Singapore: A Model for Post-Brexit Britain?

Author: Thum Ping Tjin
Published:

In a speech earlier this year, then-British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt extolled Singapore as a model for the UK post-Brexit. This idea has persisted throughout the Brexit campaign and the debate over the future direction of post-Brexit UK. Implicit in these models is a vision of Singapore as an economically liberal, “low-tax, low-spend, low-regulation” environment that appeals to many anxious over Brexit. This is underpinned by a myth of Singapore having successfully transformed itself from a small fishing village into a gleaming, modern, cosmopolitan, and prosperous society while uplifting its people from poverty into a country with one of the world’s highest per capita GDP.

But how accurate is this vision of Singapore? In this talk, delivered at Hertford College, Oxford, on 12 November 2019, Dr PJ Thum unpacks the common myths and misunderstandings surrounding Singapore, explains the economic, political, and social mechanisms used by the ruling People’s Action Party to achieve its aims, and offers potential lessons for a Britain searching for its role in post-Brexit world.

Please note that the live recording of the talk was unusable and so Dr Thum re-recorded the talk for this podcast.

Transcript

Hello everyone. On 12 November, at the invitation of Hertford College principal Will Hutton, I gave the following lecture at Oxford, entitled “Singapore: A Model for post-Brexit Britain?” It was a marvelous event and very well attended- thank you to those of you who were there. Unfortunately, I pressed the wrong button of my audio recorder and so the talk was not recorded. There has been so much interest in this talk that I’ve re-recorded the talk here today. I’m happy to take questions so if you have any questions, please do email me at pingtjin.thum@newnaratif.com. Enjoy!

***

Thank you very much. Thank you Will. I appreciate Hertford providing safe harbor for a dissident, and it’s really good to see Hertford standing up for freedom of academic inquiry and freedom of speech.

Will invited me to speak today about Singapore as a potential model for post-Brexit Britain, and I’m not going to talk about Brexit – I’ll leave it to Will, whom I know has very strong opinions on it – but instead I’m just going to address the persistent idea that some Brexiteers have proposed of a deregulated Singapore-on-Thames, a low tax, low spend, low regulation UK. I’m not the first to point out that this is a really unrealistic model for Britain to adopt. But there are things that I think we can learn from Singapore, and so today I want to explain the Singapore model, how it evolved and why, and then ask what we can learn from it.

I’m framing this talk in terms of Singapore’s economic trajectory. When people talk about Singapore’s success, they are often referring to Singapore’s economic success, and I assume this is what people are most interested in when they talk about the “Singapore model”. But Singapore’s economic success is inextricable with its social and political history, and we especially need to understand the role of state and foreign capital, and domestic political competition, and their impact on economic strategy.

The Colonial Entrepôt

Before 1959, Singapore grew as an entrepôt under British colonial rule. This is based largely on a model of colonial exploitation and capital extraction. By 1959, what we see is 70-75% of the labour force involved in the trade and services sectors which generated about 80% of Singapore’s income. Manufacturing was about 5-10% of national income and also employs 10-15% of the workforce.

What we need to dismiss at this time is any idea that Singapore was a poor country. By 1930 and again by 1950, Singapore was the richest country in Asia by per capita income. Singapore was the most important commercial, transportation, and communications centre in the Far East, the biggest market in the world for natural rubber and tin, a specialised commodities futures market, and a major world oil distribution centre. This rich, wealthy metropolis had a per capita income of about $1,200, higher than any other country in Asia, second only to metropolitan Tokyo.

But this was because of a colonial economy. It depended heavily on economic exploitation. So even as Singapore was really rich, it was also really unequal. In 1957, 25% of Singaporeans (over 360,000 people) were officially defined as living in poverty. For a family of four, the poverty line was about $100 per month. Yet the modal (most common) and the median wage of male workers in regular employment was also about $100 per month, as compared to Singapore’s mean (average) wage of $1,200 per month. There were no workers’ rights, there was deep systemic discrimination, including the infamous colour bar.

So you can imagine for poor Singaporeans, living in squalor amidst such wealth and technological advancement, the first chance they got, they elected left-wing socialist parties to tackle all this, first in 1955 and then in 1959.

