An outside perspective on Singapore's home truths

An aerial view of the Marina Bay skyline taken from Swissotel The Stamford on March 29, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: ST
An aerial view of the Marina Bay skyline taken from Swissotel The Stamford on March 29, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: ST

Sometimes, it takes a foreign observer to point out some home truths about Singapore.

This week, I was struck by two commentaries from foreign writers.

The first is from University of Hong Kong professor Joseph Chan, an expert on Confucian political philosophy. He spoke at a public lecture at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on “Can Confucianism save the world?” He edited his speech into a commentary article for The Straits Times.

In it, he touted the merits of a blend of Confucian political ideology with liberal democracy as a political system. Or as he put it pithily: “to adopt liberal democratic institutions that are shaped by the Confucian conception of the good rather than the liberal conception of the right.”

In such a world, virtuous citizens are motivated to learn and do good and are ruled by a benevolent elite that has the interests of the people at heart. That sounds appealing, if a tad utopian.

But what really struck me was his observation about Singapore: 

“It seems that its model of meritocratic leadership has slowly shifted away from the traditional Confucian notion of the gentleman that ties virtue to a strong sense of self-imposed responsibility to the people. 

“Instead, it has become a kind of global CEO ethic that ties merit to an acute sense of self-importance, as expressed through lucrative salaries. As Confucius says, the heavy use of reward or punishment leads people away from proper moral motivation and cultivation. Leaders must set a good example for the people.”

Prof Chan’s candid yet gentle critique of Singapore’s style of political leadership will resonate with many Singaporeans. To be fair to the government, it has trimmed salaries paid to top office-holders, and gone about trying to do good for the people without constantly trumpeting that it knows best. 

But Prof Chan is spot on in describing the nature of meritocratic leadership here: merit is tied to a sense of self-importance as expressed through high pay. In such a value system, one’s personal sense of worth is determined by one’s professional status which is determined by one’s pay packet.

Prof Chan did not dwell on how this might affect the people-government relationship, but my guess is that it would have negative consequences.

The second piece I liked is this one.

The writer Andres Martinez travelled to Singapore and managed to capture both the sense of pride and angst felt by Singaporeans at our successful economy.

He called Singapore a Canary City: “Arguably no other place on earth has so engineered itself to prosper from globalisation—and succeeded at it...There are many cautionary tales to globalisation’s downsides, but no better canary in the gold mine of globalisation’s tenuous triumphs than Singapore.”

Singapore presents the successful side of globalisation: it’s open, rich and fun. Quite fun.

But the ills of globalisation are also felt here keenly: rising income inequality, the spending power of the very rich jacking up prices for the common worker, the massive influx of foreign workers. And because we’re so small, the effects are very much in-your-face.

So Singapore might be a model city of globalisation in some ways. But being a canary unfortunately also means we’re apt to be the one poisoned first by noxious fumes of globalisation.

Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong writes a weekly Sunday blog