50 shades of Singapore

In 2015, Singapore celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence. With pride, the city-state will retrace the years of its development, one of the most extraordinary successes in economic and social terms. If it’s true that institutions decree the outcomes of chosen and applied policies, Singapore’s ruing class had pragmatically pursued what it had in mind: improving its country’s condition and maintaining control via diffuse prosperity. Right after seceding from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore was in an objectively weak position: miniscule in terms of population and territory, surrounded by frequently hostile neighbors, the Cold War climate, lacking resources, and an ethnic composition of Chinese majority that had to respect the Malaysian and Indian minorities. While liberal shocks conquered hearts and minds across Europe and the United States in 1968, Singapore worked toward the country’s construction with rigid discipline. Rich youths from the West looking for exotic adventures did not find them easily in Singapore. People with long hair couldn’t escape scissors; if one wanted to enter the country, he needed to have short, neat hair. Even light drug consumption was unimaginable. The death penalty is maintained—and practiced—in cases of drug trafficking even today. The city-state was tightly tied to the US, but did not allow the military to exercise R&R in their territory, activities that had transformed Hanoi, Bangkok, and Manila into dens of uncontrolled excesses during the Vietnam War. Singapore had to work without obstacles, apply acumen and rigor, and grow efficiently in silence. The directing class, formed during post-colonial struggles, was competent, honest, and determined. The population didn’t know dissent but saw their living conditions improve every year. 50 years later, Singapore is one of the richest countries in the world (7th for per capita income at purchasing power parity) with legendary efficiency and one of the best standards of living. Prosperity is diffuse, millionaires are increasing, and immigration is a dream for millions searching for work. Industry has very high indices of competitiveness, infrastructure is enviable, and finances are in order. And yet something seems to be squeaking in an apparently perfect scene. Social disparities are increasing, at times government stimuli are difficult to maintain, and immigration is increasing which increases prices. Not everyone is able to intercept the country’s miracle. Not by chance, the uninterrupted party at the government’s helm—the People’s Action Party—has registered an electoral setback, even though it maintained 60% of the votes. It was its worst result even if the composition of Singapore’s electoral college allows it total control over legislative activities. It’s a signal of malaise, and perhaps dissatisfaction. Singapore has become a more mature society and the instruments of control used in the past are probably no longer adept at satisfying social needs and increasing juvenile requests. Censure is lighter today and 50 Shades of Grey is playing at cinemas in its original version. It’s a sign of change, certainly not weakness.