Today’s Guest Poster is Gorgeous Dunny, with the first part of his commentary on his pre-honeymoon trip to Singapore, the UK, and America with the wonderful Sim. I found it fascinating, though definitely open to questioning (which I’m sure GD will appreciate). I have also made the editorial decision to publish the piece in two parts (and I’m hoping to persuade GD to expand – slightly – on the second part of his argument). Meanwhile, read, enjoy, and comment!
On our journey to the UK, I organised stopovers at Singapore and Zurich. Neither had much to do with any curiosity about either place. However, my excellent deal with my travel agent involved fitting in around Swiss Air’s services. They don’t come to Australia, so another carrier, Qantas, was used to get me to Singapore, joining Swiss Air a day later. I was also concerned about the ‘sardine can’ effect of prolonged Airbus travel in Economy Class. The two breaks allowed my aged legs some respite, even though that break was just over one day (30 hours) in Singapore, staying the night with Sim’s nephew before leaving the following night.
Unexpectedly, that visit made a considerable impression on me, forcing me to revise my preconceptions of that curious city-state.
My view was a typical Australian leftist one. In particular, its founding Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, shaped that perception because he was front and centre of everything to do with it for thirty years. From the mid-60s on, our Australian leftist view of the world was shaped by weariness with the Cold War.
We did not share the US aim of containing Soviet and communist expansion. Most of us only had limited knowledge of World War II and the early post-war years’ battles with totalitarianism. Prominent left-wing writers like Koestler and Orwell offered many warnings but were generally glossed over. Many of us felt that the worst human rights abuse excesses of the Soviet were likely exaggerated for Cold War propaganda purposes. Later evidence, along with the crushing of Hungary (1956) and the Prague Spring (1968), put beyond doubt just how bad life was in the Soviet Empire. However, at the time we took a simpler view.
On our own (Western) side we had in the US the show trials of the House Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings, McCarthyism, and the ‘Atom Spy’ trial and execution of the Rosenbergs. In the propaganda stakes it helped promote the idea that each side was capable of such abuses.
In our Asia-Pacific part of the world, we were impatient for the end of imperial colonialism. We saw the struggles more in terms of national autonomy than as Cold War targets. That put us at odds with the dominant American view. As figures like Lee Kwan Yew emerged, with his ‘left-wing’ nationalist program, our sympathies were with him rather than the American-CIA view. Prominent Australian Labor identities such as Don Dunstan became close friends and allies.
That view did not last. For reasons of local stability (Singapore had – and still has complex ethnic diversity – public dissent in both the media and politics was restricted. Some were jailed, deported, or otherwise discouraged. That seemed incompatible with our own ideas of representative government and democracy. Ours were inspired by the classical Athenian democratic system, albeit refined over the centuries of the Westminster system. The American and French revolutionary documents on the rights of mankind further embedded our notions. Indeed, it is best conceived as an ongoing model, amended as disasters such as wars and genocide rendered necessary.
Some things remained sacrosanct. Freedom of speech and of dissent seemed most important, since many of us were in a minority most of the time. It was hard to feel the same about someone willing to give those freedoms less priority. To compound the problem, Lee Kwan Yew, having struck out separately from the Malaysian Federation, became concerned about his country’s own security and autonomy. He improved relations with the US by committing some troops to LBJ’s Vietnam War. None in the Australian Left could feel much sympathy for him over that. Was he just another Asian despot?
It’s 25 years since he was the major influence, but the model he established survives and prospers. At the same time, the Anglo-American democratic model has struggled over the past 35 years as corporate, banking and media tycoons wield ever greater power. We have seen a massive redistribution of public assets and accumulated wealth to the private sector, and from lower incomes to the highest incomes, with no apparent improvement in our economy. Why is it so, when the first 30+ years after the War were so prosperous?
For the first time I have wondered if Plato might have been right. He rejected the Athenian democratic model because the emotions of many uneducated voters could be manipulated by rabble-rousing. Demagogues could get control through playing on those fears and anxieties: Fear and Loathing, as Hunter S Thompson so perfectly coined it to describe Richard Nixon 47 years ago. We see it played out daily in English-speaking countries against refugees and asylum-seekers.