So one reason why we think of Singapore as a success is the vast expansion of social welfare spending and interventions by the government into society with the aim of ending discrimination and redistributing income in a fairer way. This is begun  under the Labour Front government in 1955, which implemented a new pension scheme called the Central Provident Fund, or CPF; which abolished the old inefficient and corrupt system of public housion and established a new public housing body, the Housing and Development Board, HDB, and also began the process of reforming education. This is driven by domestic political competition, where the left-wing parties sought to outbid each other on the social welfare they would introduce.

At the same time, we suffered from high unemployment and so there was strong demand for industrialisation, both domestically and internationally, to address this.

British capital also wanted development to improve profitability but were faced with a strong nationalist movements in Singapore, like many other places throughout the Empire. So to protect their economic, political, and strategic interests, Singapore’s anti-colonial movement had to be contained. But the demands for self-determination could not be resisted. The British followed a strategy in most of their empire by seeking a local collaborator with whom to hand power and share profits while allowing the foreign state to relinquish political accountability for domestic social control.

They found that collaborator in the People’s Action Party, the PAP, and its leader Lee Kuan Yew.

1959-1965: Import-Substitution Industrialisation

And the economic form of the alliance between the PAP and international capital was import-substitution industrialisation.

Reunification with Malaya and the formation of a common market were central to this strategy. Under ISI, foreign capital could retain its interests after independence, continuing to benefit from acquisition of raw materials and also from the provision of technology and credit, and in return the local collaborators – the Malay aristocracy, Chinese capitalists, and politicians in the Federation of Malaya and of Singapore would hold power with their support and receive a share of their profits from local production. Politically, this strategy was justified by the rhetoric of economic nationalism and nation-building.

In Singapore, the PAP was advantaged by the lack of a strong domestic capitalist class to oppose them but disadvantaged by their reliance on the trade union movement as their political base. But the PAP overcame this by seeking to extend and expand the role of the state, while consolidating power within the cabinet.

They were able to justify the vast and rapid expansion of the state in the context of the massive social changes required for nation-building and the removal of the old colonial social order.

There was a lot of low hanging fruit and early successes at making social changes bought goodwill, which made the population initially tolerant of the PAP’s interventions into society. But they also make a lot of mistakes and they angered a lot of people, and to keep themselves in power, the PAP also eliminated Singapore’s political opposition using detention without trial, in collaboration with the British and the Federation of Malaya. Despite wiping out nearly the entire political opposition, the PAP win the 1963 elections by the skin of their teeth – only 43% of the vote but over 60% of the seats thanks to the FPTP system.

So in a nutshell, from the outset you have a socialist government at a time when people wanted to refashion Singaporean identity and discard the past, which is empowered to make very deep interventions into society. We’re not just talking about reforming institutions; they are actually talking about reforming the nature of society and identity itself. Fundamental transformations of a scale that I think no government would dare attempt today. But this was decolonisation, and it was part of the zeitgeist of the 1950s and 1960s in the postcolonial world. To achieve these interventions, you have a government which heavily expands the state’s reach into society, while consolidating state power within the cabinet – it’s from this time that you see the term “PAP-state” appear; you have a state very open to foreign funding which cements an alliance with foreign capital to create jobs and economic growth via industrialisation; they massively expand welfare spending and aggressively seek to end discrimination and reform society; but they make mistakes and the rapid and aggressive nature of the changes also angers a lot of people so the PAP then uses its power to eliminate political opposition to their rule.

And this lays down the basic template for Singapore in the next twenty years.

1965-1978: Export-Oriented Industrialisation

In 1965, following the failure of reunification with Malaya, the PAP takes Singapore out of Malaysia but uses this opportunity to articulate a new form of identity and launch a new wave of social building alongside a new economic policy.

By this time, the PAP had a firm grip on parliament. By 1968, the last opposition politicians hed been ejected from Parliament, ushering in 23 years of total PAP control of Parliament. They were well underway towards undermining organized labour in Singapore, through legislating but also arresting trade union leaders who refused to cooperate with the nation-building project. There was never a large local capitalist class to begin with, and they showed an annoying tendency to oppose the PAP anyway, so the PAP were happy to sideline them. The transitory nature of ISI meant that the PAP never had to contend with a large entrenched capitalist class, unlike other Asian Newly Industrialising Countries, the Asian Tigers and others. This sets the stage for an alliance with international capital through which the PAP can undermine the interests of both its own workers and its own capitalists.

