Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
That life continues as normal here in Singapore two weeks after Lee Kuan Yew’s death is testament to the city state’s founder’s success. But the disciplined state he created will struggle to advance.
Singapore excelled at catching up, diligently identifying what other societies have invented and applying it in that city. In fifty years it has grown so fast that income per head is on a par with the United States and Denmark and exceeds Britain’s by a fifth. Eight- or ten-lane expressways criss-cross the island, which is dotted with universities and national parks. A new performing arts centre, built in the shape of a lychee, adorns the bay. Numberless shopping centres provide for Singaporeans’ every material want. The overall impression is of an enormous corporate campus or a better appointed version of a 1960s British university. Disciplined conformity (the sale of chewing gum is still banned; and landing cards distributed at Changi airport warn that drug trafficking carries the death penalty) has brought the country far from its origin as a poor province expelled from Malaysia. It holds seventh place on Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (the UK is fourteenth). Its People’s Action Party, which has ruled since the foundation of the state, though paranoid about dissent, remains popular. It derives its legitimacy from the huge improvement in living conditions that it has supplied, but in doing so has set expectations to match.
These expecations cannot be met. Catch-up growth is relatively easy and can be directed from on high by a reasonably competent government. Genuine innovation is harder. Having created a state of diligent, hard-working, conservative citizens, Singapore is finding that they are no longer enough. Attempts to import a culture of innovation find no local soil. Multinational firms establish their offices, and international theatre companies tour: the RSC is due, with exquisite timing, to bring King Lear to play at the lychee.
True entrepreneurs, economic or artistic, are not to be found, however. There’s no start-up culture or fringe arts scene, despite the government’s fervent if not desperate efforts to promote them. The old Arab and Chinese quarters have been far too exquisitely restored, as though all at once, under a centralised programme of urban renewal. The same high governemnt salaries that attract the best Singaporeans to public service deprive the private sector of talent, while five decades of social control leave citizens in the position of that crowd of adoring worshippers in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian who, on being told they are all individuals and shouldn’t be following a single prophet, respond, in unison, “We’re all individuals. We’re all different.”
Real change requires a counterculture; but a counterculture has to grow in freedom or through social conflict. Conflict however is the one thing that the goverment of Singapore, founded following race riots, has been determined to stamp out. “State multiculturalism”, now unfashionable in Britain, remains very much in force.
The government is caught in the middle. It doesn’t allow enough freedom to encourage the easy casual dissent of gadflies, entrepreneurs and activists determined to shake things up for the better. But its administration is still far too good to give people enough reason to rebel and demand radical change.
Compared to its neighbours, such stability is impressive, but it is being bought at the price of stagnation. Singapore runs no risk of collapse. The danger, rather, is of malaise as its government, afraid of relaxing the social control that has so far served it so well, presides over a society it has denied the opportunity to develop original thought, and which is now unable to meet the new demand to think for itself.
Lee Kuan Yew was a political buccaneer. He moulded his society like a Tiger Mom, and it met his exacting standards. But his people’s talents will be wasted until they learn to strike out on their own, without their government’s help.