John Curtis Perry is the Henry Willard Denison Professor of History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He has also served as the director of Tufts’ Maritime Studies program and was the founding president of its Institute for Global Maritime Studies. He has written widely on Asia-US relations, particularly on relations between American and Japan. In 1991, the Japanese government awarded him the Imperial decoration of the Order of the Sacred Treasure for his contributions to US-Japan relations.
Perry's latest book Singapore: Unlikely Power, explores the implausibility of Singapore's success. It tracks the meteoric rise of Singapore to the status of first-world dynamo in just three decades, shows how the city-state’s founders adopted a resolutely pragmatic approach to economic development rather than following any one fashionable ideology, and offers an overview of a country that has perfected one of the world's most influential political-economic models, despite its tiny size.
In this guest post, John Curtis Perry considers whether Singapore can offer a model to other countries.
Traffic permitting, you can drive across the island nation of Singapore in 45 minutes.
Perched barely north of the equator and unique in today’s world, the former British colony resembles the great maritime city-states of the past, such as Venice, Genoa, or Amsterdam, by taking insignificant spaces into influential dimensions. Singapore has become a metaphor for economic success, and engagement with the sea has made Singapore what it is.
The founding Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, remarked “without the harbor we would not be half ourselves.” Sited at the Malacca Straits, the world’s most active sea lane, the large, deep, and sheltered harbor has become a leading global port. This, the only natural resource Singapore possesses, has served as a catalyst for immense commercial vitality. Singapore exemplifies the Pacific Asian economic “marvel,” which is above all maritime. Cheap oceanic transport made possible a huge increase in world trade, with trade generating wealth.
Most of the world’s largest and most powerful cities are, or were, active seaports, ethnically diverse, ocean-minded, outward in their thinking, adaptable to forming effective organs for change. Cities can lend themselves to the possibility of rational and effective organization because of their relatively small size as opposed to nation-states. Deng Xiao Ping once said wistfully to Lee Kuan Yew “if I had only Shanghai to worry about but I have the whole of China.” Singapore, as a city-state, has the advantage of no territorial hinterland to support. A city can make choices more easily than a nation; urbanity can promote the building of consensus.
Singapore’s five million people enjoy a higher per capita purchasing power than Americans. It is moving fast to make itself a “smart city.” It emphasizes education and can even boast the world’s highest average IQs. “Singapore math,” an approach to numbers and quantitative concepts, has helped put Singaporean students at or near the global top in that subject. And in science, among the world’s advanced economies, only Finnish students score better than Singaporeans.
Singapore understands that logistics come first in economic development. It invests heavily in mass transit, and Changi Airport compares favorably with any in the world, as does Singapore Airlines in its sphere. Singapore takes pride in making itself physically attractive, with its gleaming towers rising from a litter-free garden city of trees and flowers to greet the visitor coming in from the airport. Tidiness conveys an image of order and stability which investors crave. Americans have responded by investing more money in Singapore than in Japan or Australia. Americans have twice as much invested in that tiny place than in all of China. In the ease of doing business overall, the World Bank rates the city-state as globally number one.
Other nations look to Singapore as a model. Panama, like Singapore a strategic maritime connector, likes to see itself as the future “Singapore of Central America.” The president of Rwanda says he wants to turn his country into the “Singapore of central Africa" although the differences are staggering. Rwanda is landlocked, lacks global ties, and its people are poorly educated. Even in the United States, an American real estate developer says he would like the shoreline of Flushing, New York, “to look like Singapore.”
When China’s notorious Bo Xilai was mayor of the northern seaport of Dalian, he said that, with Singapore in mind, he planted trees, fought pollution and “rewarded people who reported rude taxi drivers.” As a trading state, post-Brexit Britain intends to open itself up to the world; some say this will be as “a sort of Singapore on the Thames.”
Dictators and would-be dictators relish Singapore’s combination of authoritarian government and material success. Others are less enthusiastic. The Singaporean government endorses and supports education emphasizing the applied sciences and social sciences at the cost of the arts and humanities. Lee once declared “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.” Yet many people yearn for something more than the quantitative and the material.
The Singaporean experience demonstrates that technocracy can work very well in the short run. The long run remains to be seen. Clearly Singapore inspires and does offer lessons for others, such as adaptability to changing circumstances and sedulous cultivation of the human resource. But its experience is unique. Singapore is not a model.
Details. Singapore: Unlikely Power is published by OUP in hardback and eBook, priced in local currencies.