Building Singapore

Due to the relative lack of anything interesting, I will not be writing about Singaporean politics while I'm here. Suffice it to say, the news this morning reported that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew went to China to have a nice dinner at Jiang Zemin's house, and that PM Lee Hsien Loong had a productive meeting with Indonesia's President Yudhoyono.

But that doesn't mean I can't reflect on history a bit. So here goes. It is a peculiarity among American scholars of Southeast Asia to say that you "don't like" or "don't enjoy" Singapore. Part of it is that Singapore is so developed and modern (almost postmodern, really) that it doesn't really feel like Southeast Asia. There's no villages. You can drink the water right out of the tap. The subway is clean and organized and goes wherever you need to go, and moreover, it interacts seamlessly with the bus. Something like 1/3 of all residents of Singapore are foreigners…probably more if you count the many domestic workers. Basically everyone you meet speaks English.

But there's something more than that. Rather than just indifference–sort of like what China scholars think about Hong Kong, which is quite similar–I detect an active disdain for Singapore among many SE Asianists. Many resist coming here, or complain about it in non-specific terms as a place that they "don't like." I've never shared that sentiment myself. I've always found Singapore to be interesting. It's not an old country, as independence from Malaysia came in 1965. When independence came, no one thought it was a viable political entity, a tiny, largely Chinese, English speaking island sandwiched between two really big non-Chinese neighbors. But it's worked out well for Singapore. And for someone like me who wonders how in the world some countries get to be prosperous while others don't, Singapore's amazing success over the past 40 years can't help but seem interesting.

I thought about this as I rode across the island/country today on my way to the think tank where I'm based. It reinforced to me just how small the country is. Its land area is only 700 square kilometers total. At the widest part it's maybe 20 miles or so wide. Despite that, it has to have all the things that a regular country has, like for instance a training ground for its very large military. (From my hotel room I've been enjoying watching the Singaporean Air Force F15s practice their maneuvers.) Gazing out the window of the bus, I had to think, what were the Singaporeans thinking when they became independent? Sure, they had a better go of it than most newly independent countries, being located at a vital trade route, having had good institutions built under the British, and being small enough to govern pretty easily. But still, all that can give you some economic advantages, but doesn't build a state for you. And my impression is that the independence generation here had a laser-sharp focus on making sure that Singapore would be able to fend for itself as a country. These guys woke up every morning, went downstairs, and built a modern state. That's pretty cool to think about–and that's obviously flipping hard, given that few others newly independent states were anywhere near as successful, and a good number of them failed spectacularly.

So given that Singapore was successful at the very thing that its leaders and its people feared the most, and at creating the type of prosperity that so many other Southeast Asians dream about, why the disdain for Singapore among my colleagues? I have a couple of ideas, but nothing conclusive. One is that Singapore is actually a relatively conservative place, both socially conservative and also quite materialist and certainly constructed to appeal to your average Australian or British tourist. Related to that, perhaps its fact that the ruling People's Action Party–formerly an explicitly socialist opposition party–morphed into a party of big business and single party, pro-establishment politics. Perhaps its the explicit classism that is rather evident at times (the people at ISEAS where shocked that I took the bus there). Perhaps its a romanticized version of what Asia is "really" supposed to be like, that is to say, exotic and strange, not comfortable and familiar. I'm not sure what it is. But even if you don't like Singapore because it reminds you of any other generic cookie-cutter modern megacity, I think it's unquestionably important to think about how Singapore got this way.