The challenge Singapore is facing now, at this stage of its development, is bigger than China's

The challenge Singapore is facing now, at this stage of its development, is bigger than China's

It was a surprise twist to a familiar conversation.

Over lunch with a Chinese acquaintance a few months ago, we cycled meanderingly though the usual topics educated Beijingers like to cover: air pollution, politics, the social graces of the population, or the lack thereof.

I forwarded my theory that the air pollution problem in Beijing would improve faster than expected, as such is the nature of governance systems with few other stakeholders. Things get done quickly, and Beijing has shown there is little economic, political, social or human cost it considers too high for a priority of the central government's.

He was sceptical, and argued that the lack of private profit opportunities would slow down change. But then, concluding amiably, he said: "Only one thing is for sure. Life will get better."

It was a cap not just to our discussion on air pollution, but to everything else we had covered and more - a succinct existential statement that conjured less of an empirical truth than a spiritual one.

It is - I have come to believe over 10 intense months of reporting in China - a statement of national significance, summing up a collective mood of buoyancy and resurgence.

My lunch partner's attitude is so crystallising not because he is as far from a victim of Beijing's propaganda and information control as can be found among locals, which he is.

It is because he is a middle-class, middle-aged man. And for four years as a political reporter in Singapore before my Beijing stint, I had never come across a middle-class, middle-aged Singaporean man expressing anything akin to optimism, not to mention the earnest, uninflected belief that "life will get better".

Whatever the problem - and the Chinese face some massive, intractable problems that sometimes seem almost primitive to my Singaporean eyes - there is a solid confidence in the country's path, its fundamental system and its inevitable global dominance.

This showed up consistently in almost all the stories I reported this year. It was there in the way the agonised relatives of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 passengers called Malaysia, to its ambassador's face, "a small, backward country", and appealed to the Chinese central government to step in.

It was there when I interviewed a young woman who had fled to the United States at the urging of her father, an environmental activist who had been imprisoned and ill-treated for years.

She said she had only recently learnt about "Tank Man", that iconic figure of resistance standing in the way of a line of tanks on June 4, 1989, and marvelled at all that Chinese people were kept from knowing. In the next breath, she told me she wanted to return soon to China, "a great country and my home".

It was there when I spoke to Chinese of all ages, profiles and income levels on topics such as kindergarten poisonings, Internet control and rural reform.

Expecting indignation, frustration and anger, so easily expressed in Singapore, I often encountered equanimity and a steadiness that is borne not just from having experienced hard times, but also from expecting better ones.

Patriotism and belonging are complex matters. But what I have seen and felt in Beijing this year is what it is like to live among people in the sweet spot of national development, where reality keeps outstripping expectations, leaders take on messianic auras and the production-possibility frontier seemingly never stands still.

In this national moment, the uncomfortable aspects - the lack of civil and political rights, the arbitrary political governance, racial or economic inequality - are just pulls and tugs on an indifferent momentum.

This, I think, was where the United States was in the 1950s and 1960s, and where Singapore was in the 1980s.

But my generation of Singaporeans are coming of age in the slowing curve of the Law of Diminishing Returns.

The challenges we face, from high property prices to under-employment and retirement inadequacy, are compounded by the knowledge that we missed out on that bit when life just kept getting better.

Our national condition has lately been far from a sense of resurgence and unlimited potential, defaulting instead to a deflating and weary uncertainty.

Despite its enduring backwardness and reprehensible human rights record, China looks ahead to its best days; we seem to always be casting our eyes to the past.

It is by no means just Singapore. In Hong Kong, where I spent a week reporting during the pro-democracy protests in October, the subtext of every interview I conducted was the same: Life is getting worse, and the only solution we see is political change.

Why now, when Hong Kongers have not had democracy in 150 years?

The answer is a complex one that I am not qualified to answer unequivocally. But I think that economic challenges play a bigger role than the identity of the "authority" - London or Beijing - that lords over Hong Kong.

I do not think it is a coincidence that political change is also occurring at a rapid pace, by Singaporean standards, in the republic.

When it seems like what has worked before is no longer working, the agitation for change creeps beyond the economic to nip at the fundamental scaffolding of a society.

This is happening across developed societies in the world, from Europe and the US to parts of Asia. No doubt, China will arrive here one day too.

But as I prepare to leave Beijing, I keep thinking about how I am departing a massive, backward country that nonetheless feels exciting and, somehow, uplifting - back to a small, advanced and affluent country that finds itself in an anxious, melancholic state.

As our golden jubilee approaches, the ruling party will emphasise how far we have come; its loudest critics will focus on how its - and Singapore's - best days are over.

I think the truth for most moderate Singaporeans is somewhere in between. Pride at how much we have achieved - with a clear-eyed acknowledgment that we are at a crossroads, and in need of a new vision for the next 50 years.

To me, the challenge Singapore is facing now, at this stage of its development, is a bigger one than China's. It is easy to skip along when economic growth powers ahead.

What is required of us now is digging deep for correction and re-invention, learning not just to add, but also to subtract. It is perhaps here that we discover the fundamental character of Singapore society and whether cohesion truly exists - not just in a time of abundant growth, but in leanness and fractiousness.

I think there is already a new vision being forged, and it looks something like this: one with greater social protection that avoids the rent-seeking, morally hazardous policies of Europe; one with leaders who inspire and empathise; one with a brave acknowledgement of entrenched racial and income privileges that masquerade as meritocracy; one with a more open and creative culture whose strength comes from bearing without breaking the weight of political, social and cultural differences, not from pretending those differences do not exist.

Some might think that the comparison between China, in all its hugeness, and tiny Singapore is a naive one. But boldness is not a function of size, neither is exceptionalism.

We defied the odds for 50 years. Now, for the hard work.

rchang@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 28, 2014.
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