Exceptional Government to Sustain a Nation Once Thought Improbable

Jan 23, 2017 at 5:06 pm | Hits: 6567

By Janadas Devan

The theme of this year’s conference — What If? — is designed to set us thinking of possibilities, or perhaps impossibilities: What might be, what might have been, what could be. But before we consider these possibilities, it might be instructive to locate what is – what has always been, what should not change, what shall always be.

Is there a permanent substratum to our existence as a nation-state that will persist no matter what else changes?

I would suggest that there is — and it would be foolish of us to ignore it.

Things and actions are what they are, and their consequences will be what they will be: Why then should we seek to be deceived?

First, we cannot deceive ourselves about our geography, our location: This is a small island — mostly hard granite — in the middle of Southeast Asia: not Europe, not off the coasts of the Americas, not next to Antarctica.

This is one of the most religiously diverse regions in the world, with almost half of us Muslim and the rest a rich polyglot of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Taoist, Confucian, diverse folk religionists, and goodness knows what else.

This religious diversity is accompanied by staggering cultural, ethnic, political and historical diversities.

For the dense forests of the region, its ubiquitous waterways, made difficult the emergence of vast, unifying empires of the sort that came into being in the great plains and river systems of the Eurasian landmass. It is possible thus to speak of a European or Chinese or Indian civilisation; not so a Southeast Asian civilisation.

This region has always been a borderland — always diverse, always in-between, always at the cross-roads of other vast civilisations — as some of the geographical terms that persist to this day indicate: Indo-nesia, Indo-China.

As an aside, I might remark that Sir Stamford Raffles did not found here for the first time an open port; he came to Singapore because it was right smack in the middle of a borderland region that was, by definition almost, always already open.

That porosity also ensured Southeast Asia’s encounters with modernity differed dramatically from country to country. Six European powers colonised various parts of this region at different times — the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the French, the American, the Spanish; not forgetting the brutal Japanese interregnum.

And as each of these metropolitan empires receded, they left behind a multiplicity of political, legal and educational systems. Our different modernities accentuated the diversities that were already endemic in this borderland.

And the diversity of our region is replicated too in our own diversity; the diversity without mirrored in the diversity within. That is the other thing that will persist no matter what else changes. I need not dwell on this, for we are accustomed to acknowledging almost every day our racial, linguistic and religious diversities. I’d only add that though we have travelled far these past five decades to become “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion,” there are new diversities that we have to deal with — among other things, diversities arising from immigration and the diversities arising from income inequality.

What If P2

Photo: Janadas Devan speaking at Singapore Perspectives 2017

I’ll spend the rest of my opening remarks dwelling on something else that will persist no matter what else changes — or to be more precise, what I think (and hope) will persist: Namely, the fact that Singapore is a country as well as a city. We don’t always keep this foremost in our minds — we forget — but Singapore is a city that happens also to be a country; a country that has no country — as in “country-side” — outside the city. Or to put it differently, there is no country beyond this city; this city is all the country that we have.

I’m sure all of you have encountered the puzzlement of immigration officers in foreign countries when you write two or more times “Singapore” to specify the city, state and country of your birth or address or embarkation. Singapore, Singapore, Singapore — like a needle on a broken record stuck on the same groove. But despite the repetition, I’m not sure we are fully conscious of what it means to have a country that encompasses no more than its only city. Actually, the fact that this city is all the country that we will have informs every facet of our existence.

Let me try to illustrate this as economically as I can:

One, Singapore is the only city in the world that has a military and a foreign service too. London doesn’t have a Navy; we do. Tokyo doesn’t have an Air Force; we do. Shanghai doesn’t have an Army or Armoured Personnel Carriers, for that matter; we do.

Two, all of Singapore’s gateways — its port, its airport — have to be located within the city. You can’t put Changi Airport, for instance, somewhere out in the boondocks, a couple or so hours outside the city — like Narita or Dulles or Suvarnabhumi or Heathrow or KLIA — for the simple reason Singapore doesn’t have a boondock. You disembark at our gateways and you’re already within the city; not so much as a drawbridge or a moat separates the city walls from the outside.

