Friday, July 26, 2019


A few weeks ago I took my first ever trip to Singapore. I went there for work, but it was a nice opportunity to see the famous city-state for myself.

Singapore turned out to be a very comfortable place to spend a few days. Perhaps unfairly I found myself comparing it with Hong Kong, a place I am more familiar with. Both cities are self-enclosed entities that remain autonomous from the landmasses around them (although how much longer that will go on for Hong Kong is unclear). Both are ex-British colonies, both serve the Asian region as financial and cultural hubs, both are glamorous and wealthy, and both have ethnic majorities originating in Southern China.

I have to say that Singapore strikes me as the nicer of the two cities. It seemed less crowded and claustrophobic, with more one-storey colonial houses and less 50 floor high-rises. It is also far more diverse than Hong Kong, with large Malay and Indian minorities living alongside the Chinese majority, and a very large proportion of recent foreign immigrants. About 40% of the population is foreign-born, mostly coming from other Asian countries. My hotel was located in Little India, an area where most of the faces, shops and restaurants are indeed very Indian. All the cheap and authentic Indian food available at every street corner made me very happy. Curiously, while Singapore's hotels are expensive by the standards of cities in Mainland China, eating out is cheaper, with a better and more diverse selection available.

Singapore seemed compact and easy to get around, but then I live in Beijing, so my standards in this department are not very high. It also has some excellent museums, including the Asian Civilizations Museum which I visited. The display of artwork and relics belonging to Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian and other Asian cultures is truly impressive, certainly the best I have seen anywhere in Asia. It is also all nicely labelled and presented in a way that cannot always be taken for granted in this part of the world.

Of course, in many ways Singapore is not a particularly progressive country. Its draconian laws make headlines worldwide. The judiciary still makes liberal use of punishments like caning and hanging, which were part of the legal code the British left behind. People from poor countries getting hanged for drug smuggling is a sadly common occurrence. The political system is quasi-authoritarian, and the People's Action Party has been in power non-stop since 1960, with its worst ever result in the national elections standing at 60%. The current prime minister is the son of Lee Kuan Yew, the man who founded Singapore and ran the country from 1959 until 1990. Freedom of the press and the right to protest are quite severely curtailed. Gay relationships are also illegal, at least in principle.

The ruling elite has sought to justify this system by pointing to their success in running the country and the necessity to maintain peace between the different ethnic groups, as well as fostering a siege mentality towards the larger and less stable neighbouring countries. Establishment intellectuals like Kishore Mahbubani defend the system by talking about Asian values and how they differ from Western ideas of democracy and human rights. In fact, when the concept of "Asian values" became common currency in the nineties, it was promoted most strongly by the governments of Singapore and Malaysia.

None of this authoritarianism is visible or of any bother to the casual foreign visitor, and probably not even to the pampered expats who spend a few years working in the city and then move on. While the system is strict, governance is mostly uncorrupt and the legal system is considered to be quite reliable, at least for non-political cases. This mix of authoritarian rule with clean governance and meritocracy is often called the "Singapore model", a model for which Deng Xiaoping once expressed admiration and which many Chinese officials talked openly about imitating. In today's more self-assured atmosphere one is less likely to hear such talk in China, however, and in any case what worked for Singapore won't for China, as I have argued elsewhere.