Picture credit: Busakorn Pongparnit/Getty
Artillery Row

The poverty of “Singapore-on-Thames”

Britain can take inspiration from other countries but it cannot merely imitate them

The UK’s existential crisis has many roots, but few potential remedies. Brexit, despite the tensions and messiness, had the advantage of forcing frank discussions about the nation’s future. In 2017, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond tossed into the fire a new concept — “Singapore-on-Thames”. It signalled that the economic survival of the UK, if access to the EU single market wasn’t agreed in favourable terms, was tied to global competitiveness. The expression caught up strongly among some Brexiteers, who associated the label with their dissents against the EU model and regulatory binds, their attachment to a strong and positive sense of nationhood, and their hopes for growth on British terms.

Years forward, Liz Truss has revived the concept with renewed vigour. As the 49-days Prime Minister re-enters the political ring, all guns blazing, she affirms that we only have Ten Years to Save the West. This call to action is a far cry from the familiar sounds of climate change alarmists who forecast an imminent apocalypse every other week. Truss is all about GDP and the fact that the old economic models are failing us. Thus Truss argues “that post-Brexit we should have gone for a much bolder economic model that was, essentially, more like Singapore on steroids than a Norway on Valium approach”.

among the countries in Asia touched by British influence, Singapore holds a distinct position

Although Truss has tempered some of the expression’s metaphorical lustre, the enduring presence of Singapore in the public sphere isn’t trivial. Indeed among the countries in Asia touched by British influence, Singapore holds a distinct position. The echoes of the UK’s legacy continue through the corridors of Singapore’s governance structures, from statutory boards to legal frameworks. The fact that Singapore still looks to the UK as a point of reference is a testament to its past model, which standardised and perfected key governance skills throughout the centuries.

Yet for all the enduring ties between the UK and Singapore, the two countries now present markedly different faces to the rest of the world. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2021, Singapore was ranked as the second-most competitive economy in the world. Singapore’s GDP grew by 5.4 per cent in 2021, rebounding from a contraction in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same year, the unemployment rate stood at 2.5 per cent. Today, the country is ranked as the healthiest in the world, and topped the PISA 2018 ranking in all three categories (reading, mathematics, and science). All of this could be quite the bitter pill for others to swallow.

Given its stellar performance, envisioning “Singapore-on-Thames” might feel less like wishful thinking and more like a recipe for success. However, it isn’t clear if its advocates truly understand the solid ground beneath its ambitious facade.

At the heart of Singapore’s journey stands a visionary Great Founder, Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015), whose pragmatic philosophy of governance has guided the nation since its birth on 9 August 1965. In a famous televised interview with the press, the new Prime Minister, originally optimistic about negotiating with Malaysia, seemed visibly overwhelmed by the separation between the two countries. Despite the emotional turbulence, Lee Kuan Yew comes back to his usual self: unyielding, poised to conquer the formidable obstacles ahead.

Setting the stage for the rapid transformation of his country into a global success story, Lee Kuan Yew championed productivity with trust as a guiding principle. Corruption in particular is met with stringent consequences, and the institutionalisation of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), tasked with eradicating corruption and safeguarding integrity within public office, is closely intertwined with Singapore’s phenomenal economic growth.

Lee Kuan Yew’s pragmatic ethos continues until now, bolstered by a robust governmental system of internal checks and balances. Today, the state still sees itself as a “fair broker” between all stakeholders — a hallmark of its existential agility.

In everyday life, the state endeavours to demonstrate its relevance and ensure citizens feel that they have a stake in what is achieved in their name. This commitment shines through in the government’s efficient delivery of essential services, communication fortified by clear metrics, and the pursuit of truth through evidence-based assumption testing. During the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, for example, the government swiftly implemented fiscal measures and transparently communicated its rationale, instilling confidence in Singapore’s resilience and adaptability.

Perhaps most strikingly for the Western eye is the way in which the government advertises its work regarding essential public services. The Housing & Development Board (HDB), in charge of public housing, operates communities that serve as a convenient interface between the public and the state. In these spaces, reassuring key words such as “fulfilling dreams” or “rejuvenate” are projected in large lettering. Endless diagrams with colour codes explain how “resident archetypes” can live peacefully together among the thoughtfully conceived scenes of greenery. Less startling, but still unfamiliar to Westerners are the police signs scattered across the city, a not-so-gentle nudge reminding of Singapore’s firm grip on law and order.

Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership ethos is rooted in a keen appreciation of the significance of character, shaped around values of integrity and excellence. His enduring emphasis on the people’s “stamina” reflects resilience ingrained in the national psyche, forged through overcoming common challenges. Additionally, the dignified handling of Singapore’s colonial past and rejection of a “begging bowl” approach highlight Singapore’s self-reliant ethos.

This isn’t just talk. Leaders are boots-on-the-grounds champions, working through coordinating councils and committees, backed by a legion of local volunteers. This grassroots engagement ensures that initiatives aren’t just lip service; they’re tailored solutions born from first-hand experience that ensure policy-makers are personally invested in the nation’s success.

The concept of “compassionate meritocracy” underpins Singapore’s approach to incentivizing hard work and talent, thus promoting social mobility. Notably, Singapore rejects the Western notion of “institutionalised racism”, instead advocating for equal opportunities supported by state assistance where needed.

