July 21, 2008 WESTERN CRITICISM OF SINGAPORE Success makes it a scapegoat By Jonathan Eyal
ANOTHER week, another pinprick. In an article published last week in The Guardian, one of Britain's most influential dailies, Singapore was yet again disparaged as a modern, but authoritarian state.
Writer John Kampfner - a distinguished local columnist and the author of the broadside - was not concerned with Singapore as such: He was merely using the Republic as part of a broader attack on the policies of the British government.
His contention was that ordinary Singaporeans allegedly gave up their personal freedoms in return for prosperity and that, if Britons are not careful, the same could happen to them.
But Mr Kampfner's article is part of an emerging pattern: Reports from a variety of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international media sources periodically portray Singapore as a wealthy yet less than attractive state.
What accounts for this outpouring of venom about a country which, when all is said and done, remains just a tiny speck on the world map? The answer is rather simple. Singapore is merely a convenient scapegoat for a deeper crisis of confidence which now grips the West.
As such, the flow of criticism is likely to continue, and very often the Republic can do little more than just grin and bear it.
To a large extent, success is Singapore's biggest problem. It is hardly the only Asian country to undergo a remarkable economic and political transformation. But it is the only Asian nation whose academics and politicians are completely plugged into the current Western intellectual circuit. So, Singapore's international visibility far outstrips the country's actual size.
One explanation for this big footprint may be prosaic: the ability of Singaporeans to think and speak in English. To be sure, other Asian nations have many commentators and academics fluent in foreign tongues.
Yet few Asian countries have an education system which so faithfully replicates that of key Western states: Singapore's intellectuals not merely speak the language, but know how to fashion their arguments in a digestible way.
More significantly, because their country is so small, globalisation is not merely a choice for Singapore's thinkers, but a way of life. So, unlike academics in many other Asian countries, those in Singapore always extrapolate from their own national experience to that of the wider world.
Their message is complex and varied, but ultimately boils down to a few key propositions.
The West - Singaporean thinkers frequently assert - is experiencing a relative decline. Western nations no longer enjoy a monopoly on ideas. Their mechanical advice for political and economic development - including various recipes for democracy - are no longer universally relevant. And the Western-dominated international system is no longer tenable.
Of course, some of these arguments have been advanced by Western intellectuals as well. As long ago as 1959, celebrated sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset noted that Western-style democracy only takes root after economic development, and not the other way around.
Earlier this decade, Dr Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International magazine, criticised the West's obsession with exporting the mechanics of democracy. And most Western academics now accept that the West is in decline.
So, why should the 'Singapore Model' of development grate so much? Part of the answer is that Singapore's example is still generally misunderstood.
A view which often prevails in Western academic circles is that Singapore's leaders had a master plan for development right from the first day of the country's independence, and that this model was, supposedly, designed to be the antithesis of the West.
The fact that Singapore's government experimented with many different policies over the years, or that Singapore's government remains 'paranoid' - as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once candidly put it - about its performance never registers with Western academics.
Western criticism of Singapore usually falls into two categories. One school of thought argues that the Republic still has plenty of problems: look behind the glitzy facade and you'd find many warts.
Another school of thought accepts that Singapore is successful, but claims that its example is irrelevant: It is just a small, beautifully-decorated fish bowl which cannot be replicated in a big ocean.
But both critical trends converge on one point: Singapore is a laboratory experiment which should have failed but which, for some apparently devious reason, has instead succeeded.
Meanwhile, some international NGOs fret about what Singapore means for the development of other nations. Over the past decade, countries as far apart as China, Russia and the Gulf states have explicitly praised the Singapore model as the one they wish to follow.
Yet again, the facts are more complex. Few countries are proposing to copy Singapore to the letter: They are merely borrowing specific management techniques and government solutions.
Just consider the crop of recent examples. The Punjab police chief in Pakistan copied Singapore's experience in managing road traffic, India's Minister for Women looked at Singapore's practice of controlling the migration of maids, Mauritius applied Singapore's regulations on foreign law firms, and Japan copied the Singapore Exchange model by creating a comprehensive bourse able to handle a variety of securities and derivatives.
Meanwhile, South Korea's President Lee Myung Bak has asked his civil servants to study Singapore's experience in rooting out corruption, and Abu Dhabi has launched a civil service college on the Singapore model.
In all these cases, far from being anti-Western, the Singapore model actually strengthened Western policy objectives. Indeed, during a recent visit to Singapore, Britain's Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells praised the Republic for its innovative measures in dealing with youth radicalisation.
More significantly, no Singaporean politician has suggested that the Singapore model should be exported wholesale. 'We certainly do not claim to be a model for exact replication,' President S R Nathan told Singapore's civil servants last year.
And, in a recent speech to Harvard University students, Foreign Minister George Yeo went further by suggesting that the learning process goes in both directions. 'Without the American dream becoming the Asian dream, today's Asia would not be possible,' he told them.
But none of these reassurances seem to work: Western NGOs resent Singapore because they see it as an exporter of a model which challenges their cherished assumptions of development, the so-called 'Washington consensus' which decrees that 'good governance' - by which they mean all the technical trappings of democracy - are a prerequisite for economic prosperity.
The reasons why facts are no longer important is that Western policymakers are growing desperate over increasing evidence that, far from being unique, Singapore-like development theories are actually working in an increasing number of states.
But, while it may difficult to criticise Russia's or China's development, it is relatively easy to hit at Singapore - a small country which can be criticised with impunity. So, Singapore is a battering ram for broader frustrations: it is merely a risk-free tool for bigger political battles.
Many Singaporean intellectuals are trying to move the discussion on to more productive lines. Professor Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, recently published an acclaimed book - New Asian Hemisphere - which sought to debunk many of the prevailing Western myths.
And many other Singaporean intellectuals are regular participants at various international academic gatherings. But still, the assault on Singapore looks set to continue.
Yet Singaporeans can also derive satisfaction from the current climate. First, they are the subject of international curiosity because theirs is a system which works.
And they are being scrutinised precisely because people suspect that the Singapore model does have wider applications.
So, this is one instance when criticism may be the sincerest mode of flattery. Regardless of how much it stings.