Singapore: Thoughts and Reflections
Singapore – Reflections
Now that I’ve put a bit of time, and geographical distance, between me and Singapore, I figured it might be worthwhile to go back over my experience and revisit some of my positions and assumptions.
I stand by my decision to wait until I’d arrived in Australia to post anything regarding my time there – as we saw, being foreign and merely publishing to social media is insufficient to avoid notice by the panopticon of Singaporean law.
What I think I missed in my earlier coverage was recognition of what Singaporean natives have achieved. While the city-state might be little more than a way station and changing house for global capitalism, there’s little natural reason that it had to be done there, specifically. Things looked pretty grim for the island post-independence: early efforts to hitch their star to the likewise freshly independent Federation of Malaya, which, alongside several other post-colonial territories, created the state of Malaysia, fizzled when the Singaporeans protested against the Malayan positive racial discrimination of bumiputera. Bumiputera, derived from the Sanskrit for “son of the soil,” sought to benefit ethnic Malay and indigenous groups within the new Malaysian state, counteracting what was not incorrectly perceived as colonial discrimination. It’s not hard to see why citizens of the country of other ethnicities would take umbrage at such a system. Contrasting this, Singapore has from the start held itself to a staunchly meritocratic system, a system that has a raft of its own failings, foremost amongst them the tendency for privilege and power to solidify all the more rapidly.
Suffice to say, Singapore found itself in a bit of a bind come the mid-60’s. Cut off from the resources and land it had hoped to share in, with a largely uneducated and impoverished population, its quick industrialisation, housing reform and robust trade must in some ways be credited to the hard work of its population. Though inviting capital’s rapaciousness into their house has seen the income inequality of their society soar – and the international community has done little to check or critique this – the argument could be made that those with the dubious honour of Singaporean nationality are ultimately better off for it. Without the sufferance of moneyed interests elsewhere, there is little reason that the city-state could retain its independence. For all their comparative poverty, Singapore’s citizens are far and away monetarily better off than their Malaysian or Indonesian equivalents, and the benefits are apparent.
Singapore’s Israeli-trained military plays a deterrent role on paper – as we’ve seen, neither Malaysia nor Indonesia, despite tight bi-directional business interests, are especially pleased with the city-state and its nascent success. More recently, though, the Singaporean military has taken point position in the area on anti-terrorism measures, following the American initiative in lock-step.
Rule of law and the rigorous policing thereof, even from a neutral perspective, makes a great deal of sense given Singapore’s precarious position. Chaos within the state could sink it just as surely as a concerted effort from outside, and draconian measures and allegiance to the foremost Imperial power can only serve to push against this. To this end also go the various restraints on personal/religious/cultural expression – the city is already a pressure cooker, and adding fuel to the fire can’t help.
Add to this the pseudo-democracy that obtains. The city-state, despite regular and, in so far as anyone has been able to prove, clean elections, has been run by the People’s Action Party for its entire existence (the last election saw them win 83 of 89 possible seats). The central figure of this party, up until recently, was Lee Kuan Yew – prime minister until he decided to step down in 1990, he continued to act as Senior Minister until his death in 2014. His son is now Prime Minister. Charismatic personalities and single-party chokeholds are emblematic of autocratic states – it’s just fortunate for the S’poreans that theirs have been relatively “well intentioned.” Thus far.
In passing, it’s worth commenting on the idea that Singapore is hailed as the “least corrupt of all states,” with an excess of 80% of citizens expressing confidence in the government. Given that the orientation of the government aligns entirely with the desires of capital – the skeletal labour laws, the lack of taxation, the absence of trade tariffs – what need for bribery and graft? Plutocrats have already achieved the end goal, without having to pay for it, because they owned the deck from the start.
It may be that, given the circumstances, the externalities, the state couldn’t be other than it is. Of course, it’s a nebulous thing to say on the surface – everything is the way it is due to the state of affairs that brought it about – but I mean it in a more robust sense than that. The conflicting desires of keeping the ethnic Chinese majority safe from the sort of blood-and-soil rhetoric of the mainland, while also offering to the Malayan and Indian populations enough nominal opportunity for advancement to prevent open rebellion, the desire to ride the dragon of international capital and make of it what they may, even the hope for an ecologically sound home environment, while directly financing the degradation of their most proximate neighbours – the concatenation requires of the state that it should exist as it does. It is imposed by the logic of it.
Given the particular circumstances, the more democratic, liberalised society that would be preferable, never mind the socialist one, may in this instance edge beyond the simply un-viable towards the impossible. Grim.