Three, unusual among global cities, Singapore has a sizeable manufacturing base — almost 20 per cent of our GDP. There are a number of reasons why this should be so but one is because we are a city as well as a country. If we were to have a purely service economy — like London or New York or other global cities, with high-paying jobs in finance and banking at one end and low-paying jobs flipping hamburgers and providing in-situ services at the other — our income inequalities would be far worse. Indeed, our Gini coefficient is already high — but compared to other countries. When compared to other global cities, we are considerably better off — in large part because we have a substantial manufacturing base providing a range of jobs in the middle.

Now, guess how much land — physical space — do these three activities, which this city has to undertake because it is also a country, occupy: Military (for training, airbases, naval bases); Gateways (airport, port); Manufacturing?

Whenever I ask this question of students or civil servants, the guesses vary from 15% to 25%. The correct answer is 42-43%. That’s right, just a little less than half of this not considerable little red dot — and I’ve not included the land that we have to devote to water reservoirs (5%), housing (17%), roads and rail (13%), parks and nature reserves (9%), and all the other accoutrements of civilised existence.

You see, Singapore is a most unlikely country. There is no other city of this size in the world that is also a country. That is why our founding fathers, every one of them, began their political lives believing Singapore, a city, couldn’t survive on its own, that it had to be joined to a hinterland, Malaya; and believing that, they fought for Merger, only to be ejected from Malaysia after less than two years, to become a country with no country-side, a city-state with no hinterland. That Singapore should exist — as a city and a country — is a miracle.

“What if?”, this conference asks, imagining a series of possibilities: What if the nation-state is no longer the key organising unit of the world? What if globalisation fails? What if Singapore fails to sustain itself as a vibrant, cosmopolitan “global city”?

In a way, we are being invited to imagine what if the conditions of Singapore’s existence — as of now — no longer prevail. But actually the fact that we exist is in itself proof the impossible is possible.

What does it take to sustain this miracle — this impossibility? Let me rehearse a few factors, none of which should come as a surprise, but they are worth rehearsing in any case to ground our speculations:

One, as suggested by how just three functions we undertake because we are both a city and a country occupy so much space, this place has to be an exceptionally and intricately well-organised organism — or it doesn’t exist at all.

Two, Singapore cannot be exceptional without having an exceptional government — an exceptional government that can plan decades ahead, take long-term decisions, and sustain purposeful action over long stretches of time.

You can’t get a Marina Bay without such planning. You can’t convert almost the entire island into a water catchment area without the capacity for sustained long term action. You can’t keep this miraculous organism — a country in a city — alive without such a government.

We saw some years ago what happens when the government’s capacity to plan ahead falters: the trains become crowded, the waiting times for new flats stretched for years, there were not enough hospital beds. Actually, when compared to failures of governance elsewhere, these were stumbles. But the ruling party paid a price nevertheless in the 2011 General Election, and many (including not a few baffled foreigners) said Singaporeans were an exceptionally spoilt people.

On the contrary, I think Singaporeans were correct to expect their government to always be exceptional. Forget about high ministerial salaries and transactional politics: Singapore cannot exist without exceptional government. You cannot have laissez-faire government in Singapore, let alone second-rate government. Laissez-faire would have meant staying in Malaysia. Singaporeans should always expect the best of their government — which ultimately means they must expect the best of themselves.

Which leads me to my final point: Singapore cannot have exceptional government unless Singaporeans too are exceptional. This might sound an awfully cloying cliché but it happens to be true. If ever we become so idiotic as to elect buffoons into office; if ever our politics became so toxic as to allow nativist, neo-fascist, populists into power; we are unlikely to have a second chance, a redo; we would be finished.

This has nothing to do with one-party dominant or two-party systems — the subject of our last session today. It is a given, I believe, our politics will become more contested – for the simple reason our society is diverse, the challenges and issues we face are complex, and an increasingly better educated population open to the world are bound to have different views on public policy. All that is well and good.

The challenge is maintaining exceptional government — capable of that sustained, long-term planning and action without which this city cannot be a country — even as our people become more diverse and our politics more contested. Can that be done?

Not easy.

Things and actions are what they are, and their consequences will be what they will be: Why then should we seek to be deceived?

But don’t forget: Most people elsewhere in other countries saw things as they were, and wondered “Why?” But the 1965 generation of Singaporeans dreamt things that never were, and said: “Why not?”

What if?

Well, why not?

Janadas Devan 
is the Director of the Institute of Policy Studies. These were his opening remarks at the Singapore Perspectives 2017 conference.


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