The problem with Plato’s alternative of the Philosopher King is: how do you find and elect such a person? Over the centuries there has been an occasional king or prince going close to Plato’s ideal. Alfred the Great comes to mind. No doubt the Renaissance era produced many princes aiming at that standard. In more recent times I’d put Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt (America) and Ben Chifley, Don Dunstan and Gough Whitlam (Australia) in that category. But that’s not many amongst all the leaders we’ve had over the years.
I’m not sure if Lee Kwan Yew, his colleagues and successors, are in that category of philosopher king. But on the fleeting evidence I saw, I’d have to consider that possibility. Singapore is a major success by any measure. On the simplest measures for example, the unemployment rate has been around 3% or less for decades. During the Global Financial Crisis in 2009 it went briefly above 3%. Average age life span is 80 years for males and 85 for females. It is 4th in the world on life expectancy. It has had the world’s lowest infant mortality rate for over two decades.
It has functioned largely without what we’d consider welfare state provisions. There is no minimum wage, there are tax haven provisions for large investing companies, greater inequality of incomes and yet few examples of serious poverty. It has more millionaires per capita than any other country, and paradoxically a home ownership rate above 80%. Those without means do have access to public hospital treatment and exemptions from school fees. It is a curious balance: a free and competitive capitalist market and yet a firm hand of regulation to ensure that the greater public good is served.
In just a generation, Singapore moved from a 3rd world country to 1st world status. This seems to have occurred with neither a traditional left-wing nor a right-ring approach to the economic and political world. There were more things that fascinated me in my brief visit. The most outstanding was housing.
It included the complete range from the fairly basic, through middle- and upper income to the elite. The latter differed from the rest not just by the quality of their apartments, but by the lower-density accommodation. Even then, there were at least two and more likely four dwellings on a site. For all other social groups it was multi-story, high-density apartments. Some, including Sim’s nephew’s apartment, had so many multi-story apartment buildings that they took on a ‘village’ concept, which included a security guard entrance.
Always they were neat and orderly, with excellent gardens at the entrance and within the complex. The prevailing feeling within the complex seemed to be one of respectful friendly politeness, without intruding on privacy. The public access areas were immaculately maintained. It was middle-class, but other less well-off complexes seemed to have just as much pride in appearance.
I could not help contrasting with the Australian inner city experience of high-rise accommodation, and of the English ones so often featured in TV police series. Those all seemed hellholes of welfare dependency with little pride or self-respect. Vandalism, petty crime and larger crime or violence all festered there. Singaporeans seemed to have adapted to high-rise much more readily.
Sim, once a resident, explained this phenomenon to me. Very early in Singapore’s modern history it had introduced a Central Provident Fund. It functioned as a compulsory superannuation system for every wage and salary earner and was deducted from wages. The aim was to provide a pension for the individual upon retirement. The money deducted was invested in public housing. Wage-earners, after they had accumulated superannuation capital for a few years, could borrow against that asset to purchase their own unit. Not only did they have a pension on retiring, they had secure home ownership.
The brilliance of this scheme is that tenants had ownership and a stake in the success of the project. So pride and self-respect were easy to encourage, as well as community: they had a joint interest in its success. Perhaps that is a key.
The example of Sim’s nephew is useful in another instance. He is a professional in his employment. Sim is unsure in what field: either botany, horticulture or soils science. Currently his employer is a major golf club. His work is to do with maintaining and developing the greens, parks and trees in the course. The course is built on reclaimed land. Its water is a combination of treated sewerage and low-salt swamp water. Plants tolerant to these conditions and conducive to tropical conditions are selected for growth. It was a natural evolution of his earlier work, involving reclaiming the land and developing a green belt, to his position at the club. His story represents a microcosm of Singapore as a whole, except that for the nation it was much more complex.
As it evolved from self-governing to independence, first (briefly) through the Malaysian Federation and then alone, the dominant concern was how to make Singapore viable. On the surface that did not seem easy. It had few natural resources, apart from a deep-sea port docking facility they’d persuaded the British Navy to leave intact for them.
