Monday • December 12, 2005
IF Singapore's policy-making style had to be summed up in a phrase, it would be selective globalisation: The conscious effort to encourage certain forms of globalisation and discourage others.
The Government, on one hand, encourages economic globalisation through the synchronisation of local financial regulations and policies with international standards and, on the other, it energetically protects an Asian "conservative" society from the ills of satellite dishes, pornographic magazines and other unwholesome global commodities.
This constant oscillation between being globally open and locally particular has given rise to the Singapore paradox.
The city-state enjoys its status as one of the most globalised countries in terms of migration, global finance and telecommunications. Yet it regularly garners criticism from international human rights institutions for its insistence on its own brand of politics, whereby certain civil liberties are curtailed in view of local multi-ethnic and multi-religious realities.
The practice of selective globalisation expresses the need to remain globally connected for the sake of nothing less than national survival and the desire to retain certain notions of tradition and conservatism that protect specific interests.
For the most part, the Government has succeeded in juggling the often conflicting demands of the local and the global. Nonetheless, three events this year suggest that this may have ramifications for its global city ambitions.
In June, the Government denied fridae.com, a gay portal, the entertainment licence to hold its annual Nation Party. fridae.com responded by moving its annual bash to Phuket. Ordinarily, this would not have been an issue but for the fact that the Government acknowledges there are homosexuals in the civil service, thus making the licence withdrawal look like a step backwards.
fridae.com's pullout may have mollified the majority of conservative Singaporeans, which was the objective, but it does little to show the international community that the city-state is culturally exciting.
In the words of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, if we are only contented with being the cleanest and safest city, then the "with-it" world will pass Singapore by.
There was also an unexpected poke in the eye. In his farewell speech on Oct 11, the out-bound United States Ambassador Frank Lavin mildly criticised the Singapore Government for its repression of political expression. He also recounted his embarrassment at being asked by local police if he wanted to press charges against the demonstrators protesting outside the US embassy over the Iraq war. These remarks were surprising in a post-Clinton era, and are significant in light of the Singapore Government's strong support for the Bush administration's "war on terror" campaign and the Iraq war.
Lastly, but no less surprising, was Warwick University's decision not to set up a campus in Singapore. After months of deliberation and feasibility studies, the British university, renowned for its research excellence, declined the Economic Development Board's invitation, citing its concern over both financial costs and the lack of academic freedom in Singapore.
This marks the first time a potential investor has publicly cited Singapore's famed out-of-bounds markers, its emphasis on non-confrontational academic analysis and the Government's intolerance for dissent, as reasons for not coming.
These three incidents suggest an important lesson: A nation-state and a global city require a different management ethos. Conventional arguments for cultural and ideological protectionism may sit well with the character of nation-states, but they are increasingly incongruent with the functions of global cities.
And since a global city becomes one only when others recognise it as such, all global cities require cultural legitimacy from the international community of transnational professionals, creative class and international opinion-shapers who have the power to confer it recognition.
The competition to distinguish one's self as a global city is, in reality, the competition to win legitimacy and recognition from this international community.
The fact that Singapore's survival as a nation-state depends on its status as a global city means the Government has little choice but to constantly shift gears between the national and the global when it comes to policy-making, thus compelling it to send mixed signals to this international community.
Casinos are allowed but satellite dishes are not; topless cabaret shows are permitted but civil disobedience is not; and the list goes on. These discrepancies are at the heart of the dilemma facing Singapore at the dawn of the 21st century.
Globalising at one's own pace and terms may be prudent for a small nation-state but how much of this prudence can an aspiring global city afford?
The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.