Interviews | Economy | Southeast Asia

Jeevan Vasagar on the Secrets of Singapore’s Success

Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore’s other founders “were skillful in seizing their inheritance of geography and history and deploying it effectively.”

Jeevan Vasagar on the Secrets of Singapore’s Success

Elderly women practice Tai Chi, a Chinese form of meditative exercise, Sunday, September 8, 2013, at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.

Credit: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

Since not long after its independence in 1965, the city-state of Singapore has elicited fascination from every corner of the globe. The country’s model of tight political control and laissez faire economics has been much-imitated (if rarely replicated), while the country’s founding premier, Lee Kuan Yew, has been hailed for his brutally pragmatic outlook and strategic foresight.

In his new book “Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia,” the journalist Jeevan Vasagar tells the story of modern Singapore and tackles the question of how a small island at the tip of the Malayan peninsula managed to fashion itself into one of the most prosperous nations in the world – and what its remarkable journey can teach the rest of the world.

Vasagar, the Environment Editor at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and a former Singapore and Malaysia correspondent for the Financial Times, spoke with The Diplomat about Lee Kuan Yew worship, Singapore’s position between China and the United States, and the ingredients that constitute the Lion City’s “special sauce.”

Let’s start with the question around which you have oriented your book. What explains Singapore’s success since its independence? In particular, how do you weigh structural factors – Singapore’s fortuitous geographic location, and its history as a leading center of the British Empire in Asia – with the personal factor: i.e. the role played by Lee Kuan Yew, whom you argue has left a “deep imprint” on the nation?

A: Singapore’s geography and history are important factors, of course: its location on the Straits of Malacca and the inheritance of English are significant elements in the creation of a global hub city. But my argument in “Lion City” is that Singapore’s success is largely down to human factors, and specifically to good policymaking and the industry of its people. Modern Singapore’s founders were skillful in seizing their inheritance of geography and history and deploying it effectively. An example: Pulau Bukom, just off the coast of Singapore, has been an oil storage and transshipment center for over a hundred years. It was the natural home for a new Shell refinery in the region in the 1960s. But the tax incentives Singapore offered played an important part in drawing the business there rather than elsewhere on the Malayan peninsula. The advantages that location and history offer Singapore could easily have been seized by a regional rival. It has extended its lead through astute governance.

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There are plenty of other English-speaking and strategically located port cities around maritime Asia, from Mumbai to Hong Kong. The dismal example of some of these other cities is a reminder of why governance matters. I’d list the ingredients of Singapore’s special sauce as the following: 1) build a high-functioning bureaucracy; 2) eliminate corruption; and 3) keep vested interests in check. Note that I don’t think repression or lack of democracy are significant factors.

I’m also deeply skeptical about the idea that “Confucian culture” is important. Attitudes to the military are a useful way to illustrate this point. At independence few Singaporean families thought that soldiering was a respectable career for their sons, which is in keeping with how Confucian ideology sees ordinary soldiers. But postcolonial Singapore has established the armed forces and national service as valued institutions. Culture matters but it is also highly malleable.

By the time of his death in 2015, Lee had become something like a cult figure, routinely hailed for his sagacity and strategic foresight, and boasting devotees as varied as Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin. Tell us when and how this cult came about, and what you think it says about the attraction of the Singapore model more broadly. How replicable are Lee’s insights, and the successes that he fashioned in Singapore during his time in power?

The cult of Lee began when he was alive, and very early. In “Lion City” I note a Lee visit to the U.S. in the early years after Singapore achieved statehood, when a columnist described him as “by far the ablest leader in Southeast Asia,” and added that: “his problem is that his country isn’t big enough for his talents.” Lee was immensely attractive in the U.S. as a Westernized and English-speaking interpreter of Asia, especially at a time when China and other communist nations appeared so opaque.

