At 50, Singapore starts to show its age


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the independence of Singapore, and there will be lots of fireworks and festivities on the Little Red Dot, as it is affectionately known.

In geographic terms, it is not merely little, it is minuscule. And it is ‘Red’ because it is three-quarters Chinese — and always will be.

It is a maxim of the People’s Action Party, the only ruling entity the island state has known, that the ratio of its three ethnic groups must never change.

Thus, as they did half a century ago, the Chinese form 75 percent of the population, the Malays 14 percent and the Indians 8 percent, with Eurasians and other races making up the rest of the city’s 5.4 million people.

Of course, as recent events have shown, even the PAP’s mythical efficiency could not keep the figures spot on; so the Malays have currently dropped to 13 percent and the Indians risen to 9 percent.

But if the figures move more than a percentage or two, immigrants from China, Indonesia or Malaysia are swiftly brought in to restore equilibrium.

This racial eugenics has anchored social stability, meritocratic education and housing systems, and rapid economic development.

From Harry Lee to LKY
Singapore’s ‘Red’ appellation can also be traced to the 1950s, when the newly formed PAP was dominated by communists, socialists and other fellow travellers.

Its fiery young leader, Harry Lee, now better known as Lee Kuan Yew, broke his teeth politically as a trade union adviser who helped striking postal workers win a famous victory in 1954.

When it became politically expedient, of course, he excised Harry, as he did smoking and driving to Johor Bahru in his open-top Studebaker to quaff beer with his mates.

Instead, he mutated into an authoritarian capitalist, dismissing his leftwing roots and never again fearing to radically change his stance on any issue.

That was clear when, soon after becoming prime minister in 1959, Lee argued that an independent Singapore could not survive and must join Malaya.

The merger was a disaster, however, forcing Lee to do a volte-face and pull Singapore back out on August 9, 1965. It is that date, 50 years on, that will be lauded in six months as the golden jubilee of independence.

Back then, not wanting to dwell on the debacle, Lee turned his wrath on political rivals at home—the very ones who had argued against merger in the first place.

They were crushed, and for the next two decades Lee’s PAP held every seat in parliament. In an acid-laced aside during a visit in the early 1970s, then Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam told Lee: “Admirable, how you’ve turned a Westminster system into a one-party state.”

But the little red dot prospered, just like its twin entrepot, Hong Kong. Both prospered from profitably serving vast hinterlands without having to share wealth with them.

No longer squeaky clean
However, the notion that Singapore is run in a super-efficient, uncorrupt and crime-free way has taken a severe beating in recent years.

Poor Lee, now 91, must be furious that his twilight years have witnessed Singaporean businessmen, civil servants, and members of the police and security services convicted of corruption.

As well, infrastructure failures have become frequent, epitomized by the stock exchange breaking down, not once, not twice, but three times last year, causing shock and outrage among brokers and companies.

The once-famed Mass Rapit Transit subway system has likewise endured repeated failures — more than a dozen last year, with riders left stranded in darkened tunnels for lengthy periods without assistance.

There is also the ticking time bomb of the island’s dependence on foreign workers, now estimated to make up more than one-third of the population.

“Singapore’s success has been achieved on the back of cheap workers from Bangladesh and the Philippines and the rest of the region,” a Singapore legislator once told me.

It cannot continue, and yet the PAP is bereft of ideas to maintain growth and prosperity, and grasps at policies that must horrify Lee, such as licensed gambling.

Casinos, crime gangs and call girls
The big new casinos may help the flat-lining economy, but a drastic downturn in punters from mainland China has slashed profits in the past two years.

And as the government itself warned in the days when Lee was PM, casinos bring triads, money-laundering, drugs and prostitution. That’s exactly what has happened.

Plus punting palaces mean sky-high prices and abysmal standards. Of the Marina Bay Sands gambling complex, The Bangkok Post’s Umesh Pandey wrote: “The experience was nothing but appalling. The service staff were nowhere close to being courteous. It was my first and last trip to this hotel.”

Other reviewers make clear that only a masochist with money to burn would think of staying at this minimum $300-a-night disaster.

And that is what Singapore has become after 50 years: a faux Monte Carlo, with a grand prix through the streets for the rich and fatuous, causing turmoil for ordinary citizens for the best part of a week.

As Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times last month: “I traveled several thousand miles recently from London to Singapore. There I found myself on Orchard Road, that vast temple dedicated to the worship of the global brand, a tropical and air-conditioned Oxford Street. I wondered why I had bothered.”

At least he doesn’t mention being hassled every few meters by Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese hookers thronging Orchard Road every evening.

But enough. Let us not begrudge the Little Red Dot and its earnest citizens their birthday bash.

Lee once said, “You get the government you deserve.” But really, Singaporeans don’t deserve the current crop, and hopefully they will put boot to bottom well before the end of the next half century.

(Roger Mitton advises companies on Southeast Asian affairs and is a former correspondent for The Straits Times of Singapore and Asiaweek Magazine.)


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