On Sin­ga­pore envy

The Phnom Penh Post - - OPINION -

LONG gone are the glory days of the “Amer­i­can Dream”, when over­seas Filipinos would non­cha­lantly boast about how “walang ganyan sa States (There is no such thing in the US)”, and proudly share their First-World ex­pe­ri­ence of glitz and glamour in the world’s most pow­er­ful na­tion. Those days are over.

For al­most a cen­tury, the Philip­pines, a young and trou­bled post­colo­nial na­tion, grew un­der the long shadow of Amer­ica. In a tell­tale sign of our postAmer­i­can zeitgeist, how­ever, the new flavour of the cen­tury is now Sin­ga­pore, and what it stands for.

With its im­pec­ca­ble in­fra­struc­ture, ar­chi­tec­tural won­ders, world-class uni­ver­si­ties and renowned or­der­li­ness, Sin­ga­pore of­ten over­shad­ows, es­pe­cially in the imag­i­na­tion of the rising mid­dle class across emerg­ing mar­kets, its messy and cranky postin­dus­trial coun­ter­parts, such as New York and

Los An­ge­les. To use a Hol­ly­wood metaphor, for­get about “The Great Gatsby”; the new big thing nowa­days is “Crazy Rich Asians”. And the re­sult is the phe­nom­e­non of “Sin­ga­pore envy”– Ev­ery­one just wants to be a Sin­ga­pore, while only a few re­ally un­der­stand how the city-state got to where it is to­day.

For those with su­per­fi­cial un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex in­ter­play of his­tory, de­vel­op­men­tal eco­nom­ics and pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion, Sin­ga­pore’s suc­cess is sin­gu­larly a prod­uct of its au­thor­i­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal legacy.

Fewer Filipinos talk about the great Amer­i­can lead­ers, from Barack Obama and JF Kennedy to Abra­ham Lin­coln, while more are be­gin­ning to em­brace the legacy (and of­ten lit­er­ally the words) of Lee Kuan Yew, af­fec­tion­ately known as LKY.

The Slove­nian philoso­pher Slavoj Zizek, draw­ing on Peter Slo­ter­dijk’s works, has gone so far as claim­ing that if there is one per­son that the world “will build mon­u­ments a hun­dred years from now”, it’s likely go­ing to be LKY, who in­vented 21st-cen­tury au­thor­i­tar­ian cap­i­tal­ism. In fact, nowa­days it’s hard to ig­nore the flurry of Filipino lead­ers who in­voke Sin­ga­pore for their own po­lit­i­cal agenda.

Fer­di­nand “Bong­bong” Mar­cos Jr once no­to­ri­ously claimed, “If there was no Edsa 1, if my fa­ther was al­lowed to pur­sue his plans, I be­lieve that we would be like Sin­ga­pore now.”

Never mind that the Philip­pine econ­omy vir­tu­ally col­lapsed to­ward the end of Mar­cos rule, thanks to bal­loon­ing pub­lic debt and a col­laps­ing cur­rency af­ter years of mis­man­age­ment and cor­rup­tion.

Former Philip­pine for­eign sec­re­tary Alan Peter Cayetano sought to de­fend Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte’s scorchedearth drug war by once claim­ing, “The Philip­pines is be­com­ing more like Sin­ga­pore in terms of be­ing able to walk the streets at any time at night.” Never mind that there have been more than 20,000 deaths un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion over the past two years, ac­cord­ing to the Philip­pine Na­tional Po­lice.

To top it all, Duterte sought to pro­mote his fed­er­al­ism agenda by stat­ing that he seeks Sin­ga­pore (along with Malaysia) as a “model”. Never mind that Sin­ga­pore is a strate­gi­cally lo­cated “city-state” of a few mil­lion peo­ple, bereft of com­plex ru­ral-ur­ban di­vides, which be­devil larger and highly frag­mented na­tions racked by in­sur­gen­cies, ge­o­graph­i­cal iso­la­tion and weak bu­reau­cratic tra­di­tions.

As a Sin­ga­porean friend quipped over the pres­i­dent’s mis­in­formed com­ment, “I didn’t know my res­i­den­tial dis­trict is now a fed­eral re­gion.”

Yet, “Sin­ga­pore envy” can also be chan­neled in a smart and con­struc­tive way. This is es­pe­cially the case in In­done­sia un­der Pres­i­dent Jokowi, a pro­gres­sive and en­light­ened leader with gen­uinely pop­ulist ap­peal. While far from per­fect, his Cabi­net fea­tures many ded­i­cated, world-class min­is­ters who are help­ing to turn In­done­sia into a global pow­er­house.

Last month, I met one of Jokowi’s fine min­is­ters, Eko Putro Sand­jojo, a Western-ed­u­cated businessman and now pub­lic ser­vant who has over­seen a multi­bil­lion- dol­lar ef­fort to bring in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment to the poor­est vil­lages across In­done­sia, with as­ton­ish­ing suc­cess.

And in truly LKY-like fash­ion, he has adopted a no-non­sense ap­proach to­ward in­com­pe­tence and cor­rup­tion in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion by fir­ing flail­ing bu­reau­crats who failed to re­search and back their pre­sen­ta­tions dur­ing meet­ings with data, while en­rolling count­less min­istry of­fi­cials in ad­vanced man­age­ment de­grees, with schol­ar­ships pro­vided by in­ter­na­tional part­ners.

The genius of the In­done­sian ap­proach is that it’s ju­di­ciously tak­ing the best lessons from around the world, which are ap­pli­ca­ble to its scale and am­bi­tions.

In­stead of mind­lessly em­brac­ing LKY’s au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­den­cies, In­done­sia is rightly learn­ing from the great bu­reau­cratic re­forms of the former Sin­ga­porean leader.


Por­traits of late Sin­ga­pore found­ing leader Lee Kuan Yew are set up ahead of a pub­lic broad­cast of his fu­neral in Hong Kong on March 29, 2015.

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