The golf course is part of a larger project aimed at gradually expanding the main island available to the country. Originally the State aimed at increasing the land available to housing. However, the poor quality of the water and land available soon convinced authorities that a more effective method was to develop such land with parks and forest. This proved to be successful. A dream of Lee Kwan Yew’s was to recreate a tropical rainforest. This project fitted that idea, as well as giving the island much-needed ‘lungs’. The parks and recreation areas that were created led to the golf club where Sim’s nephew is currently employed. Earlier he’d been in the reclamation team helping to create these sites.
Originally, he was from an impoverished village in northern Malaysia. He’d won entrance to University of Singapore, probably through scholarship or low cost entry. There, academics monitored his progress and referred him to suitable employers. He gained employment even before he’d completed his Masters and post-graduate studies. Now in his forties, he is a Singaporean with his own unit and car. He visits his aged father once a year, but Singapore is his home.
Singapore has made big state investments in infrastructure – in education (from pre-school to technical and tertiary), science, transport (its air and sea terminals are among the world’s largest and most efficient; it has an efficient network of road and rail), communications, power, health, and housing. It has a well-paid public service, that remains fairly free from corruption.
The challenge facing Lee Kwan Yew and his colleagues was how to develop a viable country with such few natural resources and advantages. Shipping and transport, plus banking and commerce, were partly in place prior to independence. Some skills would also have been there from the old defence base days. But what to do for the longer term to support a growing community?
I am only guessing here, but I think the post-war success of Japan would have had a big influence. In David Halberstam’s The Reckoning (1986) he outlines how the Japanese auto industry overtook Detroit. A similar success occurred in white goods and electronic manufacturing. The Japanese and American manufacturers had key differences in approach, beyond the more obvious ones like job security.
Japan focused on long-term goals of market penetration. As Halberstam noted, Japan was run as a free enterprise oligarchy except that, contrary to the US, the corporations were subordinate to the Ministry of Trade and similar bureaucracies. Trade set specific requirements in export products on quality control and reliability. They were higher priority than immediate sales volumes. That differed from US and Detroit corporate and economic thinking in manufacturing at the time. Critics referred to the US trend as ‘planned obsolescence’.
That is, factory assembly dominated to such an extent that it was thought more economic to keep production rolling than to have wasteful stops for quality and safety assurance, or factory shutdowns. Why repair a product that can simply be replaced for not much more cost? And if manufacturing costs are downwards on economies of scale, why not simply get a new car every year or so? It led to a greater emphasis on sales and marketing than product.
In addition, the US government listened to manufacturers, not the reverse as was happening in Japan. The US manufacturers relied heavily on the sales-oriented dealers for innovations. These were along the lines of more fins and gimmicks, more power and speed and so on. The priority was sales and production. Durability was less so. The Japanese trade experts noticed it in their research, concluding that there were opportunities through quality control and attention to customer needs. Design, fuel economy, reliability, driver-passenger comforts and safety all got higher priority than Detroit had given them.
Something similar happened with electronics and white goods manufacturing. Japanese products soon gained a high reputation for quality and reliability, which contrasted sharply with what seemed the ‘throwaway’ attitude to low-cost manufacture in the US.
Singapore seemed inspired by this example, as were other ‘Asian Tiger’ countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Realistically, the small size of Singapore was against car making but there were real possibilities with electronics. It set about luring some of the major players, such as Hewlett Packard and Apple, to Singapore. It offered a low wage and tax rate, plus a stable government, good infrastructure and a reliable workforce. The quid pro quo was for the companies to add technical skills and knowhow. Thus value was added.
The same technique seems to have worked with many other industries, for example, chemical and fertiliser production. Always the support infrastructure is put in place, whether transport, accommodation, power or communications. It helps that Singapore is relatively free of corruption and rent seeking. That allows for a greater concentration on economic, social and environmental benefits. There seems to be a fairly free flow of information between government, education and training, and industry and commerce. In general, I’d describe it as a meritocracy.
