The giant and the tiny red dot

Chee Siok Chin

Singapore is a tiny country less than 700 square kilometres and where just over four million people reside. Compare this with China’s 1.3 billion people and a land area of over nine million square kilometers, and the question of what the island-nation can teach the world’s most populated country comes to mind.

Yet, there has been no shortage of such advocates. Listen to what economist and strategist, Mr. Arjuna Mahendran, says about the matter:

“Singapore is a small country of 4.3 million people, and is very efficiently run by a government of competent technocrats. It is considered a role model for other Asian countries in the field of urban planning. China’s leaders starting with the late Deng Xiao Ping used Singapore as a model to fashion the development of Shanghai and other urban centers.”

India is also jumping in. Mahendran points out that “India is using Singapore’s expertise to re-develop her major cities” as well as those in Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and even the Middle East.

There is no doubt that Singapore is an extraordinarily influential city-state. It is often seen as a model of economic success by not only its neighbours, but also beyond.

Rich government, poor people

The economic success that Singapore often boasts of, however, is overstated. The real wealth lies with the ministers who have recently increased their salaries to between 1.5 million to 2 million US dollars year. Before this increase, ministers in Singapore were already the highest paid public servants in the world.

Whilst the island’s leaders increased their already inflated salaries, however, the General Household Survey showed that the average household monthly income for the 30 percentile of lowest wage earners dropped by an average of 12 per cent.

At the same time, the top 10 percentile of households saw an increase of almost 15 per cent in their incomes.

The Gini Coefficient had increased from 0.49 to 0.522 from the year 200 to 2005, making income disparity in the country one of the highest in the world.

The question of whom all this economic success benefits necessarily arises. In truth its economic policies serve only to benefit the rich whilst those living in need are told that welfare should be treated like a dirty word.

The elderly are told to work beyond their retirement age and for less pay if they do not have enough money to see them through their remaining years.

The Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) has been so successful in propagating its non-welfarism policy that Singaporeans think it is perfectly all right when see elderly women and men cleaning public toilets, collecting empty cans and cardboard boxes to sell, and going from table to table hawking packets of tissue at food centres.

Dependent thinking

This lack of compassion and conscience arise due to the fact that the local media have been hijacked by the ruling party. Newspapers, magazines, television and radio networks are controlled by the government.

This is the reality. The “success” the Singapore Government boasts about is attained at the cost of the freedoms, rights and dignity of its people.

The legal system is used to silence dissent; countless civil lawsuits and criminal prosecution have been successfully brought against opposition members.

Draconian laws have been enacted to ensure that power of the ruling party is deeply entrenched and prevails. Laws that prohibit public gatherings, protests, speaking to public audiences, producing political films and the use of summary judgments in defamation suits are just some of the regulations that serve to punish those who are deemed as hazards to the PAP’s hold on authority.

Even the police force have been brainwashed to believe that they are personal protectors of members of the PAP.

Less authoritarian?

When compared to countries is Asia such as Burma, Cambodia, China, Vietnam and Laos, Singapore appears to be less authoritarian and less audacious in the way it deals with freedom fighters.

But the PAP’s tactics are no less effective in curbing human rights and quelling any perceived threats to its power.

The situation that we face in Singapore is no less difficult. Politicians and democracy advocates have been sued, bankrupted, run out of the country and jailed in our struggle for democracy, social justice and human rights.

Teacher of the unfree world

But what has this Singapore-style government got to do with the world’s Goliath?

It has been reported that China’s former leader, Deng Xiaoping had openly expressed particular admiration for Singapore’s approach to “social order” as the best blueprint for the rapid development of China’s own cities. By the 1980s the Chinese Communist leaders, tired of the Western notion of urbanism, were also beginning to embrace the Singapore model.

Former president, Jiang Zemin is also an admirer of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. According to Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper, Jiang told Lee during their meeting that he admired him for his role as Singapore’s elder statesman.

The economic blueprint for any country cannot be designed in isolation of political and social development. The Singapore model has shown that economic success cannot be achieved without the suppression of rights and basic freedoms.

China’s human rights record is drawing much criticism and attention from democratic societies. Sanctions, resolutions and outcry by governments and NGOs affects the Chinese Government more than it cares to recognise or admit.

The Singapore model on the other hand draws little criticism much less affirmative action from these similar bodies. One reason is because it endears itself to Western multinational corporations by creating an environment highly beneficial to such foreign businesses but, as I have pointed out, with devastating results on the locals.

It also placates the West by making soothing noises of being committed to transparency and the rule of law, but in reality practicing the opposite. This creates the illusion of legitimacy for the government.

Unfortunately, this falsehood has either been overlooked or accepted as fact by the international community.

Worryingly, countries like Taiwan and Russia are picking up a thing or two about how to undermine democracy while appearing to supporting it.

Taiwan’s presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou from the Kuomintang Party had cited Singapore as a model for Taiwan. He said “Singapore is different from us (Taiwan) as its emphasis is not on democratisation. Nevertheless, it is professional, corruption-free and efficient, which is worth our learning.”

A country cannot stifle democracy without seriously violating basic human freedoms. Yet, Ma looks to this city-state as an example for one of Asia’s most established democracies.

Russia’s current strongman Vladimir Putin is said to be looking at Lee’s model of promoting economic development in isolation of the democratisation process.

Ousted former prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, ran the country using the Singapore model. Analyst Shawn Crispin wrote that in Thaksin’s public speeches and weekly radio addresses, the former Thai leader had frequently invoked Singapore’s style of governance. It proved unpopular with Thailand’s democracy and freedom activists, which eventually led to his downfall.

The dangerous truth

Since it opened its doors to foreign trade and investments, the role that China plays in the world’s economy has hugely increased. If it does a Singapore-type expansion, there will be a heavy price to pay for all involved, both politically as well as economically.

There is no doubt that Singapore is often seen as a model of economic success. The dangerous truth is that its governance presents a threat to democracy all over the world.

If a few countries begin to import, even in part, Lee Kuan Yew’s style of governance, the struggle against tyranny is in for a rough and prolonged ride.

Chee Siok Chin is a member of the SDP’s Central Executive Committee.