I’ve taken to posting the occasional blog entry about Singapore, entries that might confuse regular HelpGov readers. After all, as the header says, HelpGov is about trying to make sense of government and public services, and other stuff. Why would I be interested in this small, far-away island state?
The truth is, I feel quite sentimental about the place.
I was part of a large tribe of children – mainly British, but also Australians and New Zealanders – who spent part of their childhood in the country when their fathers served in the various Commonwealth armed forces based there right up until the 1980s.
Our time in Singapore was idyllic. We led a largely open air life in shorts and flip-flops. We swam in mostly European-only pools and in the warm sea. If our parents weren’t looking we ate exotic spicy foods from street vendors and cooled off with brightly-coloured, sweet ‘ice balls.’ We soaked up the tropical climate and the sights, sounds and smells of cultures a million miles removed from the drab greyness of our own countries. And almost universally, our mothers had a female servant, an amah, to take the drudgery out of domestic work.
So it’s not surprising that we mostly feel good about our time there. If you don’t believe me just Google ‘far east britbrats’ (what we tend to call ourselves).
What we don’t remember – by and large – is the downside.
The fact that what we enjoyed was a by-product of Empire, an empire dead or dying by the time we got there.
The fact that our comfort and delight in the place was built on the availability of cheap labour.
The fact that for at least part of the period there were still open drains discharging into the filthy Singapore River, that most Singaporeans lived in poverty with a life expectancy way below ours, that many children wore no shoes, that it was not uncommon for Europeans to say things like ‘Get the boy to do it’ when referring to a waiter or male servant.
All that makes the achievement of the country since those days the more remarkable.
An island with no natural resources has been transformed into a modern state with an income per head significantly exceeding that of the old colonial master. Singaporeans, rightly, compare themselves to other ‘first world’ countries. There is an elected parliament and a properly-constituted judicial system. The country ranks fifth on Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index – higher than the UK, Australia or Canada. And for fans of HelpGov’s more traditional subject matter, the head of the Singapore civil service was invited last year to contribute to The Guardian’s Global Public Leaders Series.
So bearing in mind my own background and what the country has achieved, I’m reluctant as a foreigner, an ang moh* to boot, to criticise Singapore. It somehow seems impertinent.
But my browsing on the web has brought me up against a less congenial side of the country, for example the strange case of Professor Tey Tsun Hang and the apparently esoteric subject of a government population white paper.
I would be less than honest with myself if I didn’t share my thoughts on other aspects of that less congenial side so, seeking the forgiveness of Singaporeans in advance, I will do that in my next post on Singapore.
* Ang moh or 红毛 – a Chinese term for Westerners, often derogatory, but I’ll live with that.