The idea of a plucky band of heroes reshaping a nation’s fate is naturally appealing to politicians, of course, which helps explain why Lee has become so iconic to activist politicians and political advisers from Paul Kagame in Rwanda to Dominic Cummings in the U.K. He is also attractive to those who prefer the idea of an authoritarian state or hybrid democracy, as you can see a justification for repression in Singapore’s blend of prosperity and control.

But I think the key reason for the global fascination with LKY is because the idea of a national reset is so profoundly appealing: wiping the slate clean of mistakes and starting again. You’ve seen countries doing versions of this reset time and again, from the Meiji Restoration to Brexit. It helps that Singapore’s revolution was a conservative one, which maintained private property and wealth creation through business. That means it isn’t scary to most middle class politicians. Adopting the “Singapore model” becomes a way of saying that we can reboot our society, keep most of our social structures intact, and still emerge as a prosperous first-world nation. Unfortunately, the people who talk about the Singapore model rarely understand what it actually consists of.

This lack of knowledge is actually one of the reasons that the Singapore model is seized on so often. It’s conveniently exotic for most people, a small and little-known country “far away in Southeast Asia.” It’s much harder to say: “let’s rebuild our country like West Germany after the war, or transform it like Japan in the 19th century,” when this might conjure up a precise image for an audience that actually knows Germany or Japan.

When I began writing “Lion City” I wondered whether the key reason that Singapore’s successes were hard to replicate were to do with its size. I think this is partly true. It’s easier to solve urban overcrowding, for example, if you are a city that controls its borders and has no new rural incomers filling up your slums. But I now think size is only a small part of it. A bigger factor is the relative absence or weakness of alternative centers of power to the governing elite.

What I mean by this is that when it became independent Singapore had, to take one example, no aristocratic landowning class who might have been an obstacle to change. There was no powerful military that the civilian government had to contend with. There were powerful businessmen, but Lee’s government neutralized, co-opted, or bypassed them – bypassed by inviting Western businesses to invest rather than focusing on developing indigenous-led industry, I mean. It was also critical that Lee was determined to root out and punish corruption. This meant that Singapore avoided falling into a relatively common trap, where a corrupt nexus develops between business and politics that stalls any economic reform.

I should add that there is definitely a business-political nexus in Singapore, it’s just one where the politicians are clearly in charge and willing to push back (the willingness to raise land tax despite squeals from developers is an obvious example).

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A few years ago, a senior Singaporean Foreign Ministry official told me that the Singaporean government would never tolerate something like the U.S. comedy sketch show “Saturday Night Live,” which was at the time airing outrageous caricatures of President Donald Trump, opining that to do so would fatally undermine public trust in Singapore’s politicians. This struck me as a characteristically “Singaporean” remark, or perhaps more accurately, a typically “PAP” one, and hinted at the mania for control that has marked modern Singapore. What have been the costs of Singapore’s success? Does Singapore prove that there need be a trade-off between democratic freedoms and the imperatives of security, stability, and economic growth?

I’m unfamiliar with the political culture of the U.S., but I’d say there’s an obvious contrast here between the U.K. and Singapore. The U.K. has a theatrical political culture: think of the pantomime calls at Prime Minister’s Question Time, or the florid turns of political speeches. That tends to reward theatrical performers, men or women with verbal dexterity. The duller or more sober performers like Gordon Brown and Theresa May are much less successful, at least in electoral terms. Our prime ministers often have catchphrases – “Take Back Control,” “Get Brexit Done” – as if they are music hall turns.

The political culture of Singapore strikes me as much more lawyerly; I guess that’s obvious if you have a lawyer as your founding prime minister. One example of how this manifests itself is the willingness to sue political opponents for defamation; it’s much more unusual for politicians to use libel law in the U.K. and the one famous example resulted in a cabinet minister destroying his own career and going to prison for perjury. There’s a willingness among Singapore leaders to explain their policy in quite mundane detail, which also strikes me as a courtroom touch, as if they are laying out the case for the prosecution rather than trying to win votes.

