Misunderstanding Singapore

What the world gets wrong about the small, economic powerhouse—and its response to the pandemic.
June 8, 2020
Featured Image
SINGAPORE - MARCH 24: A general view of an almost empty tourist attraction at a normally busy Rain Vortex at Jewel Changi Airport on March 24, 2020 in Singapore. Singapore will not allow short term visitors to enter or transit through the country from March 24 to contain the spread of the imported COVID-19 infection. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

Having lived in Singapore for the past ten months, on this my third trip here, I sometimes think the so-called Red Dot must be the most misunderstood country on earth. Its plight is owed to the outsized improbability of the place, hence its stubborn refusal to fit neatly into categories others have designed for the purpose of taming perceived “otherness.” Indeed, Singapore is variably misunderstood, the nature and degree of misunderstanding varying according to who is trying to cram it into which pigeonholes and why.

What the Chinese get wrong about Singapore

Mainland Chinese misunderstand Singapore because they assume that since nearly three-quarters of the country’s roughly 3.5 million citizens are ethnic Chinese, Singapore is a “Chinese country.” In some ways it is. In most ways that count it isn’t.

Singapore is the only majority-ethnic-Chinese country not geographically part of historical China. That is improbable. Like Hong Kong, too, its roughly 150-year history as a British colony and mercantile hub makes it different, institutionally and attitudinally, from China. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a small but significant minority of Chinese in Singapore sought actively to modernize by adopting many British institutions and manners, including English and sometimes Christianity. Meanwhile, in China efforts to modernize traversed the 1911 Revolution on a roughly similar trajectory, but soon detoured into chaos and then Marxism. The path dependency deviation between the groups matters.

Singapore was also thrust into sovereignty suddenly and against its will, yet another mark of improbability as history goes. Malaysia kicked it out of the newly formed federation in 1965, possibly the most fraught year in recent Southeast Asian history for a tiny, still mostly poor and virtually defenseless country to survive. Singapore survived anyway, its near-death experience profoundly shaping its sense of self in ways sharply divergent from the experience of mainland Chinese.

Most ethnic Chinese in Singapore, too, as also in other Southeast Asian countries, are descendants of minority dialect communities—mainly Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese, and the special category of Peranakan (a Chinese-Malay mixed group with a unique cultural style whose origins go back 15th-century Malacca). Collectively known as Nanyang (Southern Sea) or overseas Chinese, among themselves they are “Tang people” because it was during the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th centuries) that the ancestors of these groups migrated south before some headed out on Southeast Asia’s waves.

All this differentiates ethnic Chinese in Singapore from majority Han, Mandarin-speaking Chinese in China. But since 3.5 million people is less than the standard margin of error in the Chinese census, it is easy for mainland Chinese to misunderstand a thing so small that it seems almost negligible. When Singaporean diplomats and politicians insist to Chinese officials that Singapore is a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society, as liberal an aspiration as a state is liable to adopt nowadays, Chinese officials typically smile and check their Rolexes. They are patient, and lately a little more insistent.

Singaporeans, meanwhile, understand China better than Chinese do Singapore, because they need to. This has led to muted schizophrenia. On the one hand, many Chinese Singaporeans feel proud to have tutored their big brother to the north on how to run an efficient, “smart” one-party state system, despite knowing that the sources and nature of the one party differ. On the other, many upscale Singaporean Chinese wince at mainlanders’ brusqueness, lack of worldliness, and the cloying nouveau riche behavior of wealthy Chinese whilst traveling abroad—including to Singapore’s spiffy Marina Bay Sands and Orchard Road shopping meccas.

What Europe and the U.K. get wrong about Singapore

Many Europeans, and British if we count them separately, not only misunderstand Singapore, but some lately do so willfully. It’s been sporting to drag the country-cum-metaphor into the desultory but encompassing and protracted Brexit bust-up of the European Union. Both “remain” and “leave” factions in Britain, and diverse Continentals too, have over the past few years enjoyed tossing Singapore about by calling a would-be post-EU Britain a “Singapore on the North Sea” or a “Singapore on the Thames.”

