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Artillery Row

How Singapore gets things done

Singapore’s enlightened authoritarianism offers lessons about effective governance

After almost two decades in power, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced his intentions to hand over power to his deputy, Lawrence Wong. By chance, I found myself in Singapore when the news broke. Primed by Westminster’s relentless battles, I was keen to hear the “insider” story of the transition. I assumed that behind the platitudinous public statements  was a well-hidden political battle, waged behind closed doors — if only I could find Singapore’s Tim Shipman to tell all. 

As I delved deeper, it became clear that there has been no such conflict. Wong was chosen to lead the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) Fourth Generation team due to broad trust in his ability and a recognition of the need for a younger leader to take Singapore forward. He was chosen by ballot of just 19 members, after which Wong was unanimously endorsed by all of the party’s MPs. 

In Britain, such a transition tends to be dominated by infighting and backstabbing. The last proper Conservative leadership contest saw ten MPs battle to prove themselves the most dedicated acolyte  of Thatcher. While often petty, I’ve always imagined — perhaps naively — that such discord serves to generate consensus on a broad political vision. At a general election, we hope that voters step up to the ballot box with a sense of what each candidate stands for, thus enabling the country to grow in a democratically defined direction of the electorate’s choosing. In reality, we’ve built a system off the back of empty promises and safetyism. Fighting for the support of the electorate, candidates refuse to accept that their vision for society comes with any drawbacks. It is “stakeholders” not the public who tend to feed into individual policies, with independent regulators overused as a way to save elected politicians from responsibility — managing decisions over football, social media, and housing.  

It’s obvious what he should do: continue to grow the economy, while keeping Singapore safe from crime and China

It proved difficult to understand the vision Wong had promised Singaporeans. One taxi driver told me that he’s very funny on TikTok and is apparently quite skillful at the guitar, but I couldn’t get much more out of him. When I asked how he thought Wong might govern, the question was met with a level of bemusement — it’s obvious what he should do: continue to grow the economy, while keeping Singapore safe from crime and China. 

Singapore’s model is by no means flawless, and certainly isn’t something that we should seek to perfectly replicate in Britain. However, the value that the country derives from a shared national agenda cannot be overstated. Prime Ministers serve for a long time — Lee Kuan Yew for 39 years and his son for 19. To save Singapore from the threat of a jarring transition of power, Lee  sat in his successor’s cabinet as Minister Mentor. Continuity lies at the heart of the Lion City’s political and administrative system, and as such, ministers have a tight grip on the machine — they enjoy and benefit from an extraordinarily strong capacity to affect change, control their civil service, and drive economic prosperity. 

The country is not without “vision” — the PAP is fiercely committed to economic pragmatism, meritocracy, multiracialism, and communitarianism amongst other widely accepted ideals. Ministers govern  through a combination of enlightened authoritarianism and economic liberalism. They’ve resisted Western individualism, always prioritising the rights of society over the interests of the individual. Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of the Singaporean as a “hard-working, industrious, rugged individuals” has created  a nation primed for sacrifice, without the expectation that the state will hold their hand. 

It is not by virtue of these particular choices that Singapore is so well-governed. It’s simply that choices have been made at all. The PAP’s success relies at least partially on the existence of a clear metric on which they can be judged. Everybody that I spoke to in the country could tell me that growth was forecast at 2.4 per cent. Most people had a view on relations with China. In one church sermon, prayers were made that “Singapore continues to be an attractive place for foreign direct investment”. Many people told me how excited they’d been to see Taylor Swift perform her “Eras” tour at Marina Bay Sands back in March. Even more told me how great the concert had been for the economy — Singapore actually brokered a deal with Swift to guarantee exclusivity across all of Southeast Asia. 

The public knows what the state’s priorities are, and what they aren’t

All leaders must be willing to make trade-offs. Far too many British MP’s will announce their plans to cut taxes, fund the NHS, stop the boats, resist the nanny state, and end obesity — all in the same breath. A refusal to accept the incompatibility of these statements leaves most policy makers focused on minimising every negative externality. Take immigration — almost all politicians accept that the British public have voted to reduce mass migration at every election since 1974. Most are probably unhappy with the number of visas awarded every year. Far fewer are prepared to take action and deal with the inevitable short term pressure on the NHS, increased labour costs, and potential conflicts with international law. But harm minimisation means that nothing positive or productive can be done for fear of the cost. In Singapore, these trade-offs have been made. The public knows what the state’s priorities are, and what they aren’t. There is an acceptance that the pursuit of the Singaporean agenda may leave some people behind. As such, the state refuses to allow hard cases to make bad law — a fact which has defined so many failures of post-war British politics.

The PAP is certainly not exempt from criticism by its citizens. One concerned Singaporean told me that the country certainly wasn’t as safe as people made out. When I pushed him for details, he informed me that during Eid celebrations someone had let off a firework even though they’re banned in the country: a very serious misdemeanour in his opinion but one that pales in comparison to the epidemic of violent crime which haunts Sadiq Khan’s London.   

A flexible, pragmatic ideology founded on a core of unwavering principles has seen Singapore achieve unimaginable success. In 1965 Lee Kuan Yew was reduced to tears on national television as he was forced to contemplate the city’s imposed split from Malaysia. Sixty years later, the young country is an unrecognisable island of prosperity — flourishing in a region where few have succeeded. 

Britain’s stagnation is often blamed on the inherent short-sightedness of our five-year election cycle. In fact, the Conservatives have held power in some form or other for fourteen years. Sadly, that period has seen so many changes of direction, so many relaunches and rebrands, that it has ultimately been impossible to identify any shared principles. Every minister, every leadership contender, has become so fixated on their personal “vision” that ironically the country has been governed without one for too long. If Labour wins the next election, it appears that nothing is due to change on this front — Starmer finds himself desperately trying to manage so many competing ideologies that the end result is a moribund politics devoid of any direction at all. Paradoxically, it is through a rejection of excessive focus on one’s individual political identity that Singapore has managed to chart such a successful course.  

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