At this time we see international capital, especially in the USA, increase its overseas direct investment to avoid domestic limits on profitability while also seeking to avoid replicating the problems of the past where direct investment led to direct control led to a colony. And this is also a period where many former colonies are very wary of foreign capital due to fears of neocolonialism (c.f. Nkrumah)

So there’s a conjunction between the PAP’s need to maintain political ascendancy by finding a new path to industrial development, with the need of political capital to identify sites for investment and profit. And this became the new strategy of Export-Oriented Industrialisation, from roughly 1965 to 1978.

Having developed the corporatist state to overcome its political rivals, the PAP-state is now able to exercise this power to achieve the social and economic goals of its alliance with foreign capital. The formation of a disciplined work force is the highest priority, which goes hand in hand with the PAP’s desire for political dominance. So in this period we see the consolidation of the party-state and its ideology, the introduction of repressive labour laws and the final destruction of autonomous unions, further manipulation of the political process, and the silencing of press and educational institutions.

Examples:

Strikes outlawed in 1967, and the trade union movement was fully coopted by the PAP state. The Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress is a cabinet post. The current Sec-Gen of NTUC is also happens to be the Minister of Education – so imagine if instead of Len McCluskey, by law the head of United had to be Gavin Williamson or even Michael Gove!

The Employment Act and Industrial Relations Act 1968 removed worker protections which had only been introduced a decade before

The Vandalism Act 1968 criminalised the public communication of information under the guise of tackling vandalism. It’s a very interesting law- you don’t actually need to damage public property to be convicted of vandalism, you only need to communicate information in public.

The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act 1974 consolidated all print and broadcast media under the ownership of government-controlled entities.

So what we have is that the only legitimate avenues for conducting politics are those expressly approved by the PAP, which the PAP can control. What we see over time is that all political expression is illegal in Singapore, so that the PAP state always can arrest you. Since 2009, under the Public Order Act, an illegal assembly is one person. An illegal procession is one person. Since this year, a minister can simply declare any communication to be fake news. Under the Films Act, any film with political content is illegal, with the definition of “political” at the discretion of officials. So the government can arrest you for walking down the street, sending a whatsapp to your friend, or watching a movie on youtube. And you may laugh, but I have friends who have gone to jail under these laws. And what it does is it terrifies everyone so that people self-censor, so the PAP government doesn’t need to take action.

Anyway, back to the economy. Now, in contrast to other Asian NICs, EOI undertaken almost exclusively through the inflow of direct foreign investment. So there’s no development of a local capitalist class to defend its interests. But this does work spectacularly well and really quickly.

By the end of 1978, foreign investment accounted for 78.5% of total gross fixed assets in manufacturing; in the late 70s, wholly owned foreign companies produced over half of all manufactured exports; companies with a majority of foreign ownership produced 87.4 percent. Singapore was attractive for foreign investment because social control by a strong state produced a very disciplined, docile labour force and guaranteed political stability; The combination of infrastructure and disciplined low wage labour meant that foreign capital could achieve really high levels of profit. It was more technologically advanced relative to other potential markets. This was Singapore’s huge competitive advantage. We had infrastructure, we had technological know-how, and we were cheap.

And from Singapore, companies could also use us as a staging ground for penetrating surrounding economies, which is a natural extension of our role servicing the commodity trade.

And I think it’s also really important that throughout this period, our security was underwritten by our alliances, first with the UK and then with the USA. In fact, a major point of contention with the opposition was Singapore’s material support for the US involvement in Vietnam, and allowing US troops to spend shore leave in Singapore.

So in this period the PAP is able to reshape Singapore’s social structure in pursuit of its political and economic goals, enabling it to conclude an alliance with international capital on terms extremely unfavourable to local capitalists and workers. Singapore correspondingly sees spectacular growth – but not driven by Singaporean companies. It is driven by foreign companies in Singapore, who were attracted by the incredibly attractive incentives offered by the PAP government, including tax-free status. But this also reveals the balance of power here – the PAP has to offer these incentives because it is in a weak negotiating position. If it doesn’t offer these incentives, well, it has no strong local industrial capitalist class to fall back on.

And what happens when the PAP tries to change the terms of the alliance?

That’s what happened in the next period, from around 1979 onwards.

1979-1986: The Second Industrial Revolution

By this time, Singapore had well and truly solved its unemployment problem. In 1978, it faced a labour shortage for the first time. At the same time, it faced increased competition from other the other Asian Tigers, had a strong Singapore dollar, and a high per capita income. It was a victim of its own success and all the obvious low hanging fruit had been plucked.