What is usually meant by such epithets is that Britain will adopt beggar-thy-neighbor policies to get the better of its former partners. Some commentators, for example Pippa Norris in a recent Foreign Affairs essay, have specifically mentioned environmental standards, labor rights concerns, and food safety protocols. By implication, therefore, they suggest without apparently having thought it through that Singapore’s environmental standards are lower than, say, Indonesia’s; that its labor rights record, for citizens and permanent residents at least, is worse than Thailand’s; and that its food safety protocols are inferior to, say, Malaysia’s.

This is nonsense, of course. But it doesn’t matter when European scribblers do battle with each other. As with mainland Chinese not being bothered to look at real, existing Singapore, Europeans typically know little about how Singapore actually works.

Now, as far as imaginable beggar-thy-neighbor traits go, it’s true that banks in Singapore are typically more willing to ignore where large cash deposits come from, at least to a point, than is the case in the United States or Western Europe these days. After U.S. pressure on Switzerland some years ago caused changes in Swiss banking practices, Singapore moved carefully—as it turned out not carefully enough—to fill the vacuum thus created. Singapore’s government-owned DBS Bank got implicated in Malaysia’s 2015 1MDB scandal, after which the authorities backpedaled quietly but assiduously to relative safety.

It is true, too, that Singapore has a famed maximum-security private warehouse—so not a bonded warehouse within the jurisdiction of Singapore Customs—called La Freeport, nicknamed Singapore’s Fort Knox. La Freeport is for wealthy people to store and transit expensive items without taxes levied, customs fees collected, or questions asked about where the stuff came from. (Several countries have free-port facilities.)

It is true, too, that as the world’s largest maritime transshipment hub, officials know that the parade of ships lined up coming to and leaving the Port of Singapore Authority may be carrying cargos not fully listed on their manifests. But it would be extremely expensive to all concerned, if not impossible logistically, to fully inspect every ship in port, and carriers know that. So do the smugglers who pay kickbacks to some even as they bribe others into discretion.

Look, we’re talking here about a society heavily populated by overseas Chinese in a place that before World War II had a well-deserved reputation for over-the-top gambling, prostitution, opium dens, and more. The current generation, while hardly the same as their precursors, has not jumped completely out of its cultural skin. Boy Scouts they aren’t.

It is also true that corporate taxes are low in Singapore. But what attracts large corporations to site their Southeast Asian operations here is not mainly the tax rate or any banking “courtesies.” It’s the presence of ample talented human capital available to work for multinational enterprises, Singapore’s lack of “friction” (read: bureaucratic corruption), its safety, political and fiscal stability, and willingness to invest in itself.

Indeed, if one looks functionally at Singapore, it resembles less a typical country than a multinational corporation with global reach that just happens to have a flag, a U.N. seat, and an anthem. It doesn’t so much have an industrial policy, epitomized by the state-owned collection of sectoral-critical companies under the umbrella of Temasek, as it is an industrial policy. With assets of about $320 billion, Temasek’s only shareholder is the Singapore Ministry of Finance. That, too, is improbable.

Together with Singapore’s more conventional sovereign wealth fund, the GIC (Government of Singapore Investment Corporation), with estimated assets of $440 billion, a back-of-the-envelope calculation of Singapore’s deployable surplus financial assets comes out to around $218,000 in the black for every Singaporean man, woman, and child. (The exact numbers are not published so as to discourage currency speculation by local and international traders.)

A post-Brexit “Singapore on the Thames,” or for that matter any individual European Union member-state these days, should be so lucky—or so provident and economically competent—to have that kind of liquidity at the ready. They could really use it about now.

What the U.S. gets wrong about Singapore

So what of a United States, with a national debt of nearly $25 trillion—which translates into $75,757 per capita in the red? How do Americans misunderstand Singapore? Let us count a few of the ways.

Singapore is an authoritarian state, right? Well, Singapore is a one-party state, but not much less so than Japan has been since it re-emerged as a sovereign state in 1951. No one claims that Japan isn’t a democracy, so why Singapore? There are regular elections . . . which the People’s Action Party happens always to win.

