‘The Economist’ Should Learn from Singapore Instead of Attacking It

‘The Economist’ Should Learn from Singapore Instead of Attacking It

Pride comes before a fall - and it's the West that's going down.

‘The Economist’ Should Learn from Singapore Instead of Attacking It

2000 1250 Michael Petraeus

C

ondescension in reports about Asia is nothing new in the Western world. But one is forced to recognize things are getting out of hand if articles published in one of Britain’s leading magazines on global affairs keep prompting frequent rebuttals from Singapore’s High Commissioner in the country – and others have, in the past, ended in courts.

It seems that the distance between reporting and provocation is getting rather small and Banyan which was, at its inception, described as “a column about half the world’s people” is now used as a pulpit where preachers of Western superiority take their patronising swipes at the Far East under cover of anonymity.

It would be quite annoying if it wasn’t so comical, since it’s quite apparent that if anybody should be taking lessons from anyone today it’s the West – learning from Asia – not the other way around.

Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt

This preaching coming from the capital of a country embroiled in a painful divorce with the EU – a result of a short-sighted, manipulative and populist political campaign – can only evoke a smirk on faces of all people acquainted with stability and competence of Singaporean government.

I understand it must be quite shocking for any Western cheerleader to see political scene so stable that the new prime minister is known 3 years in advance, when leaders in Europe or America can’t exactly be sure if they get to keep their jobs for another 3 weeks.

While Banyan columnist delivers his snarky remarks about the appointment of Heng Swee Keat, slated to take over from Lee Hsien Loong after elections in 2021, the occupant of 10 Downing Street doesn’t know if she’s going to last until spring. Nor does anybody (3 months before the deadline) know how Brexit is going to look like – over 2.5 years after the vote.

Is that the position from which The Economist wants to lecture Singapore – and Asia – about proper governance?

In his self-conceit the author goes on to compare PAP to Communist Party of China – clearly an insult in the Western mind (more on that in a minute). He continues to imply that planned and smooth transition of power which passes the reins to a new generation of leaders (who have been groomed to take over by spending years at ministerial posts or in other state institutions) while keeping the old ones in the background for council and soft influence is somehow a negative thing.

The suggestion appears to be that governing by conflict is somehow superior to governing by consensus.

Doesn’t it just explain everything that’s going on in Europe and America these days?

Addiction to cheap sensationalism is now running so deep there that it is expected that all disagreements and fights should be made public rather than hidden from view and dealt with in the silence of offices of decision makers. But even more disturbing is the deep ignorance of East Asian history and its cultural heritage which has produced a different and, arguably, far more civilized approach to governance than the West has.

Banyan conveniently – or ignorantly, it’s really hard to say – omits Japan, focusing on China, since parallels to what Europe still likes to imagine is a communist regime just have more sting when leveled at Singapore.

And yet, in the Land of the Rising Sun, the ruling LDP has been in charge for the past 60 years – save for a brief period between 2009 and 2012. The government controls the flow of information to the media through kisha clubs where only accredited journalists are granted membership. And the nation as a whole still widely employs the tradition of nemawashi – “digging around the roots” – a way of managing change by gradually working out a consensus and preparing all participants and stakeholders for it. Most recent, public example is the abdication of emperor Akihito, making way for a successor – a process which started back in 2016 and is going to conclude in April 2019.

Anybody remotely interested in Far East Asian culture, history and politics knows well the principles these nations operate by. And that they have little to do with authoritarianism of any sort but are rooted in Confucian principles of social harmony – a concept clearly hard to grasp by the Western mind used to endless internal conflicts.

It only begs a question – why someone displaying such an abysmal level of ignorance regarding Asian affairs is employed to write about them for a major magazine?

Those Evil Chinese…

As I mentioned, Banyan’s comparisons between PAP and Communist Party of China are clearly an attempt at an insult, trying to show that Singaporean leadership isn’t really so much different than the totalitarians (as the West sees them) in Beijing.

In reality it turns into another display of blind European conceit.

I’m not convinced that comparisons to a country which has elevated more people out of poverty at a faster rate than any other in history are particularly negative.

Those dreaded “communists” (in reality far more free market friendly than most Western governments) have improved living standards of more people than any other government ever. For a nation this big they also work with incredible efficiency, as demonstrated by the feats of Chinese engineering.

The Middle Kingdom keeps expanding its already largest high-speed railway network in the world. It has grown to 27,000km in less than 15 years – with another 10,000km planned by 2025. In the meanwhile, the UK spent the past decade merely talking about building 500km extension under High Speed 2, to be completed in mid 2030s (!).

Terminal 5 at Heathrow famously took 20 years of bureaucratic wrangling before it was completed while China keeps building one new airport after another – with the latest behemoth in Daxing, near Beijing, opening next year with four runways (ultimately expanding to seven – and a capacity of over 100 million passengers).

All of the above is in addition to thousands of kilometers of modern highways, harbors, dozens of subway systems catering to hundreds of millions of people who have moved to burgeoning metropolises across the country.

I can’t speak for Singaporean leaders but, personally, I would be happier being compared to people successfully running a superpower of 1.4 billion inhabitants rather than any of the Western politicians – most of them incompetent talking heads, incapable of dealing with any major issue, from economic stagnation & debt, through crime or bloated welfare to crumbling infrastructure.

Not that these comparisons are even necessary since it was China that learned from Singapore, not the other way around. Chinese leaders, starting with Deng himself, have developed their policies by watching how PAP put the Little Red Dot on a path to prosperity while retaining political power and genuine popularity among the citizens.

The historical fact that PRC has modeled its governance on Singapore should be well known to anybody who wants to write about Asian matters.

Instead, the London based magazine shows us, yet again, the extent of incompetence of its Banyan contributor(s).

Speak Less – Listen More

If editors at the Economist were a little less ignorant they would have used the Banyan column as a vehicle for exchange of ideas – even if some may be considered controversial in the West – rather than a podium for occasional grandstanding, recently focused on winding up Singapore’s High Commissioner.

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” / Dalai Lama

Surely if a former British colony reaches levels of GDP per capita between 50% (nominal) to 100% (PPP) higher than the UK itself – not to mention very low crime, efficient healthcare, top notch education, world class infrastructure and abundant public greenery – it warrants a closer look at how it happened and what the rest of the world (including Europe) can do to achieve similar results.

Instead, just as the West is going through a turbulent political period, grappling with unsustainable levels of debt and public welfare spending, inefficient and expensive public healthcare, rising crime, increasing ethnic diversity and conflicts it creates, its journalists – people responsible for keeping democratic societies well informed – choose to throw jabs at the only country which has dealt with all of these issues, rather than study it and draw conclusions from its successes.

If they restrained their smugness for 5 minutes perhaps it would become apparent why PAP has kept winning 2/3s of the public vote for half a century. And maybe for once Banyan column would be what it was once supposed to – “named after a tree whose branches have sheltered great ideas.

As it is, it has become a place where great ideas – and great achievements – have come under attack.

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Michael Petraeus

Economist, marketer, designer and business strategist publishing about the past, present and the future.

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