René Seifert

Entrepreneur, Global Citizen, Flat World, Internet, Web 2.0, Innovation, Start-Up

In Defense: The Case for Singapore

I believe that particularly Westerners tend to attach quickly labels like „democracy“ (=good) and anything which does not run (useless) elections every 4 years „a totalitarian regime“ (=bad). Having lived in Germany, certainly a democracy, for more than 30 years of my life and almost 4 years in India, acclaimed as “the biggest democracy in the world”, I have gotten a bit disillusioned by that easily proclaimed equation “democracy = good”; “rest = bad”.

Let’s ask ourselves the question what a democracy should entail and let’s examine India: Yes, people are able to vote, but what is it worth? Effectively, the vote is a selection between a rock and a hard stone where after 2 to 3 years of the rock, the hard stone will take power and vice versa. Corruption of the political system is beyond imagination and it really doesn’t matter at which party to look at. Where effectively every public project works at the speed of a snail with the biggest portion of funds end up in corrupt pockets instead as concrete on the roads. Let’s inspect the rule of law and equality in front of justice. This in particular is a joke in India where every month a few hundred women go up in flames in their kitchens because their families did not pay up the dowry. Although everybody knows what’s happening, do you think anybody cares? Subsequently, out of entirely mutual distrust between citizens and the government, India entirely lacks any civic sense. Just take a walk in any Indian city and you will see what I mean. Do you think the farmer who is about to swallow poison because he is not able to repay the loan loaded with daylight robbery interest rates really cares if he has this magic vote he can cast every few years? Or those women who go up in flames? Or those who queue days and nights in front of government offices without any civil servant paying any attention them for something which is important for them to survive? I could continue the list endlessly. My point that I am trying to make is not blunt India-bashing, it’s rather putting that much celebrated label of “biggest democracy in the world” into right proportion.

Let’s move on to Germany. A lot of the points above certainly don’t hold true for Germany. Yet, just because it is a democracy, it does not mean that things are in good shape. Take the town of Mügeln in Saxony where eight Indians got hunted down and beaten up by Neo-Nazis last week. It is too simplistic to retort that these are singular cases and justice will be done. In the latter I do believe, but if some Indian friend asked me if Germany was safe to travel, I would affirm for the former west, but express my reservations for certain parts in the east. Why can’t a society cope effectively with such antisocial elements? Let’s look at the massive overregulation and superfluous interference of the state in terms of a hugely inflated tax regime (for me the harsh word “regime” truly deserves it connotation in this context) and ease of doing business. Or useless, inflated and redundant semi-state organizations like the “Kassenärztliche Vereinigung” (For my non-German readers. You better don’t want to know. It’s some apparatus that is in charge for allegedly creating equality by distributing funds for the public health system in Germany). Not just that this bureaucratic monster, as an example of galore of others, is hugely inefficient in the allocation of resources, but it also grows and absorbs resources for itself like a cancerous abscess. And I wonder that Germans have become so complacent not to call these obvious defects “totalitarian” and treat them as massive derogations of essential civil liberties. Finally let’s take the abysmal chancellery of Gerhard Schröder who got elected once as replacing 16 years of Helmut Kohl, and after a miserable 4-year track-record he got re-elected based on his undisputed talents as the biggest con-man in Germany after World War II. Let’s conclude this chapter with the country having let abuse itself in the last two decades by getting flooded with the wrong people from abroad who don’t contribute neither to society nor economy and moreover don’t possess the least affinity to the existing culture. This again is labeled, and it’s called “asylum”.

To summarize my criticism about these alleged “perfections” of a “democracy”: In case such a “democratic” system has been too long intact, not disrupted by major overthrow or such, it tends to become highly self-serving. It will create an agony among the people and disconnect the act of election from true choices for a difference. And this agony will lead to something which Germans call “Politikverdrossenheit” (=sullenness for politics) as it either makes people feel suffocated from the governmental strangulations. Or, even worse case, there won’t even be the pain of realizing is.

After this long fore-play, let’s turn to my affirmative case for Singapore. To be very clear: There is no paradise on earth and the grass always tends to be greener on the other side, which, after grazing on it for some time will begin to tarnish. However, all that criticism on Singapore is in my opinion entirely exaggerated. Guys, I believe that Singapore with that type of criticism has a large luxury problem – at worst. Historically, in 1965 Singapore got expelled from Malaysia and this unfertile piece of swamp could have just decayed to just another country like Bangladesh where both governance and its people are pitifully poor. But maybe, at the same time, carrying the phenomenal label of being a “democracy”. Instead, what followed is one of the most amazing success stories in latest history. If there is any label which hits the point, then it is “Singapore Inc.”, suggesting that the city-state is being run rather like a corporation.