And the PAP leadership are very smart men. They see the writing on the wall. They decide to move Singapore up the value chain, from low wage labour intensive manufacturing to capital-intensive higher value added manufacturing. They called this strategy Singapore’s Second Industrial Revolution.

They imposed mandatory higher wages, provided incentives for high technology industrial capital, and intensified its domestic control. They also reduced social spending. It sold this to the people as Singapore moving into a new stage of our development. Our initial nation-building period is done, we are now a high income country and are going to rise to the top. It moved from the language of social justice to a new rhetoric based on meritocracy and social Darwinism.

And it was a huge failure. Without the profitability, capital simply left. By 1985 there was a massive recession – GDP growth plummeted by 10% in a year, labour costs had risen by 40% since 1980, there was hardly any technological upgrading, a 40% decline in investment and collapsing demand for Singapore’s manufactured goods. What limited success the Second Industrial Revolution achieve arose from the Singapore state’s capacity to direct domestic resources in support of foreign investment.

One problem was a lack of advanced technological know-how. For this, it’s not enough to be relatively advanced, you need to be absolutely advanced. But the labour force was not sufficiently skilled – there was lack of technological expertise – to support the technologically advanced economy that the PAP government wanted to create. The PAP state was forced to recognize that technological innovation cannot simply be brought into being through legislation. There’s a whole broader ecosystem that needs to be created, you need to develop social capital, intellectual capital. And technological advancement is not something easily or willingly shared. So the PAP-state here embarks on a crash programme to upgrade the level of education in Singapore, and it fundamentally and drastically changes how education is conducted. Within one generation, we’re going to create the technologically advanced workforce we need. Here it veers into really crazy experiments into social engineering, eugenics – it actually sets up a national eugenics board – and intervening in children’s lives from the womb to try and create, within a generation, a hyper educated and skilled Singaporean workforce. We’re talking IQ tests, streaming or tracking of children from the age of 9 into streams which were highly determinative of their future prospects, sterilization of women with “inferior genes” – and how do you measure that? They tried to apply “objective” measures and of course it ended up being poor and minority women – this issue itself could be an entire lecture. And they can do this because who says no to the PAP by this point?

Economically, there’s a lot of analysis about the failure of the Second Industrial Revolution which I can’t go into because it would take too long, and I’m not an economist, and I’m here to talk about the political aspects of this and its consequences. In political terms, this state-sponsored revolution foundered because the PAP tried to unilaterally alter the terms of its alliance with foreign capital. It’s a political move to extract better terms from your partners. But you can’t shed your low-wage intermediate-technology role using legislation and regulation. And Singapore has no leverage. It is not China, which has the world’s largest market. Singapore is nothing by comparison. And so Singapore, like the other Asian NICs, found that advanced capitalist countries were not willing to share technology, had their own protectionist pressures, and capital would simply move to somewhere with greater profitability.

And this failure put the PAP’s domestic hegemony at risk.

To reiterate, it wasn’t just economic failure. There’s controversial educational reforms, slashing of subsidies to housing and healthcare, and other welfare spending, which led to great unhappiness. In 1981, Singaporean elected our first opposition MP since 1968, JB Jeyaretnam and then a second opposition MP in 1984, Chiam See Tong.

This period really shows just how much Singaporeans were willing to tolerate the PAP’s authoritarianism only as long as it was delivering on its development strategy. They sent a clear message that we only tolerate this as long as you deliver.

1986-present: Return to the Low-Wage Economy and the Regional Role, and New Forms of Social Control

The PAP government’s response was to abandon the Second Industrial Revolution and return to a low-wage export production, through wage freezes, changes to the tax code, but also cutting employer contributions to pension funds. This last one might need explanation. Your CPF is made up of two main components, your contribution, which as been as high as 40-50% of your salary, and your employer’s contribution. This is forcibly taken from your salary every month. So the government can impose a wage cut on the whole country and correspondingly increase business profitability, simply by cutting employers contributions.

And while we are on the subject, from 1987, you could no longer withdraw the entirety of your pension upon retirement. Instead, you are limited in how much you can withdraw and you have to reach a minimum sum before you can start withdrawing, and they have imposed insurance schemes and so on… it’s really complicated. So it’s no longer your pension. It’s effectively a tax, which is partly returned to you through direct and indirect welfare and subsidies. So when people talk about Singapore having a low income tax, it’s simply not true. The CPF is a tax in all but name, which means that Singaporean income taxes start at nearly 50% of income.

