Cracks appear in the Singapore model

10:34, May 23, 2011      

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A fresh wave of debate on the Singapore model is sweeping China. The revived interest is largely being driven by the droves of Chinese officials traveling to Singapore for training. Party cadres are practical. They want to see what works. And they think Singapore speaks their language.

The Straits Times recently captured a quote that summed up why Singapore appeals to Chinese Party cadres. "The Singapore model of development before democracy is something that suits China," Chinese professor Lu Yuanli said, according to the newspaper.

There have been three waves of "Singapore fever" among Chinese officials. The first came after 1979 when Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore for the first time. The second followed Deng's famous 1992 Tour of southern China when he praised Singapore as an orderly and well-managed country that China must learn from and surpass. The third wave dates from around 2007 when southern leaders like the Guangdong provincial Party secretary started to publicly urge cadres to learn from Singapore.

Singapore's system exists on too small a scale for China as a whole to copy, but it can be, and has been, used as a template by city officials. This kind of city-level emulation started as far back as the early 1990s.

Concrete results include the Suzhou-Singapore Industrial Park – a project that survived teething troubles in its early stages. And there was the program at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University that has trained some 16,000 Chinese city officials.

Singapore's appeal is not restricted to China. The person seen by many as having created the economic miracle, Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, is seen by many developing states as their superhero. Small Middle Eastern countries, eager to replicate the success of the Southeast Asian city-state, also send officials to study the Singapore model. One could say the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, at my alma mater, was institutionalized to spread the Singapore way.

But the economic crisis has presented challenges to the incumbent People's Action Party (PAP) government, which has enjoyed an uninterrupted spell in power since 1959. Singapore was one of the countries worst affected by the crisis, with its manufacturing and growth rates plunging rapidly in the last few quarters. More pertinently, Singapore's economic success was achieved at an immense political and social cost. Few people these days like to draw attention to the events of the 1960s, when many of Lee's political opponents were arrested and imprisoned for up to 23 years without trial.

While it would not be exactly correct to say that the PAP lost its mandate to rule in recent elections, it is worth asking why there are only two non-PAP members of the Singapore national parliament, and why members of the opposition are regularly arrested under public nuisance and illegal gathering laws.

Is the Singapore model of development really the way to go?

Huang Shuo is a Beijing-based freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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