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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

Seeking solace in the "Singapore Model": UK, China and beyond

Commentary | Nicole Foo, Opinion Associate Editor

Photo: Unsplash

For all the dissent of its semi-authoritarian rule, Singapore has remained the envy of many countries and looked upon as a leader for sectors like education and the environment.

Recently, the city-state has made headlines again as a preferred post-Brexit model amidst the ongoing and mercurial referendum situation.

The UK has been envisioned as – what UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt had called – a deregulated ‘Singapore-on-the-Thames’.

While this is excellent news for Singapore, many political analysts in the UK have expressed concern regarding the statement.

From a layman view, one can also see why a comparison between the two countries is fundamentally problematic - they differ significantly in their political economy and geography.

To add to the criticism, even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has denounced the ‘Singapore Model’ to be unfeasible for the UK.

Blind application of lessons from Singapore often generates results that run counter to the desired aim, or unintended consequences.

The idea of replicating facets of Singapore government has been constantly toyed around by policy-makers globally.

Concomitantly, the city-state actively promotes its practices through conventions and joint projects to invoke an accomplished, world-class image of the country.

While it attests to Singapore’s progress and success as a global player, prizing the city-state as a canonical example for various ‘best practices’ does not necessarily bode well for foreign countries domestically.

Blind application of lessons from Singapore often generates results that run counter to the desired aim, or unintended consequences.

Take for example China’s interest in Singapore’s model of “authoritarian modernity” in their strive for a more efficient and open economy with firm state control.

Though China’s appeal in the latter’s ‘Asian values’ inspired governance is understandable, there is limited compatibility for China. It will require a herculean effort for China to adopt Singapore’s style of public service and the former’s government will likely sustain their high level of intervention in the economy.

Much smaller-scale attempts at modelling after Singapore’s urban landscape have proven to be difficult too. Indonesia’s residential development Citra Raya had the goal of becoming the ‘Singapore of Surabaya’ in its second largest city.

However, the development only served to perpetuate Surabaya’s urban dualism, being that it was unable to properly integrate its widespread shopping mall constructions with the surrounding landscape and entailed demolition of some historic parts of the city.

The cases mentioned above differ contextually from the UK’s post-Brexit plan, but they depict the impracticality of duplicating the same outcome from another country’s plans and policies.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that countries should not, or cannot inter-reference from each other.

Certain fragments of a country’s or city’s model can be abstracted, disassembled, then analysed. The teachings from both its successes and downfalls may prove useful as a general guide for other places desiring improvement in a particular arena.

The benefits of sharing and receiving lessons are recognised by Singapore as well, as it still invests in educational programmes for international officials and engages in bilateral cooperation through projects like the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park.

The ‘Singapore-on-the-Thames’ vision might have just been a rally for greater positive changes to the UK’s economy, but it does shed light on the ease of falling prey to the allure of an established governance model.

Given Singapore’s unusual characteristics from the outset, governments should take extra care in bringing the Singapore ideal to their table. Singapore’s model (or any country’s, in fact) is also definitely not fool-proof.

The key to ‘successful’ governance, whatever that may entail, lies not in imitating other ‘success stories’ but in crafting a model unique to one’s country through lessons from elsewhere.


About the author: Nicole is a Year 2 student majoring in Geography and Political Science at NUS and is on staff with The Convergence as Associate Editor (Opinion). She is currently studying abroad in the UK. Her love for traveling has contributed to her desire to better understand global affairs and politics. Apart from catching up on the latest TV series online, she also enjoys a cup of good coffee during her free time.


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