Economic History Case Studies: Asian Tigers (Pt. II of III)

Similar to Hong Kong, Singapore’s economic history was shaped by its former status as a British colony. The city-state once dubbed by Winston Churchill as the “Gibraltar of the East” came into being as another entrepôt for the British Empire. The British established the city-state in the wake of a power struggle with the Dutch Empire during the 19th century over control of its neighboring regions, Malaysia and Indonesia. As the history of the Second World War can attest, the British went on to control Malaysia and the Dutch controlling Indonesia by the 20th century. Singapore, like Hong Kong, fell to the Imperial Japanese before later becoming controlled by the British after 1945. In the 1950s, Singapore and Malaysia were the targets of Marxist-Leninist fighters who fought for independence from the British. These fighters were Chinese National Communists whose interpretation of Marxism-Leninism had more in common with Maoism than with Stalinism. This marked the beginnings of the “Malaysian Emergency,” a conflict that pitted these National Communists against British troops tasked with defending the Empire’s colonial holdings.

Even though the British succeeded in their counterinsurgency, they were not as successful in the diplomatic talks that ended the Malaysian Emergency. At best, they were only able to maintain control of British Malaysia by granting Malaysia and Singapore greater autonomy. That autonomous status enabled Singapore to eventually join the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, which did not last because the Singaporean government had disagreements with Malaysia over economic policies. For as a city-state, Singapore lacked the fertile land and natural resources found in its Indonesian and Malaysian neighbors, and it wanted to govern its own national economy.

While the British Empire were able to prevent the National Communists from controlling Malaysia, the Dutch Empire never had a chance to do the same for their former colonial holdings in Indonesia. In Indonesia, the Sukarno regime sought to reorganize the country along the lines of Marxism-Leninism, which did not please the Islamists and militarists, who in turn would later favor the Suharto regime. The fact that Indonesia came close to becoming a Communist nation was an issue that did concern the British Empire, who sought to prevent Singapore from becoming a haven for Marxism-Leninism. The same can be said for the party that went on to becoming the ruling party of Singapore, the People’s Action Party, espoused a pro-Liberal Capitalist line in response to the broader context of the so-called “Cold War.” The disagreements with Malaysia and the hostilities with Indonesia were what compelled Singapore to become an independent city-state, the Republic of Singapore, in 1965. It was during that year when its contemporary economic history began as a result of its own political history.

Early in its economic history, Singapore suffered from a housing shortage and high unemployment, which necessitated the need for government intervention. But unlike Hong Kong, whose application of Developmentalism focused on industrial manufacturing, Singapore applied Developmentalism toward the self-development of its Totality. The Totality who lived in Singapore during the 1960s were more likely to be less educated and even illiterate. The Singaporean government directed its efforts toward educating its populace to be capable of integrating themselves into the Empire of Liberty within the realms of international trade, infrastructure, and technology. Key to these developments were the Death of Bretton Woods and the 1973 energy crisis, both of which affected how the Singaporean economy applied Developmentalism differently compared to the other Asian Tigers. Singapore saw the potential of financialization, of Financial Engineering, earlier than the other Tigers, all three of which were still relying on industrial manufacturing and exporting the finished products elsewhere.          

This documentary about Singapore’s economic development appears to be filmed sometime in the 1980s, when the population was still somewhere around two million. It is a glimpse into the historical period when Singapore began to undergo its own transformation upon applying Developmentalism.

The impressive rise of financial services and an emerging service sector concurred with Singapore’s longstanding status as an entrepôt by the 1980s and 1990s. These trends, together with a Parliament determined to rigorously apply Developmentalism, allowed for low Inflation and Unemployment Rates and the creation of a new middle class, a new Bourgeoisie. The Singaporean Bourgeoisie is best personified by the Five C’s of Singapore that emerged during this period: “Cash, Credit Card, Car, Condominium, and Country Club.” To ‘own’ (or more likely, to borrow) all five in Singapore is to be the epitome of success in the Liberal Capitalist sense. In a manner comparable to Hong Kong and Malaysia, an argument can be made that such sentiments are products of the old British colonial mentality insofar as they are shaped by the terrain surrounding Singapore. The automobile, the condominium, and the country club are the most obvious because the other two, the “Cash” (Read: Kapital) and the “Credit Card” (Read: Schuld), are needed to obtain those three in what is otherwise a city-state:

“Cash is self-explanatory. Though in this case, it is less about physical currency and more about financial stability and security. Affluence is often seen as a measure of personal worth and success across Southeast Asia.

Owning a car, especially imported ones, in Singapore or Malaysia is another measure of status. High taxation on the import and ownership of motor vehicle provides car owners with another avenue to flaunt wealth and power.

Credit cards are a visible symbol of success. Of course, the higher the limit on ones card, the more they are able to boast.

In land-strapped Singapore, a fancy condominium unit is viewed with envy due to how expensive it can get to purchase or rent one. Freestanding houses are even rarer and thus signify greater affluence. Though this is not as prominently featured in other Southeast Asian countries, luxury condos and houses are still viewed as symbols of status outside of Singapore as well.