Singapore is a “managed” democracy, and let’s be frank about what that means: The opposition is not going to win political power short of pigs flying and the moon audibly whistling “Majulah Singapura.” The system is subtly but effectively rigged—I mean protected—against that. So Singapore is not a liberal democracy by law or constitutional guarantee. There are limits on due process, for example, that Americans would not tolerate. But despite that, Singapore produces mainly liberal outcomes. Aside from its both principled and pragmatic quest for ever more multi-ethnic and multi-confessional harmony, people here are free to leave the country and return at will, to read anything they like, and to write and say anything they like so long as it doesn’t cross the line into potentially incendiary bigotry or intolerance. The line can move this way and that if the authorities think it needs to, so most critics self-police.

Once you’ve been here a while, you understand the reasons for this. Given its location and multi-ethnic composition, Singapore lacks the buffers of external security and social stability that America has typically—but obviously not always—enjoyed. For various reasons, Americans tolerate more individuated noise and ambient disorder than most people; Singaporeans, like most East Asians, place a higher premium on conformity and risk-avoidance. Americans demand political agency and voice; in Singapore those qualities rank lower on the priority list. Younger people sometimes chafe at this, but not enough yet to approach any significant tipping point. China will not pluralize its politics in a Western sense anytime soon, and Singaporean elites will not abandon their paternalist outlook either.

But Singapore has the death penalty! Yes, and so do thirty U.S. states. Singapore has not used that penalty much lately, and it still has virtually no violent crime or serious drug problem. It has no gun violence either, because tens of thousands of guns aren’t lying around.

But Singapore is a police state! Really? Then where are the police? Except during the famous annual Formula One race, where the cops are out in force to protect people against large numbers of drunken foreign chowderheads, you rarely see any. Maybe they’re sunk down in their cop-lairs watching the CCTV monitors that are ubiquitous here. Indeed, that might be why women of any age can walk anywhere, day or night, without fear of assault. And why there is virtually no graffiti or petty vandalism.

But the caning! Singaporeans did not invent caning as a punishment; the British did. I dislike the paternalism it represents, but I’m not a Singaporean so it’s none of my business. As for the infamous 1994 case involving then-18-year old Michael Fay, few Americans know that, beyond stealing road signs and squirreling them away in his room for no particular reason, Fay said “Fuck you” to the judge during his trial. Had he done that in, say, Kentucky or Texas, he’d have longed for a mere four switch swats on his asinine teenage ass.

But the chewing gum ban! That’s just Singapore’s way of implementing James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory, which holds that public order is seamless and associative. It worked in the New York City subway system, and it works in Singapore.

Singapore and COVID-19

Ah, but efficient, technocratic, shiny, chip-on-shoulder Singapore has screwed up the COVID-19 crisis big time, hasn’t it? The U.S. media reports that number of cases has skyrocketed lately, and numbers don’t lie.

It’s true that numbers don’t lie, but it’s equally true that those who rely on numbers without sociological filters to tell them social truths are muttonheads. Recent U.S. press reports on Singapore’s handling of the pandemic have been misleading.

Let’s summarize the record. Singapore felt the foul winds from Wuhan very early in what became the pandemic. If Americans generally or the U.S. government had been paying attention to what was happening here, they wouldn’t have been caught with their britches down. But ’merkins, as Lyndon Johnson used to pronounce it, pretty much never care about, pay attention to, or deign to listen to foreigners—especially one from such a teeny little place as this. You play with and pet a cute little bunny, you don’t seek advice from it or respect its capacity to teach you anything.

The last public lecture sponsored by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, my host for the year, took place on January 31. I should know because I delivered it. From mid-January through mid-March, Singapore kept its infection curve fairly flat, as effectively as—if not more so than—Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, by using similar methods: temperature monitoring, testing, tracking, selective isolation, and a judicious use of masks. But schools and businesses remained open, and the economy hummed as usual. At the university, classes continued, as did smaller-scale meetings. I could feel some ambient tension, but trust in government and amid society—both earned from having endured the SARS ordeal in 2003, and some lesser public health scares thereafter—remained high.

By mid-March the pandemic had spread to Europe, the Middle East, and North America. So, like many countries, Singapore imposed international travel restrictions. Now, my wife and I experienced this shift in tactics personally. We had long since planned to visit Western Australia in mid-March, travel to Bali to mark a birthday, and then return to Singapore on March 25. We made it to Perth on March 15 just a half-hour before mandatory 14-day quarantine for all international travellers to Australia went into effect. We never made it to Bali; all our flights were canceled out from beneath our toes. So we hastened our return to Singapore and made it back to Changi Airport on March 19 about 15 minutes before Singapore’s 14-day mandatory quarantine kicked in.

