Something about countries with a population of five million, such as Norway, Denmark, Hong Kong or Singapore, seems to make them paragons, whether of economic efficiency or social fairness. Singapore, whose outstanding leader Lee Kuan Yew has died, is perhaps the most remarkable: it not only prefigures the future of China, we are assured, but shorn of its less admirable characteristics has a lot to teach us too.
Economically its statistics read like an idealised Britain: a global market centre dependent on trade, but with a manufacturing base of around 30 per cent and the world’s third-highest per capita income. Socially Lee promoted clean living, respect for elders, high educational standards, meritocracy in the best Chinese tradition, and a well-paid, high-quality civil service staffed by elites of talent. It is a place our politicians might envy too, with a multi-party system where only one — the People’s Action Party (PAP)— has ever won elections, thereby avoiding the instability and policy switches that afflict less tidily run states.
And that is the nub. Its constraints on press freedom and civil rights mean that Lee’s model city will never be one for Britain. Yet admiration for authoritarian regimes — some of it not so grudging — gained ground during the recession and in the wake of the Arab world’s poisoned spring. The buzzwords “multi-polar system” now slip easily off the tongue, as if the brutalism of Russia and China, the chaos of Brazil, the institutionalised corruption of India or the theocratic thuggery of Iran were evidence of some much-needed diversity in a lamentably white Western democratic world.
The greatest beneficiary has been Beijing, and Lee’s death is a good time to refocus on the suggestion by those of a panda-hugging persuasion, and occasionally by Lee himself, that the future of China could be Singapore writ 2,000 times larger. Just as (before Ukraine) the Poles were said to be showing us that even Russians might not be congenitally immune to democratic delights, so Singapore (75 per cent Chinese) has been seen as a stepping stone to a post-Communist future for the Middle Kingdom, complete with a multi-party system. Imagine a Lee Kuan Yew figure as Chinese leader.
His growing confidence about the country was based on 32 visits and discussions with every Chinese leader from Mao to Xi Jinping, with whom he was clearly impressed. After his death Xi returned the compliment, praising Lee’s “outstanding contributions to peace and development in Asia”, and allowing his ancestral home in Guangdong province to be turned into a tourist attraction.
Margaret Thatcher rightly admired Lee for his foresight, though on Xi his optimism is proving questionable, and a comparison he once made with Nelson Mandela unfortunate. His point was that like the African leader Xi would rise above the persecution he and his father suffered during the Cultural Revolution, and learn the lessons. Since acceding to the leadership in an aura of expectation nearly three years ago Xi has in fact become increasingly repressive and domineering. What the Chinese Mandela is most passionate about, he keeps reminding us, is not letting the Chinese Communist Party go the way of the Soviet one, and to prevent it there seems little he would not do.
Far from putting China’s catastrophic Maoist past behind him, politically Xi has begun jobbing back. Just as the strongman syndrome and voluntary serfdom seem in vogue again in Russia, so under Xi, with his Putinesque paranoia about “colour revolutions”, things are moving in a direction that would have gratified the Chairman. The abandonment of collective leadership at the top, an anti-corruption purification campaign which echoes Mao’s last fling and picks out potential opponents for punishment, or a reversion to the personality cult, complete with heart-shaped posters, are not what Lee had in mind.
There is something Ubuesque about a system that contrives to combine a new Great Helmsman, complete with totalitarian kitsch, with an increasingly educated, travelled and sophisticated middle class. There isn’t even much of a dissident culture any more; Xi is seeing to that. So why is Beijing haunted by a new Tiananmen Square — when students and workers, it should be remembered, did not even demand the end of the primacy of the Communist Party? Because Communism and paranoia are inseparable, and in a country with China’s history — civil wars, colonialism, invasion and totalitarian rule, and a billion and a quarter population — there remains an elemental fear of things getting out of hand.
Lee was big on “Asian values”, a soothingly unspecific phrase, but how far does the elastic stretch? From Singaporean social discipline and a monitored press to Chinese mass surveillance and lawless repression? Lee did not argue that state controls and prohibitions were merely a temporary necessity while democracy incubated underneath — “Asian values” being presumably timeless, in the same way as Beijing’s democracy “with Chinese characteristics”.
If China is shifting backwards, what of Singapore itself? Like Xi, its prime minister is the son of his distinguished father (another Asian value?), though Lee Hsien Loong is also a highly able and experienced man. (Brigadier-General Lee was Senior Wrangler at Cambridge, with a First in mathematics and distinction in computer science, and studied public administration at Harvard.) But then Lee is relaxing his father’s paternalistic style in favour of public dialogue with younger voters as support for PAP erodes, while Xi is toughening up. So China and its model future look like drifting apart.
As a Western-educated “wise man of the East” Lee was anxious to reconcile nations, races and cultures, which made him want to see the best in Xi. But our wise man could admit to being wrong, and if he had lived on I like to think he would have had something to say about where China is going.