The first impression most foreigners get of Singapore is that it’s a harsh but successful state, dictatorial but developed and ultimately good for its people. One of the unspoken objectives of the ruling party, the PAP (People’s Action Party, no connection to communism) is to create an illusion of a first-world state by keeping the areas where there are tourists and Western expats clean to concentration camp standards.
Western conservatives, who have largely swallowed that illusion whole, keep talking up Singapore. To believe what they say, its educational system, its economy, its cultural policy, all the envy of conservatives who only wish democracy didn’t fear with their plans, work nearly perfectly.
In fact, that illusion is about as true as the illusion that the Soviet Union kept cultivating among Western socialists in the 1930s. The only way Singapore looks good is if you skew statistics to fit your agenda, which the PAP is not above doing. A few facts that Lee Kuan Yew, the de facto king, won’t mention in his interview, are:
– Singapore’s level of inequality is the highest in the developed world, except possibly for Hong Kong’s. Its bottom quintile is the poorest in the developed world except for Portugal’s.
– Only 25% of Singaporeans aged 16-17 go to junior college, the equivalent of high school. The rest don’t participate in the international reading and math tests; that’s how Singapore always places number 1 on these tests.
– Singapore’s per capita military spending is second only to Israel’s, even though Singapore is not at war nor will it ever be. That last fact doesn’t prevent the government from engaging in a propaganda campaign aimed at convincing the citizenry that it is.
– The combination of low wages, no social safety net, and a social security system that has no redistribution of wealth at all means that lower-class people often have to work into their 70s and 80s to survive.
– Singapore’s literacy rate is 92.5%, just above this of Palestine and just below this of Thailand.
– Despite the country’s cult of economic growth, its GDP per capita has stagnated since 2000.
– Despite draconian sentencing laws for violent crime, Singapore’s crime rate remains far higher than Japan’s.
Westerners who live in Singapore or who are familiar with it in passing usually complain about the small things, like the low-level censorship of movies, which, while heinous, at least doesn’t impoverish the population. Everything else – the systematic destruction of the livelihood of the poor, the impoverishment of the middle class, the plundering of the treasury – doesn’t even register in their minds, or gets rationalized.
Singapore is essentially a third-world country that has a developed business district that allows corporatists, expats, and the upper class to pretend they live in anything but a backward fascist state. In advanced countries, unions are permitted to strike; in Singapore, they’re not. In most advanced countries, the poor share in economic growth; in Singapore, they no longer do. In advanced countries, there’s a social security system that ensures that old people don’t have to choose between food and medicine, or clean floors into their 80s; in Singapore, there isn’t.
Whenever people criticize them, Lee Kuan Yew and his cohorts have two excuses for their behavior. The first is accusing the critics of libel; the laws that the PAP wrote and the judges the PAP appointed then conveniently find any opposition politician who’s insufficiently timid guilty of libel, and impose a fine just higher than the politician’s net worth. The other is accusing their critics of not understanding Asian values, which roughly mean, “Whatever is convenient for the ruling party” (Mahatir Mohamad, Lee Kuan Yew’s Malaysian counterpart, engages in the same tactic, while we’re at it).
There won’t be change in Singapore as long as Lee and his gang of plunderers – Singapore’s government salaries are among the highest in the world, with the Prime Minister netting a million US dollars a year – are allowed to determine what forms of dissent are allowed, and as long as the people acquiesce. Make no mistake about it: the periodic talk about reform is as serious as the American courts’ handling of segregation with all deliberate speed in the 1950s.
There won’t be change in Singapore until a civil rights movement of 300,000 people converge on Parliament and demand real democracy, a commitment to gender and ethnic equality, a social system that doesn’t throw the poor into gurneys, and the right of unions to collectively bargain.
Singapore has a decent GDP per capita; there’s nothing wrong with it that a revolution – preferably peaceful – won’t fix. Changing government spending priorities from the military to schools and increasing taxes to create a serious social safety net will only improve the country’s economic situation by not dooming most people who were born poor to work more degrading than McJobs. Abolishing political censorship will make the government more accountable to the people. Abolishing moralistic restrictions on people’s lives (gay sex is illegal in Singapore; so is hetero oral sex) will do nothing but give the people more freedom, and annoy a few conservative old fuds, which is a good thing.
Obviously, there are a lot of fascist countries in the world, many of which do far worse things than Singapore. But nobody in the West worships their educational systems or their economic development, and nobody in the first world considers them anything but fascist states. And, as far as I know, no first-world state has signed a free trade agreement with any such fascist state the way the US has signed a free trade agreement with Singapore.