Western detractors are getting the jitters as others copy our model
By Chua Lee Hoong
SINGAPORE is small enough to be a suburb in Beijing, but it has something in common with the mammoth People's Republic. The little red dot and Red China are both countries the West loves to hate.
There are those who wish bad things to happen to the Beijing Olympics. Likewise, there are those who have had it in for the Lion City for years.
What's eating them? The easy answer is that both China and Singapore are authoritarian states. The freedoms taken for granted in the West - freedom of speech and assembly - come with more caveats in these two places.
But things are not so simple. There are plenty of authoritarian states around, but most do not attract as much attention as Singapore and China.
The real sin: Singapore and China are examples of countries which are taking a different route to development, and look to be succeeding.
Success grates, especially when it cocks a snook at much-cherished liberal values.
As Madam Yeong Yoon Ying, press secretary to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, said last month: 'Singapore is an example to other countries of how the free market plus the rule of law, and stable macro-economic policies, can lead to progress and success, but without Western-style 'liberal' democracy.'
Don't believe her words? Read these lines from British journalist John Kampfner, writing in The Guardian last month, lamenting the spread of what he calls the Singapore model.
'Why is it that a growing number of highly-educated and well-travelled people are willing to hand over several of their freedoms in return for prosperity or security? This question has been exercising me for months as I work on a book about what I call the 'pact'.
'The model for this is Singapore, where repression is highly selective. It is confined to those who take a conscious decision openly to challenge the authorities. If you do not, you enjoy freedom to travel, to live more or less as you wish, and - perhaps most important - to make money. Under Lee Kuan Yew, this city-state built on a swamp has flourished economically.
'I was born in Singapore and have over the years been fascinated by my Chinese Singaporean friends. Doctors, financiers and lawyers, they have studied in London, Oxford, Harvard and Sydney. They have travelled across all continents; they are well-versed in international politics, but are perfectly content with the situation back home. I used to reassure myself with the old certainty that this model was not applicable to larger, more diverse states. I now believe this to be incorrect.
'Provincial governments in China send their brightest officials to Singapore to learn the secrets of its 'success'. For Russian politicians it too provides a useful model. These countries, and others in Asia and the Middle East are proving that the free market does not require a free society in which to thrive, and that in any battle between politics and economics, it is the latter that will win out.'
Mr Kampfner seems in a genuine intellectual funk. He cannot quite understand why otherwise normal, intelligent Singaporeans would trade certain freedoms for economic progress, and accept the Singapore political system for what it is.
But perhaps he has got the wrong end of the stick. The problem lies not in the Singaporeans, but in his own assumptions. Namely: If you speak English, if you are well-educated and well-travelled, you must also believe in Western-style democracy. They are a package.
I was on the receiving end of similar assumptions when I was in the United States in 1991-1992. When Americans asked me, 'Why is your English so good?', often it was not out of admiration but bewilderment. Their next question revealed all: 'Why then do you (i.e. your Government) ban chewing gum?'
Another telling indicator of Western assumptions about Singapore comes from a remark by Singapore's Ambassador to Washington, Professor Chan Heng Chee, who went to the US at the tail end of the Michael Fay saga.
One year into her posting there, in 1997, she arranged for a retrospective of the late choreographer Goh Choo San's works. Her Washington audience was awed.
'People suddenly remembered Choo San was a Singaporean. They may have known about Goh Choo San, but to connect him with Singapore was not so obvious for them,' she said.
Sub-text: World-class choreography does not fit their image of a country with corporal punishment.
So the real difficulty for the West is this: We are so like them, and yet so not like them. We speak, dress, do business and do up our homes very much the same way as them. Yet when it comes to political values, we settle - apparently - for much less.
One observer draws an analogy with Pavlovian behavioural conditioning. So conditioned have Westerners become to associating cosmopolitan progress with certain political parameters, they do not know how to react when they encounter a creature - Singapore - that has one but not the other.
So they chide and berate us, as if we have betrayed a sacred covenant.
Adding to the iniquity is the fact that countries - rich and powerful ones too, like Russia and the Gulf states - are looking to the Singaporean way of doing things to pick up a tip or two.
I can imagine the shudders of Singapore's Western detractors should they read about a suggestion made by Mr Kenichi Ohmae this week.
In an interview with Business Times, the Japanese management consultant who first became famous as author of The Borderless World, said Singapore should 'replicate' itself in other parts of the world.
What he meant was that Singapore should use its IQ, and IT prowess, to help organise effective economies in other regions, as its own had succeeded so well.
To be sure, his reasoning was economic, not political. But for those who hate Singapore, a Pax Singaporeana would be something to work against and head off.