12 Dec 2004

Weakness of the Singapore model

Trinidad Express
Weakness of the Singapore model
By Kirk Meighoo

Sunday, December 12th 2004

Singapore regularly has been raised as a model for Trinidad and Tobago and many other countries of the world. That island-state's achievements are admittedly formidable, having transformed from a poor, politically and ethnically unstable small island into a prosperous, clean, orderly, technologically advanced, internationally-focused, safe, problem-solving city-state. The autobiography of Singapore's supreme leader, Lee Kuan Yew, is an absorbing, inspiring tale and an international bestseller.

Yet there are critics. I am one of them, even though I do admire much of Singapore's real, tough achievements.

Much criticism of Singapore comes from a human rights perspective. But many of the advocates of the Singapore model do not necessarily share the view that Western, liberal human rights are more important than security, prosperity, longevity, order, and so forth. Posed in this way, it becomes an irresolvable debate over values.

On the other hand, an important critique can be made from the very foundations on which many "Singapore-model" admirers stand, which are its economic strategies and achievements.

We start by asking a simple question: can you name five Singaporean companies? Not even excellent ones, but good, bad, or indifferent ones. For such a universally-praised economy, this is surprisingly difficult.

The Far Eastern Economic Review's list of Singapore's top ten businesses is revealing. Five of them have overriding government interests, including the top business, Singapore Airlines. The other four are ranked numbers three to six. They are the Development Bank of Singapore, Singapore Mass Rapid Transit, Singapore Telecom, and Singapore Press Holdings.

Of the five privately owned businesses, one is a luxury car dealership, which sells Mercedes-Benz (Cycle and Carriage), another is the largest property developer in Singapore (City Developments), and another (Asia Pacific Breweries) sells Heineken and Guinness along with the local brand, Tiger. The general manager of APB is an expat. (Expats form an unusually large core of Singapore's business population.) This hardly sounds like the profile of a global business leader.

Indeed, Singapore is largely a place where foreign business persons set up regional headquarters, and where government firmly leads the local population. Private citizens play secondary, or lesser, roles.

Contrast this with South Korea, for example. Their Samsung, Daewoo, Hyundai, and Kia are major global companies which lead or are major players in their respective fields, globally.

I am heartened in the Trinidad and Tobago case by the instances of companies like SM Jaleel and Angostura/CL World Brands. In a recent study of small states' global competitiveness, the Commonwealth Secretariat has rightly pointed to these companies as the outstanding examples of Trinidad and Tobago's success, not the foreign-dominated energy sector.

Importantly, Singapore's economic strategy has necessary political and social implications. Because it is based on attracting foreign businesses and preparing citizens to work for them, the society demands conformity, not individuality; it demands submission, not creativity; it demands obedience, not questioning. Singapore's
government and society are of necessity authoritarian and paternalistic.

A society which seeks to make its own distinctive mark on the world, on the other hand, needs to be oriented quite differently. It must be bold, distinctive, confident of itself and its own values, excellent in what it does, hardy enough to explore and discover, and it needs to lead.

The Singapore model is that of a colony, or an outpost. It has taken advantage of its island-port status on the edge of a massive continent. Now that China and India are awakening from their centuries-long slumber, Singapore will become less central. No doubt Singapore will retool itself to take advantage of the changing situation. But its plan was never to lead. It has always been hard-headedly realistic.

But the West Indies need not adopt that model. If we were isolated islands the case would be different. But we form a distinctive human culture-zone, which already has a place in the world's imagination, literature, history, and culture, if not yet economically or politically. Frankly, economics and politics are easier bits to establish.

The West Indies has a rich past upon which it can build in the future, one far greater-and more viable-than Trinidad and Tobago alone, or even Jamaica, Barbados, or Demerara, which admittedly have become part of the wider shared human heritage in their individual capacities.

We must undertake the long-term self-transformation from being peripheral colonies to being autonomous centres. It will not be easy, or quick. But it is our destiny which we must fulfil, or perish while trying. Singapore does not have that option, unless it merges back
into Malaysia. It is doomed to be peripheral, an entrepôt.

However, the West Indies has not yet worked up the courage, confidence, and conviction to do so. We prefer to remain as colonies, mimicking and clinging to "the international" as dependents, rather than active partners. The problem is complex.

One of the favourite sayings in this place, which annoys me to no end is "we do not have to re-invent the wheel". On the contrary, we must re-invent the wheel every day. We must invent our own institutions, our own solutions, our own language, our own technology, constantly. If we do not invent and create, that makes us less than full human beings.

In Trinidad, our sickness is that we believe modernity is something one buys from abroad. "Knowledge society" means little more than importing computers and earning foreign-recognised degrees. We have little idea that modernity is produced, a conscious self-transformation in a new context. Asian modernity was not purchased from the West. It has been produced by updating their past. They still even go to the toilet in their traditional way; however, they have developed sanitation technology, convenience, and added comfort to make it truly modern.

In the West Indies, we have still not escaped from clerkdom, thinking that an office job is superior to all others. We do not consider the messy business of how wealth is generated to sustain offices.

We have a simplistic, colonial view of education as job training, assuming that jobs will be provided for us once we have secured certificates. We do not know that as an independent people we need to create our own jobs, not merely fill vacancies of foreign companies.

In our simplistic view of education, we do not take into account that Bill Gates dropped out in his freshman year of university, or that Stephen Spielberg never finished film school. Robert Kiyosaki, in his popular Rich Dad, Poor Dad series of books, contrasts his father who held a PhD but struggled financially all his life, with his friend's father who was poorly educated in the formal system, but was extremely successful in creating wealth and security, instead of being an employee.

Criticising the formal education system in the US, Kiyosaki notes, "The 'A' students end up working for the 'C' students. And the 'B' students end up working for the government."

There are surely complex reasons for this phenomenon, but one is simply that a person in his or her 20s has the time to learn to be independent, take risks, face bankruptcy, shake himself off, and try again. However, if one remains in school during this period, or even longer, not only does one become dependent on the artificial life of school, but one may have debts to pay, and perhaps have a spouse and family obligations. Risk-taking becomes much more prohibitive. You need a job.

The Singapore model, then, is for dependent people who will work for other wealth-creators. We have the opportunity, skills, legacy, and resources, to be more than dependents in the world. Our politics, economy, and society, accordingly, must aim toward the creation of a free, prosperous, independent, viable, and autonomous civilisation in the New World. We must think big.


Utama said...

This is such a good article. The situation of singapore is either to merge back with malaysia or submerge by itself. Singapore do not have a choice. Singaporeans do not have a choice.

The big question is: are all of us going to sink together with the captains?

ケリオ said...

Excellent blog! I'm Singaporean, and I can totally understand all the sentiments. I've always felt this country was more a farm than a metropolis. We're all cows for the milking, fruit ripe for the picking. We stay oblivious to the actual intention of our leaders while successfully being so ego-tEstical we stuff their stockings down our throats trying to kiss their feet, all while pretending we're the greatest things to ever walk this planet since amoeba.
Man, this country is F***ed up. Can't wait to get the hell out of this S**thole.

KnightofPentacles said...

I would not write off Singapore that quickly. Then again, given the number of our elite who have children and/or families already resident in other countries...

imho, leaving your home country for another place of abode is trading in one set of problems for another. It is not a decision to be undertaken lightly or in a fit of emotion.

Where ever you go, there you are.