Singapore’s culture is much more “paternalistic.” There’s a strong sense, certainly under Lee, that “father knows best,” and PAP governments like to give the sense that they are the responsible adults, acting as neutral arbiters to hold society together – even at times when this isn’t really the case and they are in fact picking a side.

I think that what Singapore indicates is that, in the shorter term at least, you can trade some democratic freedoms for economic growth. The PAP has rested its legitimacy much more on “output” than “input” and Singaporeans have largely been content to judge them on those terms; the party has suffered electorally when it seems to be falling behind on building infrastructure, for example. I don’t think that’s a compact that holds forever. Singaporeans have been increasingly vocal about expressing political views – and social media allows them to do so. As I note in “Lion City,” Lee himself predicted that Singaporeans would expect a greater say as their levels of education rose.

I’d define Singapore as a democracy now, a country with meaningful elections. I think it’s still a few steps away from being a truly competitive democracy, but I think that will come and I don’t think there will be any loss of security, stability, or growth when it does. My view is that democracies are less fragile and more capable of self-correction than autocracies. I think this is fairly well borne out by current events in Europe, but also if you look at China’s mystifying reluctance to use foreign mRNA vaccines – there are some perplexing or downright disastrous policy decisions being made by leaders who are relatively insulated from the will of the people.

In his book “Easternization,” Gideon Rachman, a former colleague of yours at the Financial Times, remarked that Singapore was the only nation in the world that could boast a “special relationship” with both the United States and China. How has Singapore managed the increasing competition between these two rival superpowers?

I’d agree with Gideon’s point, though I’d add that people often seem to overlook the extent to which Asian allies of the U.S., like Japan, have very deep economic ties with China.

A belligerent China makes life very difficult for Singapore. For obvious reasons, Singapore is insistent on the international rule of law and the need for small nations to stand their ground. During the Cold War, superpower competition had benefits for Singapore; it became an R&R base for the U.S. during the Vietnam war, for example. The current U.S.-China competition is clearly much more difficult because we aren’t talking about two rival spheres, but cross-cutting interests: the U.S. as a security and economic partner, China as an increasingly important economic partner.

Singapore has managed the tension so far by being firm (e.g., on the South China Sea) but courteous and relatively discreet in public commentary by its leaders and diplomats. There’s a perception that Singapore might be able to operate as a neutral commercial base. If you look at the expansion by Alibaba, Tencent, and Bytedance in Singapore, it appears to be a way for Chinese companies to hedge their bets – perhaps that’s both against a crackdown in the U.S. and by regulators in China.

If there’s full-scale confrontation though, it’s obvious where Singapore’s interests lie. But being forced to choose will be very painful. There’s also a strong connection between ethnic Chinese Singaporeans and the “motherland,” which is heavily reinforced through propaganda on social media, so there may be some challenges managing the domestic mood if Singapore sides more overtly with Washington over Beijing.

Singapore’s perpetual ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), appears at an important threshold, about to pick a successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Why has it taken the PAP so long to choose a successor to Lee fils, and what do you think this says about the party’s – and the country’s – present challenges? Is Singapore’s success assured after the Lee family leaves the political scene?

When I lived in Singapore, one of the aspects of its politics that was most puzzling to me was how the PAP renewed itself when it was obviously such a hierarchical and controlling organization.

The answer to this puzzle appears to have manifested itself last year: it doesn’t renew itself. When Heng Swee Keat gave up his position as designated successor, it was not just an admission of his own relative weakness (look at his electoral performance, or under-performance, in 2020), it also showed up the weakness of the field.

It’s never wise to bet against Singapore. This is a wealthy and stable country with a diverse economy and plenty of intelligent and energetic people in senior positions. But it is also a relatively small place which sells itself on being highly efficient and can’t afford too many serious blind spots (like its fumbled and frankly shoddy treatment of migrant workers during COVID-19). It is certainly hard, right now, to see where an effective successor to Lee Hsien Loong comes from. The answer must lie in widening the search for talent, but that isn’t easy when the instinct of top-down control is so deeply ingrained.