Singaporeans can visit 192 out of 227 international destinations without visas
A large cut-out prominently displayed in one of Singapore’s biggest public libraries shows a small Chinese boy in a bullock cart. The caption identifies him as the young Lee Kuan Yew, creator of modern Singapore, who would have been 100 years old this year, visiting his grandfather. Singaporeans who stop by this exaltation of poverty and simplicity have never set eyes on a real-life bullock or bullock-cart. But they know that yesterday’s bullock-cart owner must pay $106,000 today for the licence alone to buy a car, the vehicle’s price and the mountain of taxes needed to run it being separate. Nevertheless, nearly a million vehicles ride Singapore’s roads.
Vivian Balakrishnan, the part-Chinese doctor who is Singapore’s foreign minister, once quoted Anand Mahindra, then Confederation of Indian Industry president, saying that “an Indian businessman coming to Singapore must be able to say, ‘I have seen the future, and it works’.” That future was shaped by Lee’s decision not to make education compulsory but to ensure that it was not only inexpensive and accessible but essential for success. Since then, Singapore, even more than Japan, has been a beacon of inspiration for the rest of Asia in spite of the string of crises that preceded the current money laundering scandal. What is noteworthy is not that they occurred, but that unlike leaders in the world’s largest democracy who remain coy about the bloodshed in Manipur, Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, took the bull by the horns and confided his troubles in Parliament.
His indomitable father set the precedent for candour way back in 1996 when he disclosed that he and his son, then deputy prime minister, had bought four discounted luxury flats from a Malaysia-born Chinese-origin tycoon. Although an inquiry cleared both Lees of impropriety, they decided to give the discounts to charity. What saves Singapore from the consequences of unchecked improvidence is respect for the inherent system of checks and balances and the awareness that just as the law cannot be twisted to serve political ends, neither is it intimidated by rank.
No wonder Singaporeans can visit 192 out of 227 international destinations without visas. The small, compact, low-tax republic makes a fetish of efficiency and has adopted English as its lingua franca in the interests of unity and modernity. It began with what the Japanese called the “flying geese paradigm”, which led to an inflow of investment capital from Japan and the West. A recent Forbes report noted that now that the Covid-19 pandemic is over, at least ten international billionaires are jostling to sink $4.4 billion in new hotels and expand the island’s already flourishing hospitality industry. “Right now, Singapore feels like the centre of the world” says Robert C. Hauck, the German-born globe-trotting head of one of Singapore’s elegantly impressive new hotels.
Although Singapore’s per capita GDP is $68,370 against India’s $2,601, the American romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians hardly did justice to its setting. In projecting the city-state’s wealth, the film conveyed no sense of the social justice or ethnic harmony that underlie growth. Focussing only on the palatial mansions modestly codenamed “Good Class Bungalows” that can cost as much as $184 million, the film ignored the 78.7 per cent of Singaporeans who live in heavily subsidised public housing that is increasingly becoming more comfortable as well as aesthetically pleasing. Nor are crazy rich Asians all only ethnic Chinese. Chinese settlers account for 74.3 per cent of the total, but Malays are 13.5 per cent and Indians nine per cent.
Yet, recent headlines (“Singapore Sleaze” and “A slew of scandals puts Singapore’s government on the back foot”) in London’s Economist magazine sent alarm bells ringing.
One controversy concerned the Harvard-educated transport minister, S. Iswaran, a ruling People’s Action Party veteran who was arrested in July and released on bail with a drastic salary cut. The government is treading a delicate line for it refuses to sack Mr Iswaran unless the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau finds him guilty. There was also some tightrope walking over Parliament’s deputy speaker, another PAP member, whom an independent disciplinary tribunal convicted of professional misconduct although the appeals court cleared him. The Speaker and a female fellow PAP MP were less fortunate. Both married with spouses and children, they confessed to an affair and had to resign. There followed the unrelated resignations of two Workers Party politicians who had initially lied about their extramarital relationship.
Over all this looms the quarrel between the Prime Minister and his brother, apparently over the 125-year-old bungalow where Lee lived from the 1940s until he died. The latest twist to the dispute is the brother’s post accusing a government agency of not only leasing grand GCBs to two senior ministers but also clearing trees for them and carrying out renovations at official expense. Balakrishnan is one of the two. While the house dispute simmers, the financial scandal sizzles with the police seizing cash, jewellery, gold bars and fancy goods worth more than $1.8 billion. Nine men and a woman originally from China but now holding diverse passports were caught in a massive island-wide blitz.
Inevitably, such scandals are a reminder that Lee himself anticipated problems. “Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up”, he had warned two years before stepping aside -- not down. The need to do so might be catastrophic for India and Asia. When an India International Centre sophisticate commented on Singaporeans’ obsession with money during Lee’s last visit, he readily agreed that yes, many Singaporeans were nouveau riche. “I would like to believe that in the next twenty-thirty years as we become ‘old rich’, we will acquire the graciousness that comes with a cultivated society.” As Lee told his audience, people who now lord it in GCBs are obsessed with wealth because the hovels they lived in earlier had a hole in the ground for a toilet. His successor, Goh Chok Tong, discovered the wonders of sanitation where “you could just pull the flush and everything disappeared” only when he was 21 in 1962. There was no song and dance about the equivalent of “Swachh Bharat”; it wasn’t a political gimmick. But Singapore was cleaned.
It’s as straight a road from the bullock-cart to the limousine as from the bustee to the bungalow. But the government has to clear it of obstacles and impediments instead of squandering money on prestige projects.