In the nutshell, Singapore is an example how the concept of a “benign ruler” has successfully materialized. Taking up all my points of above from India and Germany, and they will epitomize exactly at the opposite in Singapore: No crime, no corruption, law & order, civic servants treating citizens like customers, low taxes, cleanliness, free commercial environment leading to a GDP per capita on a level of a developed country. And the best: All this embedded in constant feedback-loops where the system is self-healing, self-improving instead of self-serving. And the other side of the equation, and I second that entirely, Singapore knows exactly what it does not want: drugs (you get hanged), vandalism or anti-social behavior (you get caned) and undifferentiated immigration. Overall, I believe that the overall mix of initiatives and punishment is in the right equilibrium. Especially, after seeing it with my own eyes that there is nothing like a constant “big brother is watching you” with a minor infringement getting immediately prosecuted. Singapore Inc. does not waste precious resources on such stupidities. It would simply be inefficient.

Sure, there are no elections like we know them in those loudly heralded “democracies”. Correct, freedom of press according to our understanding does not really exist. Do I find that good? No. But looking at the overall picture and giving up here and there something to gain much more in other parts is for my taste a viable compromise. The worst mistake, by the way, which is made most often in the west consists of the assumption that “those poor Singaporeans must feel awfully suppressed and subjugated by a totalitarian regime and have no deeper longing than that for freedom and democracy”. Or in the more subtle form: “They have never tasted the sweet fruit of democracy, so they can’t even know on what they are missing out.” Get a life, frankly: Nobody in Singapore gives a shit. By contrast, they are rightly proud of what they have achieved in just 42 years through hard work within a favorably installed governmental framework.

Admittedly, I don’t feel able to answer the most daunting question: How can you make the “benign ruler”-model happen in other countries without having them drift away into real totalitarism? Does it “scale” beyond 4.5 mn people? I don’t know. But still, if I had a choice between my home country Germany being run in such a shitty way like nowadays or being governed like Singapore, I don’t have to think twice. In that respect I feel safe to say that “Singapore is a blueprint how a country should be run”.

 

Comments

  1. Nina
    September 1st, 2007 | 1:30

    Singapore didn’t get expelled from Malaysia. It is a consequent to a civil fight between the Chinese and the Malays. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_13_Incident) . The Malay kings gave Singapura away to the Chinese as part of the peace pact, to secure the stability in the country. Singapura was already pre-developed as an entreport by the brits, henceforth had a good start.

    I am not against singapore especially because I have spent so much time there as a child (my father has an apartment on orchard rd) and in my teenage years think highly of it too. Now, I am more ‘balanced’ in my view of it as a country as opposed to a place for holidays.

    Good write up R.

  2. Martin Wunsch
    September 1st, 2007 | 5:04

    Just another of your consistently sharp and refreshingly politically incorrect comments… thank you for this!

    I readily agree with some of your views on the state of Western democracy. The illusion of citizens having a say in what I would rather like to call media and party democracies can only be upheld with some difficulty by the powers that be. The gulf between the political caste and the interests of the citizens in Germany is ever widening. The degree of stupidity in public discourse is ghastly, but so many people do not seem to care…

    OK, I’ll stop – I know my cultural pessimism is ridiculous…

    As for Singapore which you depict as a political system as near as is possible to paradise, it is hard for me to pass a judgment – I simply don’t know enogh about it. I find it hard to believe that Singapore’s autocracy feels so good to live in, when it comes to political liberties…

    Then I am not of the law-and-order kind and I like to think that some social problems can be tackled without repressive measures, but at the end of the day that may be a naive way of seeing things. However, the temptation to abuse of such power is likely to be as great in Singapore as anywhere else in the world. And you must not forget that it is so easy to become a victim of state repression yourself, even if you believe that you abide by all the rules. But you probably don’t care because you would enjoy the caning ;-)

    Come to think of it – I suspect you intentionally carried drugs with you to experience caning and really loved it! That’s why you are so excited about Singapore – admit and show us those pictures!

  3. Brenda
    January 13th, 2008 | 7:26

    I’m Singaporean and have been having mixed feelings about my country for the longest time. I agree with what you say about the overly-simplistic binary classification of democracy = good and non-democracy = bad. When I was a student, I was constantly questioning why we were having to analyse the Singapore system by the West’s yardstick. It’s true, we are in a unique situation, and what works for America and other Western democracies may not work for us. But I found very little resonance in my concerns among my classmates, they were more concerned with finishing the assignments and not questioning the assumptions implicit within. And that is the real problem with Singapore. Most people do not question. There is an unhealthy obsession with beating your neighbours at material success. People do not realise there is more to life, they have no interest in things that will not add to more material well-being – people just want their house, their car, their kids to produce top grades and get into a top university and make lots of money, an upgraded house, a second car. You said that people here don’t give a shit that they have never tasted democracy. That is true, they don’t give a shit, and it’s not because they have evaluated democracy vs the Singapore system and chose the latter. It’s because they never thought about these issues at all. There is no need to think – the government plans everything perfectly and people just need to follow, obediently.
    I do love this country a lot. But people need to learn to think for themselves. The world is entering a new information era, people are exposed to more and more new ideas and they need the skills to assess those ideas and reject the bad ones. Singapore’s economy is in transformation itself and will increasingly need the labour force to contribute beyond textbook knowledge, to add value. And most of all, the ability to think is an inextricable part of an enriching life.