Keeping the S'pore 'unicorn' alive for future generations

On Nomination Day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the future of Singapore was at stake in the coming Sept 11 elections. He quoted a report from global political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, which said the elections in Singapore's 50th year of independence and after the death of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew will determine whether the Republic remained special.

The Aug 31 report described Singapore as "a kind of unicorn", PM Lee said, adding: "There is no other unicorn in the world and it works well. It has unique solutions and the rest of the world is not sure what to make with it. The question is, will Singapore remain a unicorn, remain successful, or will it become ordinary and just like everybody else?"

Below is an edited excerpt from the Eurasia Group report, which was written by its chairman, Mr Cliff Kupchan.

Will the past week be remembered as the one that put an end to China's rise? I don't think so, but the recent market crash is a good opportunity to reflect on how dependent the world has grown on Beijing's every move.

The river of market turbulence coming out of China keeps flowing. Despite the country's dramatic reshaping of the global economic landscape over the past two decades, conventional wisdom had always been that China's financial risks were real but contained within the country's borders.

That era ended on Aug 17 when the Dow dropped a historic 1,000 points, accompanied by repeated falls in markets across the world.

Together, these plunges raised the question of whether we stand at the dawn of a new phase in the global political economy...What about the geo-economic implications of a weaker China? The most obvious risk stems from what happens in the countless countries whose economies, and hence political stability, depend on China for their survival.

South-east Asia, Thailand and Malaysia, in particular, might be the most worrisome hot spots. Their populations are large and dense, making any protest potentially unmanageable, and their geographic proximity to the externalities (flare-ups, refugees) that might stem from a (albeit unlikely) Chinese collapse add to the region's risks.


Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last week announced his country's next elections. The elections could have been held at any time before 2017, but it was widely expected the PM would call them this year; in part to build on the patriotic momentum surrounding both the death of his father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew - who was also father to the whole Singaporean nation - and the country's 50th anniversary.

These elections will be special for a couple of reasons: They are the first to take place since Mr Lee's passing, and will be the first opportunity since the country's founding in 1965 for the opposition to contest all 89 seats in the Parliament. As such, they have the potential to mark a turning point in Singapore's history.

What I specifically wonder about is whether the second half-century of Singapore's existence will transform it into a more typical country, or if the city-state will maintain its unique status among nations for decades to come.

Allow me to explain. For a political scientist, Singapore is the closest to a unicorn: It has few natural endowments, yet is prosperous; it is surrounded by threats, yet appears resilient; it favours a patriarchal order unfamiliar to the West, yet seems happy.

Most importantly, Singapore's individuality stems from its relentless ability to avoid the political bickering and policy myopia that have plagued most developed countries.

Singapore is unique in that it has always been a difficult - if not dangerous - exercise to either extrapolate lessons from it or offer lessons to it. There are some signs that Singapore functions to a significant extent like other nations around the world. For example, its two most contentious electoral issues tend to be immigration and income inequality - not exactly out of the box. Likewise, its prime minister has chosen the run-up to the country's next major elections as an apparently ideal time to announce a slew of measures aimed at financially supporting the nation's pressured middle class - a tried and tested move.

So after all, it might not be entirely unreasonable to begin looking at Singapore through the same lens as one would other political systems.

But then again, in what other (thoroughly sane) country does such a sense of foresight permeate the nation's thinking that its leader can call on voters with the following words: "You will be deciding who will govern Singapore for the next five years. More than that, you will be choosing the team to work with you for the next 15 to 20 years, and setting the direction for Singapore for the next 50 years."

Singapore's leaders have always shown an ability to tackle complex policy challenges in ways that few other countries can, and I expect they will continue to defy traditional understandings of political leadership for a while longer.

This article was first published on September 5, 2015.
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