Vikram Khanna’s review of the book Hard Choices: Challenging The Singapore Consensus (Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, with contributions from Linda Lim and Thum Ping Tjin, NUS Press) has gotten me to write after — deep apologies — a long break. My thoughts have also gathered as dread mounts over the likely onslaught of propaganda next year marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Singapore state’s caesarian birth. I will explore here the ways in which we continue to be traumatised by those beginnings.
More common than the belief in God is the opinion in Singapore that the PAP government is more focussed on economic growth than anything and everything else. Some speak of this focus as understandable; others would describe it as a curse. Few outside of government see this obsession as an unalloyed good thing.
What I have found interesting is how infrequently people choose to explore where this focus (or pathology, if you wish) sprang from. Like mental illness, we have a tendency to take it as something whose origins are beyond our understanding. It just is. It may not be easy to live with, but who knows how such demons of the mind came to roost?
Even the practitioners of this “development strategy” may not fully understand where it came from. Our administrative mandarins are now two or more generations removed from the folks in charge in the 1960s; the goals and strategy are hand-me-downs, and like so many heirlooms, are meant to be preserved rather than neglected and dismissed.
I don’t think it is difficult to see its origins, although there might have been several that came together to give economic development the primacy it has. I want to explore here the role that security considerations came to play. And it may well be that to this day, security considerations make it very hard to reconsider its persistence as policy.
Our traumatic separation in 1965 from two-year-old Malaysia left us with a tiny city-state and no hinterland, in both the geographic as well as the economic sense. We need also to take care to understand that it was a flatter world than the world we are familiar with today. There was no digital connectivity; there were only telegrams, crackly long distance telephony and short-wave radio. Mass tourism, expatriate living and airfreight were at best nascent.
It was a world of two-dimensional topography. Trade flowed on the surface of seas and maybe on the backs of lorries or railcars. You can’t be importing or exporting by airfreight or downloading (after paying with PayPal) through the ether. Singapore was surrounded by the territorial waters of our two neighbours; we had no access to open ocean. Our land routes went north through a neighbour who had just evicted us.
Warfare in that age was also seen in terms of physical space. Trenches, concertina wire, anti-aircraft guns and keeping one’s civilian population far enough away from frontlines.
It is no surprise that the question of strategic depth became paramount. Since acquiring strategic depth by conquering land and seizing water was out of the question, the next best was to concentrate on economic and financial strategic depth. The economy had to be realigned towards trade partners other than Malaysia. Particularly useful would be trade with big powers; the more we traded with them, the more we might be able to rely on them for security. Investment from these large economies came with the same calculation.
In a nutshell, we needed to punch above our weight in economic terms. That difference between our punch weight and what our miniscule territorial and population size implied would be our strategic depth. This is no secret. I recall from the 1990s that it was openly articulated: Singapore must matter in a positive way to the global and regional powers, so that should anyone – we all knew who – try to erase us off the map, others would see their interests at stake.
It was also the 1990s when this focus on economic growth and economic weight was validated, giving it new life. After Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Americans and Saudis went to war to reverse Iraq’s gains. Desert Storm was launched in the spring of 1991. Why little Kuwait, with half a million citizens and perhaps a million foreigners? It so happened that it was a major oil exporter to the United States. It also helped that Kuwait had huge financial reserves which could compensate the US for its costs. So for Singapore, besides validating the old credo, a new one was added: accumulate a hoard.
The reason why fast-paced economic growth is virtually non-negotiable as a government objective is because it is ultimately traceable to security fears. That said, it may be time to engage this question.
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Internal security is the other obsession. This too is traceable to the situation that existed in 1965. Labour unrest, and race and religious riots were fresh in people’s minds. Political stability as a necessary condition for economic growth, which in turn was a necessary condition for security, became a paramount issue.
Controls over dissent were quickly put in place; their use has disfigured our history ever since. For the same reason (security) that rapid economic growth has been held non-negotiable, so too have restrictions on liberties in the name of stability.
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Where are we today?
In the drive for strategic depth, the incessant courting of foreign investors has, in a sense, been almost too successful. Singapore has an economy bigger than our native-born population can support. To keep it humming, we have to bring in people from outside, in numbers fast approaching our own. At the same time, our birthrate has fallen so low, there is no hope of ever replacing these foreigners with Singaporeans.
Unless of course, we make these foreigners Singaporeans too. But such an approach induces political instability. There is a lot of opposition from the native-born, and the integration of new citizens is no easy task. In fact, it is likely, given their large numbers relative to the native-born, that integration will be two-way street: as much as they become Singaporean, so Singapore society and culture become like them (or like where they came from). Such social change will be resisted, which will test the socio-political compact.
In other words, the tidy, politically illiberal set-up that provided assured internal security is going to crack when attempts are made to square the economic circle with demographic reality.
The other aspect of having an economy bigger than our population and having to import people is that we also import the inequalities from the poorest and the richest of countries. As much as this may mean cost competitiveness — and not forgetting as well that local consumers also enjoy benefits — it is also highly distorting to our domestic economy. The stresses and strains produced can undermine internal peace, as we’re beginning to see.
Yet, if external security requires fast economic growth which requires internal security, then how do we respond?
Moreover, three other weaknesses are coming into view, all the result of taking short cuts through the last 50 years in the name of stability.
Firstly, our state and national institutions aren’t particularly strong. They do not enjoy a lot of trust from the public since they have often been used to circumscribe the ordinary guy’s freedom of speech and action. There is continual suspicion that when push comes to shove these state institutions may prove to be more beholden to political party than to country, their office-holders more comfortable taking orders than thinking for themselves. The command-and-control systems we have built may in fact be liabilities once we get close to a tipping point.
Secondly, civil society has been weakened by political diktat. Strong civil society is the glue that holds a society together, especially when times get rough. Without one, our fragility is actually greater.
Thirdly, our people aren’t the most flexible or ready for the new age. Having had obedience drilled into them for two generations, it is hardly surprising that we continue to struggle to produce creative goods or technological breakthroughs that are so needed to succeed today. In an age when invention, openness and creative destruction are accelerating drivers of success, we have instead a people with a bias to safety, certainty and copying.
It does not help either that Singapore has long had a developmental and hoard-building model that privileged state enterprises and state direction. Room for the few non-conformist creators of economic wealth is crimped. But such new creators of wealth we must have. The solution we resort to is to import them, which in turn adds to political stress.
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An analogy I sometimes toy with goes like this: We have built a newtonian system that risks disaggregating in a quantum age. In the pursuit of strategic depth conceptualised half a century ago, we have gone for solidity, tangibility, and centripetal gravity. Things revolve around a centre. We deal poorly with particle spin, uncertainty between mass and location, or the fact that even the strongest of steel is mostly emptiness that neutrinos can zip through. Constant motion, mutability, porosity and randomness – these may be the new determinants. Yet we fear them more than we know the value in them.
Flights of fancy (and analogies that leave my readers perplexed) aside, the questions are these: How do we escape the trauma of 1965 and the neurosis of insecurity that it produced? Even if we accept that we’d be foolhardy to think that strategic depth isn’t important, how do we assure ourselves of strategic depth without relying perpetually on fast-paced economic growth, or at least, the kind of fast-paced economic growth that requires constant shovelling of more and more inputs with diminishing returns? In our internal sphere, how do we obtain system stability as a whole while allowing that individual members of the system are going to be in constant flux, contestation and even occasional conflict?
What do we need to dismantle and rebuild? When do we recover from being shell-shocked?