There has been similar progress in other aspects of government. After the initial pro-independence leftist moves and then rapprochement with the US, Singapore has settled into a non-aligned status in foreign affairs. It will trade with anybody, including the then maligned apartheid South African government and the Israeli government. Israel, in fact, has supplied weapons and training to Singaporean armed forces. Valuing its independence, Singapore has established a strong defence force, with its air force having bases in Australia. It is a strong participant in trade and friendship groups such as ASEAN and CHOGM.
Locally, it has worked hard at making its country more liveable. In addition to the attention given to housing and parks, road traffic in such a densely populated small geographic area is well regulated.
Car ownership is high but owners pay additional taxes to have access to downtown areas. Parking and standing of vehicles in ‘traffic flowing’ areas is not permitted. Even the taxis do not drop passengers at a street address but instead move into an adjacent off-street loading bay. There are strict and costly penalties for abuses of these laws, making infringements rare. Office building planning is also regulated, judging by the frequency of off-street loading bays.
It is a sharp contrast to other Asian cities. Although there is a high percentage of car ownership, traffic flows quite smoothly. In addition to the strict rules on parking and loading, an efficient public transport system helps prevent traffic jams. I visited a downtown shopping part of Changi and was surprised by the ease of parking. The short walk into the shopping centre was through a park, which was shared by pedestrians, cyclists and children in safety and harmony. In the centre was an enclosed market-type area. It is very clean and orderly compared with other Asian market areas but prices are low.
We did not stay long enough to have long discussions with locals apart from Sim’s nephew. The impression I picked up from casual conversations was that there was very little discontent. People were cheerful and helpful. It brings me back to my first question, can there be satisfaction in a society where some of the known democratic traits as we’d see them are missing or restricted?
I’d have to say that on what I saw, it is functioning at least as well, and probably better, than most English-speaking democracies. In matters of opportunity and access, the pathways seem much smoother in education, housing, health, employment and industry. It seems inconceivable that such a modest island-state could viably support 5.5 million people with such infrastructure, which is world-class by any reasonable measure.
That it started with such few comparative advantages makes it even more interesting. It seems to have set on a course similar to Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. That is, the modest population has ensured that there can be very few advantages from economies of scale in manufacture. So the only option, having avoided trading blocs, is to be as competitive as possible in worldwide markets. The heavy emphasis on infrastructure investment has been critical in that respect. It extends to such things as having ‘charging stations’ at the airport for your mobiles or laptops, and free Wi-Fi just about everywhere.
If we compare Singapore with our Australian Westminster democracy, we can see the differences. We have representative government, the separation of powers, especially an independent judiciary, and freedom of speech, press, and assembly. In Singapore these separate concepts, so important in how we define democracy, are somewhat fused. The State seems to place a higher priority on harmony and getting things done economically and competently.
Social controls seem tighter than we’d conceive in Australia. As with most Asian countries, severe penalties do occur with drug abuse, ranging up to death penalties for dealing or smuggling.
I understand that alcohol consumption is somewhat controlled and quite low. Sim tells me that Asians have a low tolerance and choose to drink moderately. We know from our media that corporal punishment still occurs for things such as vandalism. On our visit it was conspicuous how clean and orderly it was.
So, is Singapore a State system closer to what Plato imagined? Sim offered me an alternative view: that it was not Platonic philosophy but applied Confucianism. Confucianism, it is claimed, provides guidelines for living a full life and aiming at the greater public good. It extends to such things as family duty and responsibility and obligations to the community and the state.
Is our system necessarily superior to Singapore’s? It’s a question well worth posing. We would mostly argue that in our culture certain freedoms and power constraints are essential. Yet an underlying assumption of democracy going back to Plato’s time was that the equality of the vote depended on having an equality of information to all on which to make a voting decision.
And that gets to the heart of the fault that I see in current Western English-speaking democracies. We assume that a relatively fair electoral and voting system is what we need to guarantee our democratic rights. It is important, especially considering how it can be manipulated. But it is only one thing.