Tuesday, June 21, 2011

System Singapore

In Singapore, the notion that capitalism is an invention and product of the West strikes one as anachronistic at best. In a globalized world, capitalism has taken on an Asian flavor in the city-state, enough so that if the German philosopher Max Weber were alive today he might have written more positively about the relationship between Confucianism and capitalism.

The Confucian work ethic is on display for everyone to see in Singapore.

The nation’s patriarch, Lee Kuan Yew, who served as prime minister from 1959 to 1990, argued that Asian values are superior to those of the West. But Singapore’s success stems not from Confucian philosophy, but from sound economic policies put into action by an effective government.

Singapore’s wealth runs counter to academic notions that a liberalized economy paves the way for a liberal political body. Today, Singapore is one of the few wealthy countries that espouses market capitalism while refraining from turning into a liberal democracy.

While Singapore’s per-capita income is higher than many Western countries, the city-state has few political freedoms. Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 136th out of 178 countries on freedom of the press. The country tied with Mexico and came in just above Turkey — and scored 19 places lower than Indonesia.

And while the country has become more open in recent years — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is more open than his father — it is far from becoming a liberal democracy.

British philosopher John Gray goes so far as to call Singapore’s system “post-liberal.” The city-state, he says, instead functions under a guided capitalistic system overseen by a corruption-free government. (In Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perception Index, Singapore shares the title of least corrupt country with New Zealand and Denmark.)

Lee Kuan Yew takes the notion even further by stating that democracy only gets in the way of prosperity.

Singapore has a well functioning rule of law, but lacks a genuine democracy. Indonesia, on the other hand, lacks rule of law but has a relatively functional democracy.

Perhaps there is a causal relationship between the two — that an iron-fisted rule of law leads to a wealthy populace — but Singapore’s leaders have other reasons for holding onto their strict order.

The nation has witnessed the consequences of political instability among its neighbors. Taking heed from the Bali bombings and the actions of Jemaah Islamiyah, Singapore’s subways feature videos warning riders to report suspicious behavior.

In Singapore, security cameras and “no smoking” signs are everywhere and hefty penalties apply to those who don’t abide. But few police are on the streets, a fact that likely means that Singaporeans have internalized the numerous laws, moving the rule of law from one of surveillance to one of self-surveillance. The Singaporean state is often called paternalistic and nicknamed “the nanny state,” but citizens seem to have internalized their nanny.

This stands in stark contrast to Indonesia, where the rule of law is so weak that few citizens internalize the rules. It is not an uncommon sight to see someone smoking right next to a “no smoking” sign. This is even prevalent among civil servants, the very people tasked with keeping the rule of law intact.

Jakarta’s elite want to learn from — or copy — Singapore’s success. But what has been copied? The high-rise buildings and the massive shopping malls?

The city ignores the efforts taken to plan Singapore’s growth. There are few green spaces left in Jakarta. Car ownership isn’t limited and air pollution is rampant. When was the last time the citizens of Jakarta enjoyed a blue sky?

Every society has its own share of contradictions. Repressed by the state, Singapore hides them fairly well. In Indonesia, the contradictions are right out in the open. In Singapore it requires reading in-between the lines.

Most Indonesians embrace the contradictions. They both envy Singapore’s wealth and loathe its obsession with law and order. They envy Singapore for the fact that things work properly. They envy Singapore’s prosperity.

On the other hand, they would be filled with dread if their cities became as ordered as Singapore, finding such order utterly boring and repressing. And indeed, after my own recent trip across the strait, it is good to be back in Indonesia.

By Roy Voragen writer based in Bandung.

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