But back to the economy. So the PAP has been very careful to make unit labour costs remain lower than similar economies like Taiwan and South Korea. One way of doing so is immigration, especially of low-cost foreign labour who are exempted from the laws regulating labour and wages. Singapore has 5.9 million people, but only 3.5 million citizens. We have around 1 million low wage labourers who are paid as little as $10-20 a day in a country where the government itself considers you extremely poor if you make double that.

But it also recognized the limits of this strategy because there are always going to be cheaper places to move your capital to. So the PAP introduced a new component, trying to make Singapore itself positioned to maximise returns on capital by investing in developing economies and emerging competitors. This would be led by Singaporean government-owned or controlled companies. Singapore would invest in advanced industrialised economies to gain access to technology and skilled labour. This would also allow it to gain a share of the returns on capital where it was distributed. Singapore would also invest in regional economies as a way to facilitate the penetration of those companies by advanced industrialised countries. Singapore was returning to its colonial role as a regional hub. So as with the colonial era, we developed a highly sophisticated services sector, with financial and banking infrastructure, transport, communications services to facilitate the operations of transregional corporations. The main differences is that in the colonial period, it was trade and commerce that formed the biggest part of our services sector; from the 1980s, it was financial and business services. We also developed our role as a major offshore financial centre. And this is the fundamental model that we still follow today, thirty years later.

Today, based on the latest numbers I could find, SG GDP – 45% is forieng owned companies; 25% is GLC; around 1/3 is local.This is crucial. Singapore cannot survive without foreign investment; so the PAP bends over backwards to accommodate foreign funding. This is where Singapore’s low tax, low regulation reputation comes from. For foreign companies, Singapore is very low tax and low regulation. It’s also low-wage. That’s how Singapore competes.

I guess it’s ironic that all this rather describes the UK’s role in Europe before Brexit, but people talk about the Singapore model as for something after Brexit. But the big difference is that Singapore’s model is heavily state-directed via the two sovereign wealth funds, Temasek and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, or GIC. Singapore doesn’t have a strong local capitalist class so the government itself plays the role of local capital.

Now, this slashing and subsequent suppression of wages to maintain competitiveness has caused a lot of unhappiness. So from the 1980s, the PAP sharply cracked down on dissent and increased domestic control to ensure that public dissent could not touch them again, including by changing the electoral system to one which was unfair, but also to make sure that the outcome of the elections makes no difference, as long as the PAP wins 50% of the seats plus one. Gerrymandering, malapportionment, constituencies electing groups of MPs rather than just one MP, the return of nominated MPs to allow the PAP to have carefully curated opposition voices, every election is a snap election, the introduction of racial components which allow for manipulation – again, Singapore’s electoral system could be a whole lecture. Singapore’s elections are very very unfair. But there’s one component in particular which I want to explain, and that’s Town Councils.

Prior to 1984, public services were provided by a single body, but Town Councils were created so that public services are provided on a constituency by constituency basis. And the government openly stated that this is a mechanism to punish people who elect opposition MPs – they didn’t even pretend it wasn’t! If you elect opposition MPs, they have to manage the Town Councils. But – here’s the crucial thing – the PAP government still controls the money. It’s like the old colonial practice: the opposition MPs have the accountability with none of the real control. The government disburses money for maintenance and upgrading through its ministries and government-controlled statutory bodies. Which means it can deny or delay funding to Town Councils for a wide variety of reasons. So voters in opposition held wards like Potong Pasir, Hougang, and Aljunied have suffered and they know why.

This is also part of a broader pattern of shifting accountability for political decisions to appointed bodies in the guise of technocracy. So political decisions are presented as being the decisions of statutory bodies, regulatory bodies, security services, not of the elected politicians. But they are still happy to take credit of course.

But there’s also a really important mechanism of control that has been increasingly used, and that is debt. And specifically, debt to the government. In the 1990s, there was a shift towards market-based models of pricing, for determining welfare subsidies. For example, the HDB shifted from a cost-based plus a premium pricing model to market-based minus a discount model, and in the same period land prices rose sharply. Housing costs have risen correspondingly. Likewise, in 1986, CPF interests rates were pegged to bank interest rates and sank from 5.5-6% to 2.5-4%. Healthcare costs are also carefully controlled by the government and means tested not in terms of income but more in terms of how dependent you already are on the government. If you live in private housing or have access to family support, then the government insists you sell your home or depend on your family first before the government. This then drives people deeper into government control, creating a vicious cycle of dependence.