But that’s only one side of the story. The undeniable strengths of Singapore are based on a complex tapestry of trade-offs that Western leaders wilfully or inadvertently ignore.

If the UK might be read, in some ways, as the child of Locke, Singapore is definitively that of Hobbes and a relative as distant as possible from Rawls. On the island, social harmony always means protecting people against something. Historical conflicts based on race, for example, are an ever-present fear, which prompts the state to assume the role of guarantor of peace.

This assurance of safety often entails the unsettling sensation of living under a “Big Brother” gaze. The meticulously clean and orderly facade of the city-state can sometimes mask a sense of artificiality, while the relentless focus on productivity may leave little room for the flourishing of the arts.

Crucially, Singapore’s management of cultural diversity, based on a racial framework, is central to its stability but wouldn’t go without controversy in the West. For instance, Singapore employs a selective immigration policy that considers racial and religious parameters. Being Malay — a minority in Singapore but a majority in the region — is intricately linked with being Muslim. The categorisation of race on identification cards, where one’s race is determined by the father’s, underscores the divergences between Singapore’s and the UK’s approaches to cultural identity.

But the handling of racial matters is far from being the only difference. The state’s intervention in social housing, with a large portion (approximately 80 per cent) owned by the government, and its meticulous control over urban space, highlights another trade-off between security and individual autonomy. For some citizens, first access to housing works through a ballot system. When designing buildings and entire precincts, the state calculates every single aspect of the environment, up to the necessary amount and location of void.

Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography, From Third World to First, makes it abundantly clear: “[he] has always tried to be correct, not politically correct.” Not everyone got the memo, and Western criticisms of Singapore spring periodically. The last case in point in April 2024 is The Economist’s criticism of Singapore’s perceived liberalism deficiency. Singapore’s Home Secretary, Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam, delivered a scathing rebuttal, noting: “The Economist can’t resist sneering at us. It’s an instinct lodged deep in the unconscious of the British commentariat class. They can’t stand that a people they were accustomed to lecturing are now doing better than they are, across the board.”

Some may call Singapore’s trade-offs a Faustian bargain, but the truth is that Western societies also have their own dilemmas according to which their ideals of freedom can exist. As the liberal world becomes unruly, it is necessary to examine Singapore as a provocative case study in the search for effective governance in the 21st century.

Yet that isn’t quite what the label “Singapore-on-Thames” achieves. Most significantly, it is used with intentions that don’t match the reality of Singapore’s model. From its inception in 2017, it emerged first as a negative warning, not something to actively pursue. In 2017, the “Singapore-on-Thames” option, whatever it could mean for a Remainer such as Hammond, was clearly second-best to close ties with the EU, and preferably avoided. For Liz Truss, it might even be a misnomer since her programme doesn’t quite match that of the Singapore government.

But, again, expectations are set very low when people who tout themselves as “the only conservative in the room” are unable to reckon truthfully with their hypocrisy and opportunism. And how can one stifle a laugh at the warnings from those who subsequently devote themselves to serving the financial interests of Saudis and other foreign governments?

More importantly, Singapore is a model that cannot be reproduced at the scale of a country like the UK

If political leaders in the UK were serious about asking themselves “How Singapore might deal with an issue?”, they would have to accept that Singaporeans aren’t afraid to do what they believe is needed, even when these things aren’t popular. Now, try to apply this to the NHS, the triple lock, or even reforms of the civil servant body.

More importantly, Singapore is a model that cannot be reproduced at the scale of a country like the UK. It is a small island, highly urbanised, with an origin crisis that still largely irrigates people’s sense of purpose and cohesion. It isn’t, also, without its own challenges, such as rising health costs, sensitive religious issues (such as that of the tudung and the Madrashah education), and low-wages migrant workers living in dormitories. Or the rise of the “Strawberry generation”, a fruity nickname for Gen Z and Alpha members of its population, who are perceived as “softer” than their elders (looking good on the outside but bruising easily). In Singapore terms, it means being deemed incompetent in facing social pressures and not used to hardships. If, as Singapore becomes more prosperous, the fear of social conflict goes away, will the country succeed in finding and consolidating another vision of “the good life”?

There are, however, low-hanging fruits in the Singaporean model that any serious politician should contemplate. Declinism in the UK is fuelled by the challenge to “Make Government Sound Great Again” and the difficulty to find good skills and character in leadership, such as candour and humility. It is also based on the lack of law enforcement, and the absence of a positive, clear goal for the future. Embracing prosperity for all, encouraging growth and productivity, is far from being simple, but it is a strong remedy for fighting the ideological narratives that feed from a bitter image of cultural and geopolitical decline. And, perhaps, if we’re serious enough about overturning the fate of the UK, reforming the army — whether by endorsing conscription à la Singapore or an expansion of the Reservist programme — could also help inculcate a shared ethos across vast cohorts of people from all backgrounds.

Whatever the solution is, UK leaders need to stop using external powers as a proxy for their incompetence, whether it is the EU or Singapore. They must reckon with their own strengths and weaknesses. There is nothing wrong in finding inspiration in systems that work, but it shouldn’t trump the need to craft a path for oneself, and take ownership for it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover