Recently I’ve been addicted to Reddit, a web-based news aggregator where people around the world (though largely from the USA) submit and vote on newsworthy web articles. Usually the articles that catch my eye are those on science and technology or the occasional humorous image of a sleepy kitten. Politics usually doesn’t interest me much, especially since it’s largely filtered through a western lens.
Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon an article about Singapore–which was in itself not uncommon–about why the West hates Singapore:
Why they hate Singapore–Western detractors are getting the jitters as others copy our model. That seemed a little extreme–most westerners I’ve talked to seemed to quite like Singapore, or at least be polite enough not to badmouth it in front of me.
Stranger still, the article was published on The Straits Times, and by a local writer, no less. And not a freelancer or occasional eccentric commentator, but a press veteran and former Intelligence Officer Chua Lee Hong, a former ISD analyst–and proud of it (http://newscompass.blogspot.com/2004_11_01_archive.html).
Singapore’s blogosphere has taken to the article pretty badly, which was to be expected–Mrs Chua isn’t popular with the online crowd, having bad-mouthed bloggers only recently. There are a multitude of other bloggers who can (and have, quite rigorously) analysed the article and her arguments better than I can, so I won’t bother about the content.
What surprised me about the article was that ST, so often the mouthpiece of the Singapore government and so careful not to offend, has decided to be so open about not taking up a “US-centric” model of democracy and so explicitly aligned itself with Big Brother China. Of course, this form of EAst-vs-West rhetoric has always existed, with authors like Kishore Mahbuhani championing the rise of Asia even before China’s trade deficit loomed so large, but Singapore has always stayed either on the side of the West or quietly neutral.
It looks like the scales are tipping over at the offices of our foreign-policy makers.
However, one must ask why Mrs Chua feels there is a need to reiterate our economy’s dependence on the suppression of liberal personal freedoms? After all, this argument has been made, and quite well-accepted over the course of Singapore’s history. Wasn’t the government just promising more freedom of the press and speech recently? Wasn’t a ban on political media only just partially lifted today?
Perhaps this a call to Singaporeans to find more sympathy for their Chinese compatriates. A subtle hint to us that the guys on top to align outselves with the mainland? Or perhaps the article was meant for foreign ears, to earn us brownie points and set ourselves up as a happy economic model for the Chinese to adopt?
Sadly, it doesn’t take much exploratory work to find out that Singaporeans aren’t very popular in the Chinese webspace at the moment. Searching www.anti-cnn.com (a chinese forum with an unsurprising anti-western viewpoint) for “新加坡 (Singapore)” turns out several posts about arrogant, ignorant, over-important Singaporeans who snub mainland Chinese despite being inhabitants of a tiny, puny island that China could snuff out in a second if it wanted to. When Singapore lost at ping-pongto the Chinese at the Olympics , I imagine some analysts at MFA breathed a sigh of relief–we certainly don’t need the kind of fallout that comes from beating Big Brother at his favourite game.
Sadly, given the common Chinese sentiment about Singapore, Mrs Chua’s idea that “rich and powerful states” are picking up tips from our model of governance might be sadly optimistic. The common Chinese are unlikely to find Singaporeans a sympathetic model which they can aspire towards, even if they could be induced to believe that the challenges of ruling a tiny island-state are scalable to be applicable to a country as large as China. Furthermore, Singapore’s political and economic landscape evolved pragmatically, not idealistically. I find it hard to believe that the Chinese, finally stable enough to allow for some experimentation in their political landscape, would be happy giving up on any potential liberties before even having had a chance to review them. Should the Chinese decide to do so in exchange for economic prosperity, it will not be because of any Singaporean pre-cursors of success.
Perhaps Mrs Chua has confused Singapore’s governance capabilities with its governance philosophies. Certainly, Singapore is well-administered and has an effective civil service, which foreign countries have been acknowledged, respected and studied for years. This is, however, not limited to developing post-communist countries. Even the United States, supposed-bastion of western capitalist freedoms, often cites Singapore’s education system as being a success-story. SingaporeMath is a product, and it’s not even produced by Singaporeans.