In 1965, Lee Kuan Yew wept as Singapore was kicked out of the relatively newly formed Malaysia, a state which after 1959 united Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. From the beginning, Singapore was the proverbial ‘odd man out’ when contrasted with the rest of Malaysia. Whilst ethnic Han Chinese are a minority throughout Malaysia, in Singapore they constitute a majority. Beyond this, whilst Malaysia’s founder Tunku Abdul Rahman formed his new state on the basis of special affirmative action rights for ethnic Malays, Lee Kuan Yew, the leader of Singapore’s most popular party, the People’s Action Party, sought to build a society based on a policy of multi-racialism. According to Lee’s multi-racial policy, all citizens would be treated with the same rights and privileges whilst government investment would work to uniformly elevate the condition of Singapore’s multi-cultural population.
With Malaysia in the midst of a military confrontation against Indonesia and with the race riots of 1964 leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of politicians in both Singapore and Peninsula Malaysia, Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia and in 1965, the tiny island with no natural resources became an independent state.
What happened next has been described as an economic miracle. Although Lee favoured union with Malaysia, he vowed to transform a swampy island into a first world economy and within ten years, Singapore had become just that.
Lee courted foreign direct investment as a means of developing a powerful business sector which then trained and employed Singaporeans. The money generated through this policy lead to the development of the best public services in all of south east Asia. Within a short generation, Singaporeans were opening up entrepreneurial enterprises themselves. Today, Singaporeans are characterised by their innovative spirit and their desire to embrace new challenges with optimism.
In 1978, the new paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and was struck by the country’s rapid development. After his retirement from front line leadership politics in 1990, Lee Kuan Yew was very candid about the fact that China’s success with economic Reform and Opening Up was in great part based on Singapore’s success story.
Today, Singapore remains one of the most vibrant economies in the world. It is a place of low crime and sparkling infrastructure, it is a high wage economy in a low wage region, it boasts an education system that is typically ranked as the best in the world, it is a small place but unlike Hong Kong, it has managed to build affordable housing in a largely satisfactory manner. Singapore’s environmental policies co-exist with a pro-enterprise spirit whilst traditional Han Chinese culture, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism all flourish in a harmonious nature. Singapore is a place that attracts legal migration from around the world, including the west and has managed to remain a peaceful, free and generally ethical society in the process.
It goes without saying that no country is perfect, but Singapore’s success story, a story that Lee himself called a story of going “from third world to first” is one that has been and should continue to be studied by men and women throughout the developing world.
Although Britain was Singapore’s former colonial overlord, there is much that Britain and other developed western countries could learn from Singapore. No system (no matter how successful) from any country could be identically replicated in another and of course every country must strive to develop its economy in line with its unique cultural traditions.
But when Angela Merkel warms that there is a “danger” of post-Brexit Britain becoming like Singapore and further describes a Singapore style economy as “buccaneering”, the German Chancellor is insulting both Singapore and Britain simultaneously.
Whilst West Germany’s post-war recovery was funded with generous Marshall Plan aid from the US, Singapore developed its post-war and post-colonial economy from the ground up by courting investment from all round the free world. Whilst Singapore courted investment – West Germany courted aid. Of course as someone born in East Germany, Angela Merkel may well have a unique perspective on this.
Beyond this, Singapore is part of the world’s most exciting bloc of nations, ASEAN. Members of ASEAN do not aspire towards political or military union but instead facilitate free trade among themselves whilst signing multiple free trading agreements with some of the world’s largest economies. In ASEAN, all decisions are made as a matter of consensus and as such, ASEAN’s respectful atmosphere is miles away from the hegemonic political union based in Brussels.
If being like Singapore is shameful as Mrs. Merkel would suggest, it is difficult to see what would constitute pride, not least since Germany stands on the verge of recession whilst experiencing slower growth than both Britain and Singapore.
Lee Kuan Yew was deeply inspired by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party and likewise Britain can learn a great deal from the optimism of Singapore’s founding leadership. The two countries of course will never be alike and nor will they ever go back to being in a political union with one another as they were prior to 1959. In spite of this, both countries have expressed their desire to trade freely with one another as soon as Brexit is achieved.
For Merkel to suggest that Singapore’s model is somehow dangerous, one must question whether she and other Continental politicians are actually deeply afraid not of a big Brexit failure but of a big Brexit success.