In light of Lee Kuan Yew’s death this week, I’m re-posting an article I wrote for The Melbourne Globalist in 2013 on Singapore’s challenges in becoming a global city for the future. Whilst the piece doesn’t consider the impact of Singapore’s Founding Father, it discusses many of the legacies of Lee’s time as Prime Minister and the challenges ahead for The Lion City.
First settled as a colonial outpost for the British Empire in South-East Asia in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles, long-derided as the backwater of Asia and mocked as Malaysia’s poor cousin, the city-state of Singapore has risen meteorically in the last five decades to a point where it’s not just an exemplary global city but a highly functioning and affluent nation-state. As per the 2012 Citibank Wealth Report, by 2050 Singapore will be the world’s richest nation in GDP per capita terms, a remarkable forecast considering it was a little over fifty years ago that the country was still a colony of the British Empire and a part of Malaysia, heavily afflicted by Japanese military occupation during World War II.
Since achieving independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore, under the one-party rule of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the all-powerful Lee family (Lee Kuan Yew (first Prime Minister) and current head Lee Hsien Loong are two of three rulers in the country’s history), has risen through the ranks due to consistently innovative policymaking, a heavy emphasis on education to develop a skilled workforce, unrelenting promotion of personal savings to finance a robust but efficient welfare state and an open posture to global markets to make it an attractive destination for trade and a hub for financial institutions and investment funds in the rapidly-growing region. Consequently, global rankings now consider Singapore’s economy to be one of the most open in the world, the least corrupt and most pro-business.
But this rise to global city status has not left Singapore without critical challenges that will determine its future prosperity and stability; namely sustaining rapid economic growth, alleviating the growing squeeze on transport and utility infrastructure, addressing increasingly problematic relationships between citizens and new immigrants, all culminating in a push for a more democratic political system.
Whilst Singapore’s economy did suffer during the Global Financial Crisis, particularly as trade in the region evaporated, the contraction was short-lived and the economy expanded rapidly during 2010 and 2011, with annualised GDP growth now at 3.8%. However the critical challenge for Singapore in this post-GFC phase of growth is the rapidly rising cost of living as existing constraints from living in an island city-state come home to bear. Concurrently, it’s clear that this must be the focus for the Lee Government in the short-term because irrespective of the economy’s solid growth and tight labour market (unemployment is at a seasonally adjusted 2.1% in June).
What’s more there are serious concerns about an increasingly problematic education system, particularly at the tertiary level, one of Singapore’s key exports. In July, Singapore’s efforts to become an Asian centre for higher education were dealt a blow when The University of Chicago (the top-ranked school to get an MBA) said it will relocate to Hong Kong. One of the key elements by the decision of Chicago and other universities from the United States and Australia to shut their Singaporean campuses stems from a desire to be closer to Mainland China and to tap into a new market with significant potential. In response to this growing crisis, Government MP Inderjit Singh suggests a whole-system review will be required to understand why they are all leaving Singapore’s shores, but lamented the fact that the main problem (rapidly rising house prices combined with a strong Singaporean dollar) made it expensive to set up operations inthe island nation. Thus the task ahead for Singapore’s leaders to ensure their economy continues to enjoy strong growth without imperilling certain industries with long-term influence upon prosperity.
The pressures on the Singaporean economy and its status as a global city are most clearly demonstrated though, in the increasing pressure being placed on the city’s infrastructure. Long considered one of the pioneers of infrastructure management, particularly because of the pioneering development of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system of train networks criss-crossing the island back in the mid-1980s. Initially derided as a foolish project that will bring about minimal social return, the MRT is now an integral part of Singapore’s prosperity, with approximately 2 million passengers travelling on it every day. But as is a continuing theme of our discussion of the challenges posed by becoming a global city, there are now significant pressures on the network, with numerous cases of overcrowding, including a recent case at Yishun Station in the morning peak. For those who are well associated with Singapore, the sight of overcrowding on MRT platforms would have been unprecedented a mere five years ago; now it is a part of the daily commute for millions of travellers. To rectify this, the government have proposed measures to encourage more off-peak travel along with further track developments, but critics are skeptical anything will amend this new reality.
