China to follow the Singapore example?

I find this far-fetched on more than one level, but an entire aticle in the CSM is dedicated to the question of whether China will follow the Singaporean model of socio-political evolution.

As the government [of Singapore] tweaks its social policy, civil society groups are sprouting here, airing views on gay rights, artistic freedom, and the environment. Their mild dissent has resonated among youth raised on a global diet of pop culture and consumerism.

For observers trying to gauge the spread of democracy in Asia, Singapore’s cautious steps show how a maturing economy can embrace social and political change. While there’s no exact correlation between prosperity and freedom, social scientists posit that democracy usually blooms after economic development creates a stable middle class that demands a greater say.

No where does this idea matter more than in China, where the Communist Party has unleashed an economic dynamo that threatens to undercut its long-term grip. Free-traders argue that bolstering China’s middle class is more likely to bring political change than bashing Beijing’s repressive rule, citing the Party’s growing emphasis on its legitimacy as a provider of economic growth. Some China-watchers say members of the Communist hierarchy are taking note of Singapore’s model of tightly controlled democracy and economic efficiency.

Luckily the article notes early on the huge differences in the countries’ size and population, but I still think its analysis of Singapore’s evolution is misleading — and that may derail much of the theory.

The premise is that Singapore’s wealth and prosperity have led the way to greater freedoms and social tolerance. It especially singles out the government’s new willingness to hire gays as evidence.

Having lived there when the government made this very controversial decision, I can safely say it was not an act of social enlightenment, but of practicality based on economics. (This is no secret, and was stated in many articles that came out at the time.) As China’s shadow lengthens, Singapore’s great dread is losing foreign investment, and it’s determined to do anything and everything it can to lure Western companies to set up shop there. It was afraid Western countries were being turned off by the government’s intolerance toward gays, so the law was changed.

In other words, the new-found toleration stemmed not from burgeoning prosperity but from a fear that the economy was at a dangerous precipice, and all the stops had to be pulled to keep it from going down. Suddenly Singaporeans were allowed to dance on the bar, and it was announced that Cosmopolitan would be sold in the country for the first time.

There’s no doubt that as Singapore’s wealth rose, it loosened up along the way. But not to the extent the article would have you believe.

I would love to embrace the premise that China will follow this path. In the broadest sense, it’s doing so already: wealth is expanding and social freedoms are, too. But what Singapore had that sets it apart is, of course, Lee Kuan Yew who, for all his nannying ways, was something of a genius, a visionary who managed to make his vision happen. (Never mind that his vision resulted in the most asphyxiatingly boring place on earth; that’s nother conversation.) It takes a man with a rare mix of ruthlessness, brilliance and integrity to do what Lee did.

The reason Singapore works so well is that people are confident in their government. Some may not like their leaders, but they know the trains will run on time, and if things don’t go right they know where they can go to complain. The law is taken seriously, and public servants do their work efficiently; there are no potholes in Singapore, the passport line at the airport moves quickly, and no one runs red lights. Oh, and there is no corruption. Graft-free government is the very cornerstone of Lee’s plan. Bribery is all but unheard of in Singapore, and if it happens the punishment is swift and severe.

So why am I boring everyone with facts they already know about Singapore? Mainly to underscore how wildly different the mentality is between the two countries.

If China wants to strive for a Singapore-type model, with a strong but beneficent ruler at the helm of a semi-democracy that slowly but steadily loosens its grip on personal freedoms as the country grow richer, that’s fine. But remember, the reason it works in Singapore is trust in the government.

Right now, with graft and bribery a staple of doing business in China, I don’t think the country’s anywhere near establishing the kind of trust that makes thhe Singapore system work. Everyone needs to know they will be taken care of and protected from injustices. Everyone needs to agree that the government is so good, it’s okay if they can’t read Cosmopolitan or dance on the bar.

Maybe China will be able to offer its people such assurances, but not while corruption rules and the little guy has no voice. The time may not be right for a long while to come.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

Richard, Did the movie and TV series “I Not Stupid” appear in Singapore while you were there?

May 26, 2004 @ 6:15 am | Comment

Tom, I never saw the show but I had heard about it. Did you hear about the new reality show they’re working on? I actually heard about it on CNN — it will focus on several couples and the first woman to test positive for pregnancy will be the winner (or something like that). Oh, how Singapore has changed!

May 26, 2004 @ 9:50 am | Comment

Being Singaporean and currently living in China, I must agree that the thing that will always hold China back is corruption. However, it’s all relative, isn’t it? You can get away with far more mischief in China, but Singapore is safer and more convenient. It’s all a trade off, isn’t it?

May 26, 2004 @ 9:41 pm | Comment

Andrea, quite true! Personally, I’ll take the mischief over clean, gum-free sidewalks anytime.

May 26, 2004 @ 9:51 pm | Comment

TVB Pearl has been showing the “I Not Stupid” TV series here in Hong Kong. I kind of admire that none of the children involved have aspirations to be entertainers when they get older. It shows in the poor acting, but the show does provide “criticism lite” of the Singapore system through humour, which apparently proved exceptionally popular there.

May 26, 2004 @ 10:05 pm | Comment

i need islamic show pieces

August 6, 2004 @ 1:04 am | Comment

Am Mohammed, can we meet each other and talk more about things that makes life what living, you can write back with my amail address,
Hope to hear from you.

December 18, 2004 @ 5:27 am | Comment

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