Profile: Singapore, the city state mistakenly held out by Eurosceptics as an example for Britain to follow

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.

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?

Andrew Green: The new Immigration White Paper. Not just damaging, but a disaster – both for control and the Conservatives

Others would say that the appointment of a profoundly business-friendly Home Secretary was bound to lead to a weakening of immigration policy.

Lord Green is Chairman of MigrationWatch UK and a cross-bench peer.

As MPs gather next week to resume their debate on Brexit, they will need to turn their attention to immigration – a major issue in the EU referendum.

Unfortunately, the Immigration White Paper, slipped out just before Christmas, is not just a set-back for immigration control, it is a disaster. Indeed it will, in future, be seen to have been extremely damaging for public faith in the political system trust in politicians and the Conservative Party especially.

Why? Because, despite all their promises over eight years – not just promises but manifesto commitments – the Conservatives have given up any serious attempt to reduce immigration. If the proposals in The White Paper are implemented, immigration will be far more likely to increase still further and could well spin out of control.

How could that be? Consider this. Until now, highly skilled immigration (that is at degree level or higher) has been open for EU citizens but capped at 20,700 for non-EU entrants. According to the new policy, there will be no cap on either. Furthermore, employers will no longer be obliged to advertise a job in Britain before recruiting from overseas: how will British staff feel about that? There is even talk of abolishing the system of sponsorship so that anyone could bring in a worker, perhaps even a relative, as long as they said that they would be paying a salary of £30,000 a year. Yet the Government’s own Advisory Committee, mainly pro-immigration economists, has admitted that salary levels can be fiddled, for example by including other elements such as accommodation.

For anyone who has followed immigration matters for some years (in my case 18 years), this is sheer foolishness, but that is not the half of it. There is also to be a new route for those with much lower qualifications – put simply, “A level” or equivalent – which will be open to the whole world and also uncapped. Given that these routes will lead to settlement there could be waves of applications, from all over the world, including from people willing to take a pay cut to get on a track for permanent residence and eventual British citizenship.

There is more. There is also to be a route for unskilled workers from “low risk” countries. They will be able to come for “up to a year” – note that expression – before having to go home for a year for a “cooling off period”, whatever that might mean. As for whether they can then come back again, the document is not clear. What is clear is that “up to a year” is a blatant attempt to fiddle the immigration statistics.

How so? Because migrants are asked on arrival how long they expect to stay in the UK. If they say more than a year, they count as immigrants. But these people will say less than a year and will therefore not be included in the immigration statistics. It is, frankly, shocking that a Conservative Government should behave in such an underhand way on an issue of such importance to its own supporters and, of course, to many others. Nearly two thirds of the public and, indeed, 85 per cent of Conservative voters consider that immigration has been too high over the past decade.

Amazingly, this last route will also be uncapped and will be open to visitors from these countries to find and take up a job while they are here. The clear implication is that all EU countries will be included amongst the “low risk” countries, so Romanians and Bulgarians, still arriving in considerable numbers, will continue to flow in. There is suppose to be a review of this route after four or five years; we shall see.

Even that is not the end of it. There is currently a Youth Mobility Scheme that applies to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan that allows their citizens aged 18 to 30 to come here for two years, non-renewable, to travel or work. This route is currently capped at 59,000 a year. This too has already been offered to the EU provided it is on a reciprocal basis.
It is beyond question that immigration was a major issue at the referendum. Its salience has declined somewhat since then, at least partly because people thought that it was all in hand.

The White Paper contains a great deal of talk about the “control” of immigration, but the reality is that new routes will be opened, some temporary – but the Government’s record in removing overstayers is lamentable. Meanwhile, the public are clear that they want to see an actual reduction. They are aware, no doubt, that immigration has been adding one million to our population every three years since 2001. They may also know that, at current rates of immigration to England, we shall have to build a new home for immigrants every six minutes, night and day.

How has it come to this? Why has the Government caved in so completely to the industrial lobby? The cynic might say that industrialists are the Conservative Party’s chief paymasters. They might also say that the Remainers in the Cabinet are not unhappy that a major objective of the Brexiteers should lie in tatters. Others would say that the appointment of a profoundly business-friendly Home Secretary was bound to lead to a weakening of immigration policy. And, of course, the Prime Minister, who has been a bulwark of resistance to massive levels of immigration, is now in a much weaker position and has many very large fish to fry.

Whatever the reasons, the outcome is deplorable. We should have learned from Labour, who loosened immigration controls shortly after they came in to power in 1997 and found that net migration trebled in a couple of years. Before that net migration was never more than 50,000 a year and sometimes negative.

Now we are still at a quarter of a million a year and many members of the public, especially outside our main cities, have had more than enough. There will be deep resentment at the Conservative Government’s refusal to listen and their failure to act. As for the Conservative Party, it will go into the next election with immigration still at a quarter of a million, perhaps more, and many voters will respond accordingly. Denis Healey once described a Labour manifesto as the longest suicide note in history. At 160 pages this White Paper is a strong competitor.