PAP’s hype and marketing to the world is falling apart
, May 31, 2012 (here
Singapore is brilliant at self-promotion, says an Australian analyst, but it is
no financial dynamo. Much of the world has been deluded by its hollow roars of
Singapore, the modern city-state known for its authoritarian ways
and conservative government, has a reputation for functional efficiency and
capitalist success. The smallest member of Asean geographically is often touted
as one of Asia’s great success stories – a gleaming city that emerged from
the tropical swamps under a strict but wise autocrat, Lee Kuan Yew.
But a fascinating book by Australian Rodney King
looks deeper into the
“the Singapore Miracle” and reveals that a lot of the city’s supposed successes
are in fact hot air.
Reports of Singapore being a dynamic commercial melting pot are, King says,
simply the oft-repeated claims of a government that tolerates little dissent,
and city leaders who may actually have stifled the sort of entrepreneurial
dynamism you get in places such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taiwan and maybe even
Bangkok. King is a Perth journalist who lived in Singapore for a number of years
and worked briefly at the Straits Times.
“The Singapore Miracle – Myth and Reality” casts doubt on the city-state’s
claims of cutting-edge efficiency, global competitiveness, economic freedom and
transparency. Most Singaporeans are not as affluent as their government makes
out, King says in his extensively documented, 500-page tome.
“Books about Singapore usually praise its achievements or criticize its
authoritarian rule,” he writes. “But few ever probe its widely publicized claims
that it is a brilliant success that other countries should follow.” King argues
that Singapore’s workforce productivity is often mediocre and well below that of
the West and Asian economies such as Hong Kong.
“The country also displays endemic inefficiencies at both macro
and micro-economic levels. The performance of the construction, financial and
service sectors is second-rate, while Singapore Airlines does not deserve the
top rankings it receives.”
Singapore, he says, has “a dependent and underdeveloped
economy”. Multinational companies and state enterprises predominate, and
the economy has “low entrepreneurial and innovative capacities and
an under-educated workforce”.
The city-state’s supposed affluence is also largely a myth. About 30 per
cent of the population still lives in poverty by Western living standards,” he
says. And Singapore’s Housing Development Board, Central Provident Fund and
state-run health schemes have severe shortcomings.
What Singapore has been good at, he says, is marketing itself.
“Singapore has brilliantly sold itself to the world as an amazing success
story to attract foreign investment and talent. It’s managed to get most Western
think-tanks and ratings agencies to give it top scores for such things as
competitiveness, transparency, economic freedom, etc.
“These bodies reflect the interests of foreign capital and
their methodologies are shoddy and incompetent at times. And the statistics they
are fed by the Singaporean authorities are often dubious and designed to put
Singapore in the best light.’
“To sell itself to the world Singapore has also denigrated and patronised its
Singapore was hardly an economic backwater when Lee Kuan Yew took power in
1959, says King, who has no special regard for the premier, who held office
through his People’s Action Party (PAP) for 31 years. Lee is now known as a
“Minister mentor” and elder statesman.
“Lee is always carefully listened to, and rather too politely … his views and
lectures often receive reverential attention from opinion lenders, American
think-tank experts and others who often have little direct first-hand knowledge
In the early to mid-’60s, Singapore had one of the highest living standards
in Asia, with one of the best-educated and hardest working populations. Its
strategic location and magnificent harbour – with extensive British-built
shipyard facilities – alongside one of the world’s busiest sea-lanes, meant that
it became a natural transport hub. And these features were a great asset for
The strategies Lee used to develop Singapore were an open-door policy to
foreign capital and export orientation to tap into global trade. They helped the
city-state enjoy double-digit growth from the ’60s to the ’80s.
But the Lion City became heavily dependent on foreign capital while state
enterprises focused on infrastructure and “nation building concerns”.
Entrepreneurial and innovative capacities have suffered because of a lack of
domestic competition and the predominance of state bodies. Public servants
running state boards often have little experience of the private sector “and no
idea how to run a business”, King and other analysts say.
“The local private sector, normally the seedbed of innovation in most market
economies, is stunted and starved of venture capital,” King writes. “The
country’s capacity for indigenous research and development and entrepreneurial
and innovative endeavors remains limited.
“Heavy state control of the econ’omy is exercised through an extensive layer
of state enterprises. The state imposes this control through layers of red
“The government also manages a big chunk of the people’s savings through
forced savings and owns 72 per cent of the city state’s land. Moreover, the
government controls the unions and most of the labor force. Equally mythical are
Singapore’s claims to being transparent. Nothing could be more untrue. The
operations of Singapore’s government and bureaucracy are swathed in
King counters claims of high home-ownership levels, saying 86 per cent of
Singaporeans rent government flats from the Housing Development Board on 99-year
The author is provocative but very thorough. Every aspect of life in the
city-state is analysed in detail.
“Singapore’s flaws are hidden by the PAP state’s vigorous
marketing campaign,” he says. And most local and foreign journalists are usually
too restricted or intimidated by government defamation laws and other penalties
to challenge or refute” the “river of statistics” promoting Singapore’s
There is a wealth of statistical and anecdotal material in this book to
counter the official lines – or lies. Economists and anyone with an interest in
Singapore should take note. This book could change the way you view Singapore.
But, perhaps the saddest facet of King’s work is not what he’s written, but
the fact that the people who most need to read his book may find it hard to get,
if Singaporean bookshops refuse to stock it, as he expects.
Related: Singapore a poor model for Myanmar,
William Barnes. Asia Times Online
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