Annals of development – Singapore

Annals of development – Singapore

Dangerous delusions

Mar 20th 2012, by R.C. | DILI AND SINGAPORE – The Economist

IT’s important to have ambitions, especially if you are a poor country at the bottom of the pile. And what better way to drag oneself up than to emulate somebody else’s success? Where better to turn to than Asia? The region, after all, is the very model of post-war economic development. This is where so many tigers seem to have miraculously conjured astonishing rates of economic growth and development despite their hobbled beginnings.

Thus it is that rather than looking to Britain, France or America as a model, as so many countries used to, nowadays the world’s poorer, developing counties look Far East. Their eyes often alight on China and South Korea. Or even Vietnam. These are all countries that were devastated by war only a generation or so ago, yet which now form the vanguard of the so-called Asian century. But it’s also to the tiny island-state of Singapore that many of the pupils look, and often with keen interest.          

I was in Timor-Leste recently, only slightly larger than Singapore in size and the world’s second-newest country (one of its poorest, too). People were chatting freely about how the conflict-battered, ramshackle capital, Dili, was poised to become the new “hub” of its region—just like Singapore. I have spent years in Africa listening to “visionary” leaders like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame describe how he was going to turn his own tiny landlocked country into “Africa’s Singapore”. The sleazy, oil-rich island of Equatorial Guinea, off the coast of West Africa, craves to be a Singapore, or even Switzerland.

It’s easy to see why developing countries might be seduced by Singapore’s recent success—but it’s also perfectly delusional of them. What many poorer countries seem to like about Singapore is that it seems to sell the quickest path—a short-cut, almost—to development. After all, wasn’t Singapore, now probably the world’s richest nation measured by wealth per capita, just a malarial swamp only a generation or two back? That’s what many people seem to believe.

Singapore’s ruling party of course does nothing to discourage the myth. The People’s Action Party (PAP) is anxious to take as much credit as it can for Singapore’s undoubted success. The title of one volume of founding-father Harry Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography says it all—“From Third World to First: The Singapore Story”.

Yet this is far from the whole story. When Singapore became an independent, post-colonial country, in the early 1960s, supposedly at the same point on the development trajectory at which many of its admirers see themselves, it was already a highly developed, prosperous and sophisticated entrepôt. It was rather back when Sir Stanford Raffles founded his trading station in 1819 that the little island was not much more than a swamp. A century-and–a-half serving the trading interests of the hegemonic economic and political power of the day, the British Empire, turned that swamp into a thriving port and a bustling, prosperous multi-racial community. Singapore’s post-independence politicians can take enormous credit for steering their little island-nation to its present heights, but they did not inherit a Timor-Leste or Rwanda.

Indeed, it seems to me that Singapore’s very unusual history will be impossible to emulate or reproduce, and others should probably just quit trying, especially those who are trying in a hurry—say, within the political lifetime of a single “visionary”. One striking problem with their analogies is that Singapore’s workforce immigrated to this island on the straits, encouraged by the British rulers, solely to serve the interests of commerce. It’s no wonder that the country still tends to be rather good at it. Other crowded little countries will not enjoy this advantage. They can talk of Singapore as being a “hub”…but Singapore largely became so only as the gateway to the riches of old Malaya, with its legendary bounty of rubber, tin and copper. Other countries will not enjoy that extra-territorial advantage.

So I will toast Singapore’s success as much as the next person, but advise those that would copy it to look more closely at its hothouse history.

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— Post #1221

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