Chinese' mixed feelings for Singapore Model

By He Qinglian on March 25, 2015
Source Article in Chinese:  漫谈中国朝野对“新加坡模式”的爱与恨

The passing of Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan-yew sparked on China’s social media a round of criticism of the “Singapore Model”. Few took notice that the country had long denied the existence of such a model and made its latest denial in February this year. Singapore Roving Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan said in his speech delivered at the Brookings Institution that there was no such thing as a “Singapore model”, Lee and his team improvised many of the country’s policies and that the late leader’s pragmatic governance belief is ingrained in the regime.

The love for and hatred against the “Singapore model” as China tried to emulate it

After Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore in November 1978, China's official media outlets commended the city state for being an exemplar of public housing, garden city and tourism. Deng had long had a special liking for the Singapore experience , from which he never ceased learning the ways to develop economy and to govern. Important reform measures like the establishment of export-oriented Special Economic Zones and cooperation with foreign investment were results of drawing the Singapore experience.

Later, China summarized the “Singapore Model” as “an open market-economy under an authoritarian regime”, seeing it as the archetype of a one-party authoritarian regime that successfully led a country toward modernization. Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, the institution that has been providing training for Chinese officials, is called as China’s “Overseas Party Academy”. And around the world, Singapore is the only country that China openly claims it needs to learn from.

Out of their detestation of autocracy—plus the facts that among countries in Asia, Singapore comes just behind North Korea and China in terms of stringent media control, that the country is known for its “democracy without freedom”, and that its democracy is criticized as an election game under the monopoly of the People’s Action Party—some members of the Chinese general public dismiss Singapore as the “most beautiful and elaborate pig pen in the world”.

Possibly because Singapore became aware of Chinese liberal intellectuals’ disapproval of the “Singapore Model”, the country started to deny its existence. On March 23, 2013, Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao ran a commentary by Chinese media practitioner Zhao Lingmin. Entitled “China can’t emulate Singapore”, the article contained lines that read:—
The Chinese love of and hatred against the Singapore Model are found on an imaginary Singapore. And the Singapore that is highly efficient, without political competition and free of corruption does not actually exist.
Singapore’s Export-oriented Experience put to practice in China 

And let’s look at Singapore’s experience in economic development. During the three decades when Lee Kuan-yew was the country’s prime minister, an economic miracle was created. Such an economic feat was achieved owing to the pragmatic approach of Lee himself and his team.

Based on the country’s environment and conditions, they adopted at different stages varying economic policies alongside social security policy and successfully steered the country’s economic development. In the 1960s when the country was newly founded, Singapore relied on its ports and chemical industry; during the 1970s and 1980s, comprehensive infrastructure was in place, the export-oriented electronic industry, finance and tourism facilitated the country’s economic takeoff; when the three other Little Dragons saw a faltering economy, Singapore swiftly shifted its focus to the I.T. industry; and when the country lost its technological edge, it saw the tax evasion needs of the rich of other countries and formulated corresponding capital policies to attract them to settle in Singapore. By lowering person income tax and corporate tax, abolishing the inheritance tax in February 2008, and drawing up bank secrecy laws, the country became a place where the wealthy people of the world take up residence. Among these people are Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and Chinese movie star Gong Li.

According to a report (text in Chinese) that cited the Asia Pacific Wealth Report 2012,  nearly a third of Asia’s “mobile millionaires” saw the city state as their first option to take up residency abroad.

Impressed by what Lee Kuan-yew achieved, Deng sought to copy the Singapore experience of economic takeoff and implemented the Reform and Opening-up policy, thereby laying the foundation for China’s economic development.

After Deng’s passing, China became an export-oriented factory of the world and enjoyed a decade of prosperity. But unlike Singapore, which transformed itself into a garden city during economic takeoff, China the world’s factory became the largest sweatshop on earth that over-exploited its environment and labor. When the glory fades, China has accumulated no technological advantages; its workers remain poor; and its once pristine landscape became badly polluted as its ecological environment edges toward collapse.

As Singapore attracts High-net-worth Individuals around the world with its low tax and favorable living environment, China becomes the country with the biggest capital outflow. The reasons wealthy people leave China include: worries about political risks, environment pollution, the need to provide their children with quality education and so on.

Unbridgeable differences between Singapore and China

Among the countries in Asia, Japan and Singapore are successful examples of learning from the West. While Japan did so with institutional transplantation (thanks to the mandatory implementation of constitutionalism imposed by the US), Singapore achieved that by blending its own culture with constitutionalism, using authoritarian means to turn a somewhat backward former colony into a well-managed city.

China’s national pride makes it unwilling to learn from Japan; it rejects India’s democracy as low quality and dismisses that of Taiwan as too “chaotic”.

China’s official line is that we will not learn from Europe and America, but we will learn from the experience of the Chinese-dominated Singapore. However, the result of decades of learning from Singapore showed that for China, becoming another Singapore is an unattainable goal.

Chinese officials have always been half-hearted when they learned from the Singapore experience. Aside from the “open market economy under an authoritarian regime” as summarized by the Chinese officials, the Singapore experience includes a more significant component on which China did not elaborate: “a comprehensive system of the rule of law”.

China has a special liking for authoritarian regime and yearns for the creation of a moderate dictatorship. The “open market economy under an authoritarian regime” went out of form when it was implemented in China and became a “market economy under strict regulation by the government”. The government monopolizes the national resources and creates government regulation system in which it plays all-in-one the three roles of rule maker, referee and player.

The thing that helped Singapore break away from the rule-of-man custom was the rule of law, a political legacy of the colonial era. However, Chinese leaders overlooked this very legacy of the rule of law, neglected its essence that no one is above the law and replaced it with China’s rule by law, which the Communist Party is prescribed to lead and regulate.

Chinese-Singaporeans, Singapore’s predominant ethnic group, had found the country’s Draconian laws and heavy sentences (including the insulting punishment of flogging) meted out for slight offences like littering and serious wrongdoings such as manufacturing counterfeit products and breach of contracts hard to stomach. Yet it was these measures that turned Singapore into a neat and orderly society.

Just as pervasive corruption is a result of Chinese rulers’ mindset of wanting power but not responsibility; horrible hygiene conditions of towns across China and public health disaster like the dead pigs flowing down Huangpu River remain a problem because the general public in China has on their mind rights but not obligations. The Chinese people are simply unable to accept that littering should be liable to fines and jail terms.

And as for goods and products, everyone in China wants to get quality items from vendors and yet they would all do shoddy work and use inferior materials when they produce the goods. China has thus become a country infamous for copying from others and the harmful, hazardous food products (most notably the melamine-tainted milk powder) churning out of Chinese factories. As a result, Chinese have to go all over the world to get their hands on safe products manufactured in other countries.

I have always suspected that Chinese people by and large dislike the “Singapore model” not just because they hate dictatorship and news censorship, but also that they disfavor other-imposed discipline based on strict sentences. They would almost certainly regard punishment for spitting, littering, copyright infringement and manufacture of counterfeit items as a form of tyranny. Hence, while the Chinese people mock themselves as living in a large and dirty pig pen, they hate even more Singapore the “most beautiful and elaborate pig pen in the world”.

To sum up, all I can say is that China has failed in its decades of effort of trying to imitate Singapore. And the Chinese’ love for and hatred against the “Singapore Model” arise not out of understanding but rather a transference of their feelings toward their own government.