The Singaporean Paradox for WSJ

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The Singaporean Paradox
– By Shoba Narayan
WHEN LEE HSIEN LOONG took office as the third Prime Minister of Singapore last year, one of the first things he did was to announce a fresh and bold approach that would encourage Singaporeans to be less conventional. This would not seem radical but for the fact that since independence, Singaporeans have been trained to be dependent on their government. This presents Singapore’s leader with a challenge: To what degree can creativity and efficiency coexist?

Singaporeans are told to obey rules, follow conventions and above all, conform. Mr. Lee himself gave the example of Singaporeans at Changi Airport who would stand in long lines at the “Singapore Passports Only” counter, even if all the other counters were empty. Similarly, Singaporeans, the saying goes, won’t make a U-turn unless a sign says they can. Just compare this with a New York City driver or even a Hong Kong cabbie.

Now, Mr. Lee wants to change all that, sort of. Bruised by China’s success in the manufacturing sector and facing intense competition from its other Asian neighbors, Singapore recognizes that it needs to make itself attractive to service industries. This will entail attracting freethinking professionals who are the creative core of this sector. “We’ve got to support entrepreneurs,” said Mr. Lee in his first National Day Rally Speech. “We’ve got to support Singaporeans being spontaneous, being unconventional. We should not put obstacles in their way. We should help them to succeed.” Mr. Lee also, in the same speech, entreated his citizens to have more babies: a couple at least; if possible three. And therein lies the Singaporean paradox.

Despite its calls for spontaneity, the government can, and does, micromanage this tiny city-state one-fifth the size of Rhode Island. To be sure, Singapore has done many things right. It has leapfrogged many of its Asian neighbors thanks to its superior infrastructure, banking system and open economy. The squeaky-clean bureaucrats and politicians of the People’s Action Party are very effective at keeping this city-state humming. Singaporeans are great at following the rules and getting things done. They are great at execution as long as it doesn’t involve risk. They are engineers, practicing a task till it is perfect. Now, Singapore wants to infuse creativity into this culture, and with its typical pragmatism, is trying to change its stripes in a couple of decades.

But while Singapore may appear willing to spice things up, all the old signs of micromanagement and slick operation remain. Take the recent building of two giant entertainment centers complete with casinos — which are mainly to attract tourists and boost the economy.

To all the Chinese families already crippled by gambling debts, the government offered disincentives like a high entrance fee, as well as counseling for serial gamblers. To mothers like me who were worried that casinos would attract the very gamblers, perverts and sexual predators that would change the character of the island, the government said that these resorts would be as decent and wholesome as could be.

Yet even among all this controversy, what was amazing was the relative absence of public protest compared to say, in America, or even in India. Sure, there were interviews in the newspapers where Singaporeans who were against the casino voiced their views. There were `Speakers Forums’ where individuals vehemently voiced their disapproval. But there were little or no marches, and no flag-waving, slogan-shouting strikes. Perhaps Singaporeans prefer to show their disapproval in dignified ways. Perhaps they figured that protests wouldn’t accomplish much anyway. Perhaps, as the mauvaises langues would say, Singaporeans are too conformist to protest. But the most likely explanation is that long-accustomed to a political environment in which opposition voices are rarely heard, Singaporeans have little reason to believe that their government will tolerate dissent.

The government would like to believe that creativity can coexist with efficiency. But history indicates otherwise. To paraphrase Orson Welles in Graham Greene’s “The Third Man,” in the Renaissance the Italians had murder and chaos and delivered Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. The Swiss in 500 years of calm were a model of efficiency and delivered the acme of perfection as epitomized by. . . the cuckoo clock. Perhaps a certain amount of chaos is needed for creativity to flourish. Blood, heat and dust are not just the results of creativity. They are precursors.

Singapore, always more Swiss than Italian, says it wants creativity. But its leaders hardly seem ready to embrace the debate and dissent that are virtually absent in its society before rushing to open the doors and, as Deng Xiaoping famously said, let the flies in.

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