Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Singapore Dream III

“More interesting was a speech by Tommy Koh before the play ('Viva Viagra!') began. He spoke in English about his pride in being Asian. He pointed out that bureaucrats were not always 'bad guys'; they could be 'good guys', too. This splendid new theatre was made possible, was it not, by the active support of the Singaporean government. The audience applauded. A blue spotlight, bouncing off Koh's glasses and the grey-blue highlights in his perfectly coiffed hair, gave him a weird shine, as though he were polished with wax. Many people, he continued, perhaps a bit incongruously, said that it would take many years to recover from the Asian economic crisis. But he didn't share that pessimistic view. The Asians were clever and industrious, and they had pulled off miracles in the past. A new economic miracle was just around the corner. However, the next step in the Asian miracle would surely be cultural. After Asian economic power, there would be Asian cultural power and, so Koh was happy to tell us, the whole world would sit up and take notice. Indeed, it was already happening now in Singapore. More applause. Ekachai, the ACTION Theatre's director, professed how moved he was, thanked Koh for all his help, and said there was a surprise in store. The lights dimmed, Koh blinked, and from the back of the theatre about fifteen actors and actresses came in, carrying a huge cake and singing, 'Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Tommy…' I thought here was an example of what was wrong with Singapore.”
Ian Buruma, "Bad Elements"

"'Moderate voices are in danger of being drowned out by extremist voices,' said Tommy Koh, a veteran diplomat who chaired the Singapore meeting."

Singapore, of course, has had a very different colonial experience from Egypt or Saudi Arabia. It was not colonized so much as it was a creature of colonization. The people who live there are the descendants of people who chose to live there because they found it more desirable than the places they were from. They learned the ways of the modern world under the (often insufferable) tutelage of the British, and graduated with top marks to become the peers of their teachers. There's a rather breathtaking lack of gratitude in Singapore's leaders ascribing all the positive things about Singapore to their own enlightened leadership, then joining the Egypts and Saudi Arabias in excoriating colonialism. Lee Kwan Yew, the city's patriarch, was an English schoolboy first, then discovered his Chinese identity as an adult. If a person from the Middle East was given to ascribing to colonialism all the troubles of the world, they would not necessarily be a friend or ally of Singapore. Singapore is colonialism, or at least one face of colonialism- a highly distilled essence of the thing itself.

For me, the way in which a state like Singapore infantilizes citizens (described devastatingly above by Ian Buruma) is enough to discredit it is a potential residence. I've got lots of gratuitous opinions, which is why I blog, and I'm also afflicted with the idea that if a million of us are all throwing our ideas around it actually (strangely enough) has a salubrious effect on society as a whole. But I have to admit, many of the people in Singapore don't seem to be put together the way I am, and seem pretty content. So is the Singapore model exportable?

The greatest danger of authoritarian government is the temptation of the oligarchy in charge to use their position to engage in corruption. The primary reason why Singapore has some claim to be taken seriously intellectually is that they've combined an authoritarian government with low levels of corruption. The question for people like Tommy Koh is 'Can you teach governments in the Middle East and Asia how to replicate this, or is the lack of corruption simply a product of social conditions specific to Singapore?' The Singaporean model is clearly widely admired by the leadership of China, and the cult has spread to leaderships in places like Burma and Egypt. Anti-corruption campaigns featuring executions and draconian penalties are a regular feature of life in China, but corruption continues to be a persistent and debilitating problem there. It is corruption in Saudi Arabia that has radicalized their population and sent them to the mosques for lack of any other outlet for their rage. An article in the Atlantic magazine last year documented how, among other abuses, restauranteurs who build up a successful business at a certain location are apt to get a visit from a Saudi prince, who will give them an offer for their restaurant at well below market price. If the offer is not taken, the restaurant starts getting a lot of unwelcome attention from government inspectors of fire regulations and zoning, as well as tax audits and the like. The restaurant doesn't last long. When such behavior becomes pervasive, and there's no political outlet, the link with radical Islamism is clear.

There's a guilty little secret behind the soaring American rhetoric about democracy:if the Singaporeans could really teach the Egyptians and the Saudis some magic formula by which those societies could become prosperous and corruption-free while retaining an authoritarian structure, most of us would heave an enormous sigh of relief, express fulsome thanks to Singapore's leaders and nominate Lee Kwan Yew for the Nobel Peace Prize. When I read Tommy Koh's remark about moderate voices being drowned out, it took me some time to figure out that he was referring to Barak and the Saudi princes. Oh. In Arabia, the principle constituency fighting corruption are the Islamists, who often adhere to a strict ascetic code while trying to deliver the world back to the seventh century. In Egypt there are genuinely progressive voices pressing for change, but many of them are in jail. Those are the moderate voices being drowned out, and Singapore has no intention of engaging with them.

The U.S. no doubt would prefer to see a genuine democracy in Singapore, but in truth, the U.S. is not really leaning very heavily on Singapore to "evolve" faster; but then, Singapore is not spewing terrorists out into the world like a pulsar, either. What makes me suspicious is that I didn't see the word "corruption" appear even once in the Herald Tribune account of this conference. If the formula can't be exported, Singapore is just an anomoly as a non-corrupt authoritarian city-state - one that is enabling and supporting a whole flotilla of authoritarian states that are very corrupt indeed.