A new chapter in the Singapore story
Jan 31 2013
Usually local news in Singapore is a pretty dull affair. Reporting on political issues sounds more like propaganda for the government than a critical assessment of events in the city state; since even before the independence of Singapore as a separate city state, the PAP has been in total control of government. For many years Singapore had a black mark amongst human rights organisations as a country where the principles of democracy were not respected by the government. Of course, the rule of the PAP could not be compared with the one-party regime in the People’s Republic of China, nor to authoritarian regimes such as the dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile. Lately, however, there are some remarkable developments that point to a more pluralistic future for the city state at the Straits of Malakka.
Lee Kuan Yew, who had been Singapore’s prime minister from 1959 till 1990 is still the senior mentor of the country. Early on in his career, the PAP that had been founded in 1954 became Lee Kuan Yew’s vehicle of achieving and preserving political power. When in 1965 Singapore was thrown out of the Malaysian Federation, the city faced a bleak future. At almost the same time as Singapore lost its hinterland, the British began to decommission their fleet east of Suez and Singapore lost one of its most important employers. The city was ravaged by social conflict and ethnic tensions and Mao tried to launch a fifth column to push forward the world revolution.
In this rather desperate situation, Lee Kuan Yew recognised that Singapore had no other resource except its people and that its future was only secure if it would be a more business friendly and more efficient place than the cities in the surrounding South East Asian countries. Soon, Singapore took off, and within some four decades, it became one of the most important commercial and financial centres in Asia. In his autobiography The Singapore Story, Lee Kuan Yew presents a lively account of this long and steady progress from an impoverished harbour town to a wealthy city state.
Looking at this remarkable track record, one might ask why the PAP has lost the recent by-elections and why the long-time ruling party of Singapore faces increasing difficulties in its popular appeal. On the one hand, the political climate in Singapore has become more open. There are more opposition representatives in the national legislature and although the PAP still holds more than four-fifths of the seats, its domineering position has been eroded.
The reaction to the surprisingly clear win of the opposition in last Sunday’s by-election was telling. The leader of the victorious Workers’ Party stressed that it was far too early to speak of a trend, which could lead to the opposition winning the general election that is due in 2016. However, in the media and among representatives of the PAP, there was serious soul-searching about the causes that led to the defeat of the government’s candidate. It seems that one of the main reasons for dissatisfaction were rising prices and the influx of even more foreigners who compete with the locals for jobs and accommodation.
Singapore is an exceptionally cosmopolitan city and generally very welcoming to foreigners. Speaking to Singaporeans in recent times, one often hears the complaint that mainland Chinese are swamping the place. Interestingly, the huge majority of Singaporeans are of mainland Chinese descent, mainly from Southern China. They had arrived several generations ago. Today, many of the newcomers from China are very wealthy. They invest massively in the Singaporean real estate market, both for speculation and as a nest-egg for hard times. There is also a substantial amount of black money coming into Singapore. All this obviously drives up real estate prices.
The electoral sensation, however, is not only proof of a certain malaise amongst Singaporeans it is also an indication of a more open political climate. The city is undergoing a generational change. Better educated and more self-assured people are moving into positions of influence. In addition, there is growing concern not only that Singaporeans are not having enough babies but also that dynamic and highly qualified people are turning their back on the city that is perceived as dull. The authorities have realised that the attraction of a place depends not only on its physical infrastructure, but that there are also important soft factors that determine the quality of life. Amongst these are a lively culture and media. Looking also at new trends in social media and international connectivity, we are witnessing the opening of a new chapter in the successful Singapore story.
(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)