Neutral Singapore in a tough neighbourhood

The city-state has combined conservative ideas with ultra-liberal ones to make democracy work

By Ravi S Buddhavarapu

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Published: Mon 17 Jun 2019, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 17 Jun 2019, 11:01 PM

Singapore a beautiful and orderly island nation, dismissively referred to as a "nanny" state by liberal western intellectuals, is about to take a giant step out of the 'nursery'. At stake is its prosperity and continued success at a time of trade tensions and Big Power rivalries at its very doorstep.
In elections due by April 2021 but likely this year or next, Singapore will elect a leader who will take over as prime minister - for the first time someone not picked by modern Singapore's founder, the legendary Lee Kuan Yew.
Lee died in 2015. His successor once removed and son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, will cede leadership to his successor Heng Swee Keat. Heng took over as Deputy Prime Minister on May 1. PM Lee, though, will not be out of government. Like his predecessors, he will likely stay on in an advisory role, with a yet-to-be announced rank.
 Singapore, which has a Chinese majority, (about 75 per cent) is an ethnically diverse society with minorities of Malay (14 per cent) and Indian (about seven per cent). Foreigners make up less than 10 per cent of its over 5.5 million population. Singapore woos talent to provide a high quality workforce to attract investment. Government ministers and bureaucrats are paid handsomely to attract the best talent. "Merit" is the mantra this city-state has adopted. 
Clearly, it mandates hands-on management. In a top-heavy dispensation like Singapore, the prime minister would have the biggest say in who would succeed him. But another leader, an ethnic Indian and long-time minister, was found to be the most popular choice among Singaporeans for next PM in an independent survey in 2016.
As non-Chinese, Tharman Shanmugaratnam was never in the "running". He hastened to make that clear shortly after the results of the survey were published in a government-run media conglomerate's online newspaper.
Though this may seem like a straightforward handing over of power to the next generation, it is more. This tiny resource-poor country depends heavily on leadership and nimbleness of the government response to global events.
Today, the Indo-Pacific has become a vast theatre for a tussle for power between the US and a rising, aggressive China. Smaller nations in the neighbourhood may have to choose sides, an unpleasant prospect in the most heavily militarised stretch of waters anywhere in the world.
Speaking recently, PM Lee voiced the hope that there would not be payback from either big power if Singapore, which has cultivated a studied neutrality but has long had military links to the US, were forced to choose sometimes.
While it may not be a forlorn hope, it will require sagacity and some strength. As it copes with these pressures, Singapore will miss the late Lee, whose fairness and toughness was respected around the world.
Not much is known about Heng than revealed in a carefully managed roll-out. As finance minister, his record has not been particularly striking, but he will face the immediate threat of slowing growth coupled with the prospect of a global recession right out of the gate. Heng is also not known as a great speaker, and private comparisons will inevitably be drawn with the more popular Tharman in the years to come.  
Tharman, however, will be at hand. He was elevated to senior minister during the cabinet reshuffle. Interestingly, his popularity among Singaporeans neatly illustrates the paradox of a "limited" democracy with "Asian characteristics" that Singapore invented. It is a model that has worked. So far.
Singapore has combined deeply conservative ideas with ultra-liberal ones to make its democracy work. Founder Lee Kuan Yew, while declaring that all races were equal, explicitly recognised the difference among them. To muted calls for an ethnic minority to assume the top post after he demitted office, the late Lee always counselled patience, holding that the Chinese majority was not "yet ready" to accept a minority PM. This careful consideration of racial sensitivities clearly also factored in the unanimous election for President Halimah Yacob, a Malay Muslim in 2017. In fact, in the murmur of disquiet over why an opposing Chinese candidate was not allowed to contest, at least an argument is being voiced for "more" democracy.
As a direct result of the founder's policies, today one Malay or Indian family has shared the floor with three Chinese families in a group of four flats for decades. There is proportional representation not only in most constituencies, but also at a more granular level. This has prevented "ghettoisation". While this open acknowledgement of racial difference - and a trammeled Press - has never sat well with western liberals, Singapore combines this with some ultra-liberal practices aimed at minorities.
Tightly-policed Singapore is routinely ranked lower than most democracies by rights organisations but is trying to adapt in the age of ubiquitous social media. While the government, which has continued a steady trend towards more liberal policies over the previous decade, monitors public discourse closely, it tolerates online newspapers, blogs and social media posts that are sometimes quite critical. The large majority of Singaporeans are, however, sanguine with their lot because standards of living are high, crime rates low and civic amenities world class.
An eminently practical people, the Chinese traditionally place a high value on good "fortune": It is this fortune that Heng has to safeguard in a neighbourhood that is getting tougher by the day. Beginning last Monday, PM Lee, a hard-worker by all accounts, took the week off, leaving the reins of power in the hands of acting prime minister Heng. While Lee did not set a date, he said "we are preparing for elections." Whenever that happens, the training wheels will have to come off Heng.

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