singapore is often categorically classified as an autocracy.
Sure, it’s convenient and oh-so-neat to just put us all into some pre-labeled pigeonholes. But reality is that Singapore is basically “agnostic”. We pursue something that’s closer to strategic pragmatism.
If we die-die have to squeeze out one ideology of the ruling PAP, then the one unwritten ideology has gotta be that they have no ideology to follow.
Yeps, what works best for us is “whatever works”.
Mr Lee famously said these words in an interview with the New York Times back in 2007,
“The system works regardless of your race, language or religion because otherwise we’d have divisions. We are pragmatists. We don’t stick to any ideology. Does it work? Let’s try it and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamored with any ideology.”
Although Cambridge-educated and having spent some time in the UK, Mr Lee was not interested in the lofty ideals of liberty and human rights. After all, one can’t fill stomachs with liberty.
Legend has it that Mr Lee’s favourite question was not “Is this right?”, but “So what?”
So you can imagine how infuriatingly confusing all of these would be to the Western world since the Singapore way would challenge the premises of modern Western democratic ideology and economic orthodoxies. We don’t pick one ideology and adopt all the theories under or associated with it. In fact, we would look at all options under all ideologies and just pick the best or most-suited ones for ourselves. And sometimes, we even mix them up for our own special blend.
The fact that Singapore is still “alive and intact as its own tiny city-state” is amazeballs enough.
Just imagine what we were like in the mid-1960s. Freshly booted out by Malaysia, Singapore was just a slum, a place with dim prospects, a poorly trained workforce, and with so few natural resources that it had to practically import everything including water.
By the dogmas of the Western theories of economics, a place like Singapore was destined to be in perpetual poverty without foreign aid and intervention. But look at us now.
Singapore has achieved riches and more than just a sliver of stability by not following Western scripts. In the West, they believe in the notion that a government can only be successful if fully democratic. According to their playbook, authoritarianism must lead to corruption and inefficiency.
But Mr Lee overcame this right from the beginning with a system of strong governance and other unconventional solutions, like high salaries will attract the most talented team.
So from day one, under Mr Lee and his team’s leadership, we already decided not to play (the Western) ball.
Our nation, our rules.
No one except ourselves should get to decide what sort of government we want, and what sort of system and policies we prefer. They can call us whatever names by their books, but hey, the important thing is to remember those are their books. Written by them, for them.
We’re entering into our fourth generation (4G) of political leadership now, and I think we’re still pretty much the same intensely pragmatic people. As for the ruling PAP, they’re still refusing to just be herded into following other people’s way. Or to fit into whatever pigeonholes other people want. So no, I don’t think the PAP has lost its way.
Just like how during this coronavirus outbreak, every other country’s having a lockdown. But no, not us. We’re on a circuit-breaker month.
Let me say this again: Our nation, our rules.
We go with whatever works. Not by ideologies, and definitely not by other people’s ideologies.
After DPM Heng delivered the Solidarity Budget which consisted of additional support measures to tide Singaporeans through the COVID-19 crisis, Mr Singh had compared these measures to the New Deal.
The New Deal was implemented by United States President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s to rebuild the country during the Great Depression.
Mr Singh asked if the second and third support packages could constitute a new social compact for Singapore, saying the country should thoroughly review what a living wage ought to be for workers providing essential services, like cleaners.
Responding on Tuesday, DPM Heng warned against relying on “ideological short cuts or labels, without thinking deeply about interactions and longer-term effects”.
He noted that the New Deal was meant to take the US out of the Great Depression, but its ideas have also polarised American society. He elaborated that this schism can still be seen today between liberals who support it for its comprehensive relief and reform programmes, and conservatives who oppose it for being hostile to business and growth.
Mr Singh had pointed out “the New Deal took more than six years and secured the US as a welfare state with a strong federal government and a perennial national debt problem”.
Now this is worrying. No wonder DPM responded with, “Indeed, we should think hard about this.”
“It is important that in any policymaking, we pay attention to the subtle but significant changes in the tone of society, in the attitudes of people and in relationships which will take years to show, and which are not easy to reverse.”
“For our little red dot, we must have the courage and wisdom to do what is right for us – and not rely on simple ideology or fad and fashion of the day. Focus on our people’s well-being, and design systems and support around that core purpose.”
Indeed, we should be careful when using ideological tags to label ourselves. It might limit creativity in problem solving, it might also incite unnecessary expectations for things to go a certain way or for next steps to take a certain direction. It is enough that we learn from the other countries’ or people’s experience and lessons, but there is no need to fashion or model ourselves after anyone. After all, no one country nor situation is the same.
Here’s someone on Facebook who holds the same view, hurhur.
I, for one, am not supportive of Singapore heading towards a welfare state, and especially not one with a debt problem.
Did you know that we’re one of the few countries in the world that actually don’t need to borrow to fund our budget every year? Prudence is in our DNA, and for as long as I can remember, our government has always refrained from implementing programmes that will burden or worse, bankrupt future generations. We prefer to spend money that we have, and not borrow and leave the repayment to the next, and the next-next generations.
And even better, we’re quite possibly one of the rare ones that is able to fund our budget without borrowing and also without high taxes. If we go the way of welfarism, are we still able to enjoy the very low taxes? Otherwise, where would the money come from?
Other countries can do whatever the heck they want, adopt whatever ideologies they so desire.
But Singapore, you do you.