Concurrent to the city’s woes on the tracks, road congestion is an increasing concern, simply due to the physical constraints of their island-status. Regardless, Singapore’s efforts to combat congestion reflect the innovation that will be required by global cities into the 21st century, with Singapore recently recognised for its efforts at the Inaugural C40 & Siemens City Climate Leadership Awards which commended the city for having the world’s first Electronic Road Pricing Systems (essentially a suite of congestion charges), real time traffic information delivered through GPS-enabled taxis, and a highly integrated public transportation system. With one of the lowest congestion rates of a city its size anywhere in the world, Singapore’s policies have much to teach other rapidly growing cities (particularly for its Asian peers) about how to manage congestion into the future, namely through effective pricing.
A corollary to the concerns about the existing and future capacities of the Singaporean transit system, are ever-growing fears over the government’s policies to increase the population from just more than five million to a possible high of nearly seven million by 2030, via regulated, legal immigration, to combat a chronically low birth rate. The public discontent about booming numbers of new immigrants, as outlined in a recent White Paper by the Lee Government, has been mainly focused on new arrivals from the increasingly affluent China. Resentment has bubbling under the surface for some time now, particularly as the public mood considers these immigrants to be playing by a different set of rules, behave poorly in society and their consumption behaviours are causing the alarmingly high inflation at present; such is the discontent, that these wealthy Chinese immigrants are described as “rich Chinese locusts” by locals on occasion. However the immigration debate has also focused on an influx of guest workers to the city-state since 2005, with it cited by the main opposition, the Workers’ Party, as the main cause of Singapore’s problems, eroding away their national identity.
In response, the government has proposed cutbacks to the immigration schemes bringing so many foreign workers in, but the public backlash to the government’s policy is already well embedded in the citizenry. On February 16, around 4,000 Singaporeans staged a rally in Speakers’ Corner of Hong Lim Park, the only venue where political speech and rallies are allowed in Singapore, under the one-party rule of the PAP. Since then there have been numerous other rallies at the Speakers’ Corner, including one notable event in June where the city-states blogosphere came out against new government licensing fees clearly aimed at making it unprofitable for bloggers to operate websites and cultivate a following for their anti-government rhetoric. Such was the rarity of these events that its proceedings made news around the world and have since been the catalyst for one of the most important debates in Singapore’s history about the future of its political system.
Ever since independence, Singapore has been a one-party state controlled by the PAP and the Lee family, but of late there has been significant success for opposition parties in spite of the gerrymandering of electoral districts by the government. As Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University, explained to Reuters, with the development of social media and citizen-based political blogging “many Singaporeans are no longer afraid of the PAP,” and their capacity to clamp down on dissidents. The discontent with the government stems from a lack of citizen engagement but also the sense that the country isn’t even a one-party state, that it’s actually a monarchy for the Lee family. This came to a head in 2008 when Australian childcare provider ABC Learning went under, resulting in a significant financial loss for Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, Temasek Holdings which is chaired by Ho Ching, Prime Minister Lee’s wife.
Such political dislocation leaves Singapore in a potentially precarious state, because if the disconnect between citizens and leaders isn’t addressed, the city-state could arrive at a future where it is nothing more than a citadel for the rich as The Atlantic said recently was a risk for global cities. Ultimately though, if Singapore is to enjoy continued prosperity as one of the world’s leading examples of a global city, policymaking must continue to be innovative to meet the challenges of the future, be they around the adverse affects of unabated and risk-laden economic growth, growing pressure on infrastructure and an immigration system placing pressure not only on services and utilities but more critically on the social fabric of the city-state. To unify this and secure its future, the clear agenda that unifies all above is one of greater political transparency and freedom.
Singapore has been a shining beacon for human development over the last five decades. Now comes the time for a rededicated effort to making the world’s most fascinating democracy and leading global city, one for all of its citizens.