This control is paramount and is the basis for the Singapore model today. In Singapore, the PAP government controls wages, and all of Singapore is in wage labour. You can’t live off the land or function in a pure cash economy in Singapore. The government controls the labour supply and tightly regulates migrant labour so it can turn it on and off like a tap. The government controls welfare, particularly housing and healthcare. It controls the cost of living, especially housing. We have the most expensive cars in the world. We have a regressive tax system. It directly houses 85% of the people in Singapore. It can control rents, because it directly and indirectly controls 85% of the land in Singapore. It controls 100% of your savings via the CPF. All interactions with the government require your identity card number and we don’t have the right to privacy – the government is exempted from privacy laws – from a lot of laws, actually. And we can’t do a thing about it because the only permissible form of genuine protest is the vote, which is heavily unfair and where you get punished if you vote the wrong way.

My point is that with all these levers, it is able to control the population to a very intimate degree to achieve the outcomes that we praise Singapore for. If the government did not force Singaporeans to live we way we live, it’s almost certainly true that we would not choose this for ourselves.  Today poverty in Singapore, in general defined as income lower than the minimum cost of living, is around 30-40% according to independent studies. But we have problems putting exact figures on issues because Singapore has no freedom of information, so we simply don’t know. By law, everything in Singapore is a state secret unless specifically declassified, so it’s impossible to say a lot of things about Singapore. Is there corruption? We don’t know, but there certainly have been high profile corruption cases in recent year. Are Singaporeans well off? Are Singaporeans happy? We can’t reliably prove anything because all information about Singapore comes from the government.

So this is the Singapore model.

What is the applicability to Britain?

And obviously there are a lot of negatives.  Specifically I hope I’ve addressed the whole low tax low spend low regulation idea.

You need to be clear eyed about capital. It will go where there is maximum profitability and unless you have leverage or a strong local capitalist class, it will simply leave. The PAP made this mistake and has not been able to figure a way out of this, and today us workers are really squeezed as a result. Singapore today has become a bucket that other people fill. The world loves Singapore because we have no way to stand up for ourselves and we do whatever other people want us to do.

But I want to focus on one positive thing which I think Britain can learn, and that’s to do with identity and vision. We live in the age of nationalism and more broadly of identity, where research has shown that how you identify yourself determines your response to a situation more than the objective facts of the situation.

And one thing which Lee Kuan Yew and his team did very well was to conceive of a strong vision for where they wanted Singapore to go and articulate a narrative that supported that vision. This narrative changed a lot depending on circumstances, but it also took advantage of circumstances to adapt its narrative in pursuit of that vision, and crafted a compelling vision to support it.

The PAP’s articulations of national identity have never really been about reflecting any sort of truth but rather about creating a narrative basis to justify their vision for Singapore’s future. Whether you agree with the vision is another thing, because I think we all recognize that in the 1980s the PAP’s vision went really off the rails with its eugenics.

This is articulation of a vision, of goals, is something they are no longer doing well today, but peak-PAP did this really well.

And I think in the Brexit debate, this is what’s missing. What is your vision for Britain? It is only after you articulate a goal of where you want the UK to go, then you can also argue how best to achieve that. And if Brexit is a necessary step towards achieving that, then you have Brexit. So in this light the answer to “why Brexit” shouldn’t be because of the referendum, the answer to why Brexit is what is your vision for Britain, what is British identity? Then you decide how to get there and if Brexit enables that, then you have Brexit and vice versa. I’ve not seen any proper debate about the future of Britain, let alone how Brexit fits into that. The PAP government under Lee always knew where it wanted to go, even if it was crazy. They put a huge amount of effort into propaganda, into education, all to frame a certain perspective of history and to educate children to share the values of the PAP government because it recognised the value of the narrative in supporting. I’m not saying you should go that far. But you have to figure out where you want to go first, otherwise any road will take you there.

Thank you very much.

Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and founding director of Project Southeast Asia, an interdisciplinary research centre on Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). He is creator of “The History of Singapore” podcast, available on iTunes. Reach him at pingtjin.thum@newnaratif.com.

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