Country clubs are few and far between. Thus, memberships are expensive and they provide a feeling of exclusivity rarely found elsewhere. This unsurprisingly leads many to view membership as symbols of power and wealth.”

It is true that the Five C’s are still open to change, especially among more recent generations of Singaporeans. But based on what is commonly understood about the Five C’s, another argument can be made that the Five C’s themselves symbolize an economic variation of the Freedom-Security Dialectic which is also rooted in Singapore’s colonial past. One 2019 survey suggested that young Singaporeans have a similar set of Five C’s in mind: Cash, Career, Culture, Credibility, and Convenience.  

“94 per cent of those who took the survey identified that cash is still important. It is the only life goal that has remained between the traditional and new five Cs. Not that we’re surprised. After all, money acts as a conduit to attaining many things we want in life.

Career is ranked second most important across all age groups, but is more apparent among Singaporeans who are at the start of their career. Nine out of 10 Singaporeans under age 29 felt that establishing a good career was important to them. A 2016 study by US-based workforce solutions provider Manpowergroup highlighted that millennials “want the security of full-time work to ensure they can maintain their standard of living”.  Not to mention, no job equals no money.

74 per cent of respondents evenly weighted across all age groups felt the need for developing cultural proficiency through travelling the world. Travelling broadens your mind and that happens through engaging with people of different walks of life. Being open to one another’s differences is especially relevant in today’s world. No one wants to be a xenophobe. As they say, walk a mile in another’s shoes before you judge them.

In this day and age where one’s reputation can be so easily destroyed in a flash, especially on social media, being credible is an important trait for 67 percent of respondents. Nearly seven in 10 white-collar workers felt it was important for them to know they can be trusted by people around them. According to The Resource Connection, success at work is dependent on your credibility, and here are four ways to build it.

With the rise of e-commerce, private hire cars and food delivery services, we’ve basically been spoilt when it comes to getting things we want without doing much heavy lifting. 54 per cent of respondents in the survey felt it crucial that products and services are easily within reach. But lest we worry that need for convenience is making us a lazy and impatient bunch, being more efficient also frees up our precious time so that we can tend to the more important things in life. Hopefully.”

What can be surmised from this revamped version of the Five C’s? It deserves to be asked because these sentiments are the literal embodiment of what is referred to in The Work-Standard as the “Post-Bretton Woods Debt-Standard.” In essence, to generate the greatest Quantity of Kapital for the least Quantity of Schuld. And within the parameters of the Freedom-Security Dialectic, the ‘Convenience’ and ‘Culture’ represent the Freedom aspect, whereas the ‘Cash’ and ‘Career’ reflect the Security aspect. What balances the two, what prevents the average Singaporean from discovering the Freedom-Security Dialectic is that sense of ‘Credibility’ which is another characteristic associated with the Singaporean government and why its own Credibility is what gives itself political legitimacy.

It is true that, because of Developmentalism, Singapore was able to achieve a Parliamentary Democracy and a Mixed Economy, but first impressions can be deceiving. What is written officially about the city-state on paper is not reflective of its flesh and blood reality. The Singaporean Parliament continues to be governed by that same aforementioned political party, the People’s Action Party, whose pro-Jeffersonian Weltanschauung allows it to remain firmly in favor of the Empire of Liberty. The Political Liberalization and Social Liberalization are never tolerated by its government as much as the Economic Liberalization that comes with Developmentalism. The government operates more like an Authoritarian regime whose credibility is dependent on the performance of its Mixed Economy, hence the State Capitalist-like behavior. It has to behave this way in order to reap the benefits of being aligned with the Empire of Liberty for the sake of Kapital Accumulation.           

Moreover, the State Capitalist model of Singapore will always be distinguishable from the State Capitalism of the Soviet NEP (Novaya Ekonomicheskaya Politika; New Economic Policy) and the State Capitalism of Imperial Japan’s Zaibatsu. In the Singaporean version, following the Developmentalist playbook, the State acts as the primary source of Kapital Accumulation by investing Kapital into the Mixed Economy. The Kapital goes to State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and corporations partially owned by the Parliament and private commercial interests. Such economic organizations, it should be noted, operate according to the State’s Incentives of Supply and Demand, the Profit Margin guiding their activities like the privatized commercial firms which coexist in the Singaporean Mixed Economy. Other than that, most strategic industries are controlled by the government.

Given that the State wields the Incentives of Supply and Demand as a Parliamentary Democracy, the Singaporean government has had to rely on an Authoritative governance to offset the flaws of Parliamentarian politics. It remains to be seen as to whether the Singaporean government is going to be able to continue governing in the manner that it has been for decades. At some point, Singapore is going to face the consequences of its Developmentalism path by having to become more overtly against the effects of Political Liberalization and Social Liberalization. When it does decide to oppose them, the Singaporean government will not stray too far from opposing the Economic Liberalization that caused such trends in the first place. This will continue to be the case so long as the Incentives of Supply and Demand remain firmly in the control of the Singaporean government.    

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