Why can’t a woman be more like a man? When Rex Harrison, playing Professor Higgins, makes that demand in My Fair Lady, the audience laughs because, in his arrogance, he does not realise how absurd he sounds.
Why can’t Britain be more like Singapore? When Jeremy Hunt, playing the role of Foreign Secretary, made that suggestion a few days ago in a speech delivered in Singapore, no one laughed.
For the idea has been floated by many Conservatives, to whom Hunt is suspected of sucking up in order to position himself as a future leader. And the answer, as an irate Leaver put it this week, is that “we’re bloody well not like Singapore”.
Singapore is a city state whose territory occupies about 280 square miles. The United Kingdom is about 94,000 square miles in extent.
The population of Singapore is about 5.6 million, of whom 39 per cent are foreigners. The UK’s population is about 66 million, or roughly 12 times that.
And although Singapore has held general elections ever since 1959, these have invariably been won by the People’s Action Party (PAP), which currently holds 81 of the 89 seats in the Parliament of Singapore. Over that period, the UK saw changes of the main ruling party in 1964, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1997 and 2010.
During those 59 years, Singapore has had three prime ministers and Britain has had eleven. Continuity of leadership has certain advantages. It has helped Singapore achieve the long-term approach to infrastructure investment which Hunt holds up as a model for Britain.
The PAP was the creation of Lee Kuan Yew, a remarkable man, who served as Prime Minister for 31 years and 178 days, and remained powerful for another two decades. The nearest approach to that record in British history is Sir Robert Walpole, conventionally regarded as our first Prime Minister, who served for 20 years and 314 days in 1721-42.
Lee was born in Singapore in 1923, when it was a British colony, and lived through the crushing defeat of British forces in 1942 at the hands of the Japanese. After the war, he came to Britain to study at the LSE, felt overwhelmed by London and managed to transfer to Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge, where in his law finals he took a starred first, ahead of two future professors of law.
He went home to practice as a barrister, changed his name from Harry Lee to the more Chinese Lee Kuan Yew, entered politics and supported Singapore’s independence in 1963 as part of Malaysia. For he accepted the conventional wisdom that this small territory, dependent on its larger neighbour even for drinking water, was incapable of surviving as an independent state.
In 1965 Lee wept, and was full of anguish, when after riots between Malays and Chinese, Malaysia expelled Singapore, reckoning its Chinese population, which is predominant, was simply too difficult to absorb.
Singapore was small, poor and vulnerable, but had a deep-water harbour and occupied a wonderful position at the tip of the Malaysian peninsular on the Malacca Straits, connecting the Indian to the Pacific Ocean, for which reason Stamford Raffles had in January 1819 founded a trading station there for the British East India Company.
So although Singapore is commonly described as being “without natural resources”, thanks to its position on one of the world’s great shipping lanes it enjoys an enormous competitive advantage, of which Lee proceeded to make skilful use, by creating the other conditions needed to develop the container port, build a successful airline and attract numerous international corporations, including banks, oil traders and refiners, ship repairers, and electrical and biomedical manufacturers.
The spirit in which he ruled is best conveyed in his own words:
“Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.”
“If you are a troublemaker… it’s our job to politically destroy you… Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.”
“You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools.”
No British Prime Minister who talked like that would survive five minutes. But Lee’s authoritarian rule was widely admired, for he provided the homes, medicine, jobs and schools which Singaporeans wanted.
And in due course he passed on the baton to his eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, who studied mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, where in 1974 he was Senior Wrangler, has served as Prime Minister since 2004, and could eventually be succeeded by a member of the next generation of the family.
The country they have led for so long has a reputation for being safe, clean, prosperous and uncorrupt. Troublemakers, including democracy campaigners, are not welcome. Just after Hunt’s visit, a civil rights activist was convicted for holding an illegal assembly which had been joined via Skype by a democracy campaigner in Hong Kong, 1600 miles away.
Andrew Wood recently pointed out on ConHome some of the reasons for treating the received idea of Singapore with caution:
“Singapore often gets quoted in the debate over Brexit – but usually of a fantasy version of Singapore: a low tax, low regulation mirage. The reality is that Singapore is not especially low tax, nor is it unregulated. Its corporation tax rate is 17 per cent; we will achieve the same rate in 2020. Other tax rates are lower, but mainly because its welfare state works very differently to our own, with residents and businesses required to save into a Central Provident Fund (equivalent to 35 per cent of a worker’s salaries), and it spends almost twice as much on defence as a percentage of GDP as we do. As for regulation, in some areas it is more nanny state then we are. But it is certainly true it is a more business-friendly environment then the UK.”
Conservatives ought to know without being told that one cannot just take a glance round the world, see which culture one likes the look of, and graft it onto one’s own. About 74 per cent of Singapore’s citizens are Chinese, 13 per cent are Malay and nine per cent are Indian.
It is in many ways an admirable city state, but quite different in its culture and traditions to the United Kingdom. To think we can just “become like Singapore” and our problems will be solved is culpably naive.
Even Singapore had to work extremely hard for half a century in order to become Singapore, and its sense of nationhood has very shallow historical roots compared to ours.
“But what about the schools?” you may exclaim. Singapore’s schools do indeed achieve excellent results in international league tables. They also make extensive use of the cane, a remedy for anti-social behaviour in which Lee Kuan Yew maintained an invincible belief.
If we set out, in a spirit of mindless imitation, to copy Singapore’s educational methods, it is quite possible we shall end up with the dullest elements of their system, rather as we did when we tried in the 1980s to copy the then fashionable example of Japan, and reached the unfortunate conclusion that intensive testing held the key.
An odd dispute from time to time makes its way into the public prints. It is about what to do with the bungalow, known as 38 Oxley Road, in which Lee Kuan Yew lived, and in which in the 1950s some of the founding meetings of the PAP were held.
He wanted the bungalow in due course to be demolished, but his descendants have fallen out over this question.
This rift within the Lee family may be of no real significance, but is what commonly happens in dynasties. Britain has, incidentally, had only two examples of father and son becoming Prime Minister: the Pitts and the Grevilles.
The burden of a hereditary succession is nowadays born instead by our constitutional monarchy. Might this prove, in a century or two’s time, an example which Singapore could follow?