Otherwise, frankly, the virus had its fortuitous uses: We enjoyed Cambodia’s Siem Reap in early February without having to vie for oxygen with the usual hordes of Chinese tourists, and we happily floated back and forth to Batam Island in Indonesia during the last week in February to visit a Bali-themed spa, and all but had the place to ourselves.

But by mid-March a large number of Singaporean students abroad, their semesters kyboshed by the virus, sought to return home. The government was not about to refuse them entry, but despite careful precautions, some imported cases made it through, and a small but frightening number of community-to-community cases inside the country eluded tracking.

As a result, the government rolled out its pre-planned “Circuit Breaker” intervention on April 6. The new restrictions emphasized social distancing. The government also distributed free masks to all Singaporeans, permanent residents, and work visa holders. While economic and cultural activity slowed, Singapore has never imposed the strict lockdowns characteristic of most Western countries that got a late start dealing with the problem. Buses and rail still run, though largely empty, and there’s traffic aplenty on the PIE (Pan-Island Expressway, the same one you saw in “Crazy Rich Asians”) that we can see here on the edge of the NTU campus.

The government has tried to ride the crest of the wave, keeping the infection curve flat without flattening the economy. The tracking and monitoring methodology has produced actionable near-real-time data, and the government has acted as the data suggested it should. It’s possible to fine-tune responses on a small island with a technocratic mentality, a good track record, and an adequate reservoir of social trust. Alas, size matters.

This fine-turning, close-to-real time reaction mode, has worked, too. The one glitch so far has concerned the foreign migrant-worker dormitories, where some 300,000 Bangladeshis, Tamils from India, and a smattering of mainland Chinese live. And this is the glitch that the U.S media has mischaracterized.

These are dormitories for temporary contract workers, so it’s close-quartered housing. Far be it from me to defend the way the government and the less-than-diligent managers of the dormitories have tended to treat these workers over the years, who in the main do construction and landscaping jobs. But the workers themselves mostly consider themselves fortunate to have the work considering their alternatives. Once the virus made it into the dorms, it spread fast and wide, accounting for the sharp spike in the raw number of cases. The government made haste to limit the contagion once its extent became known, and the number of new dormitory-related cases has come down.

The key piece of information here that the U.S. media failed to report is that the foreign temporary workers live and work mainly separate from the rest of the population, and they have not functioned as infection vectors into it. Because they are overwhelmingly healthy young men, their cases have been asymptomatic or mild. None has died from COVID-19 or even required ICU care, and only a few have required hospitalization. The number of new cases per day in the general population has actually fallen since the workers’ dormitory problem erupted. The number of ICU cases as a whole has remained steady or has fallen.

Total deaths from COVID-19 in Singapore went from 2 on March 21 to 23 as of May 28—out of a total of about 5.7 million people on the island. The result is that Singapore’s record, measured by deaths per million to date, stands at 4. The number for the United States at present is 306. Yes, numbers don’t lie.

Seeing Singapore for what it is

We all know how people like to describe their closest friends—informally, endearingly—as “crazy.” We know what that really means: that we know someone well enough to see and appreciate their unique idiosyncrasies. That’s part of the wonderment of real friendship.

Something roughly similar, if less intimate, happens with countries. You can’t really appreciate them, for better and not, until you know them well enough to see their unique characteristics. Once you do, the boxes that people back home say they fit into begin to look shabby and all but silly. Singapore is more improbable than most countries, true; but the same observation applies, I think, in the round.

Luckily or not, this year I’ve experienced Singapore both in normal times and now in the throes of COVIDaggedon. And from this perch one degree north of the equator I can look, virtually at least, upon my own country and city—Washington, D.C.—and what I see fills me with dismay. I don’t fear the planned trip home in about seven weeks’ time. I fear what kind of semi-stunned society I’ll find once I get there. The virus is almost incidental.

Adam Garfinkle

Adam Garfinkle is the founding editor of The American Interest. He is spending the current academic year as a distinguished visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.