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On Singapore envy

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Portraits of late Singapore founding leader Lee Kuan Yew are set up ahead of a public broadcast of his funeral in Hong Kong on March 29, 2015. PHILIPPE LOPEZ/afp

On Singapore envy

Long gone are the glory days of the “American Dream”, when overseas Filipinos would nonchalantly boast about how “walang ganyan sa States (There is no such thing in the US)”, and proudly share their First-World experience of glitz and glamour in the world’s most powerful nation. Those days are over.

For almost a century, the Philippines, a young and troubled postcolonial nation, grew under the long shadow of America. In a telltale sign of our post-American zeitgeist, however, the new flavour of the century is now Singapore, and what it stands for.

With its impeccable infrastructure, architectural wonders, world-class universities and renowned orderliness, Singapore often overshadows, especially in the imagination of the rising middle class across emerging markets, its messy and cranky postindustrial counterparts, such as New York and Los Angeles. To use a Hollywood metaphor, forget about “The Great Gatsby”; the new big thing nowadays is “Crazy Rich Asians”. And the result is the phenomenon of “Singapore envy”– Everyone just wants to be a Singapore, while only a few really understand how the city-state got to where it is today.

For those with superficial understanding of the complex interplay of history, developmental economics and public administration, Singapore’s success is singularly a product of its authoritarian political legacy.

Fewer Filipinos talk about the great American leaders, from Barack Obama and JF Kennedy to Abraham Lincoln, while more are beginning to embrace the legacy (and often literally the words) of Lee Kuan Yew, affectionately known as LKY.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, drawing on Peter Sloterdijk’s works, has gone so far as claiming that if there is one person that the world “will build monuments a hundred years from now”, it’s likely going to be LKY, who invented 21st-century authoritarian capitalism. In fact, nowadays it’s hard to ignore the flurry of Filipino leaders who invoke Singapore for their own political agenda.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr once notoriously claimed, “If there was no Edsa 1, if my father was allowed to pursue his plans, I believe that we would be like Singapore now.”

Never mind that the Philippine economy virtually collapsed toward the end of Marcos rule, thanks to ballooning public debt and a collapsing currency after years of mismanagement and corruption.

Former Philippine foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano sought to defend President Rodrigo Duterte’s scorched-earth drug war by once claiming, “The Philippines is becoming more like Singapore in terms of being able to walk the streets at any time at night.” Never mind that there have been more than 20,000 deaths under investigation over the past two years, according to the Philippine National Police.

To top it all, Duterte sought to promote his federalism agenda by stating that he seeks Singapore (along with Malaysia) as a “model”. Never mind that Singapore is a strategically located “city-state” of a few million people, bereft of complex rural-urban divides, which bedevil larger and highly fragmented nations racked by insurgencies, geographical isolation and weak bureaucratic traditions.

As a Singaporean friend quipped over the president’s misinformed comment, “I didn’t know my residential district is now a federal region.”

Yet, “Singapore envy” can also be channeled in a smart and constructive way. This is especially the case in Indonesia under President Jokowi, a progressive and enlightened leader with genuinely populist appeal. While far from perfect, his Cabinet features many dedicated, world-class ministers who are helping to turn Indonesia into a global powerhouse.

Last month, I met one of Jokowi’s fine ministers, Eko Putro Sandjojo, a Western-educated businessman and now public servant who has overseen a multibillion- dollar effort to bring infrastructure development to the poorest villages across Indonesia, with astonishing success.

And in truly LKY-like fashion, he has adopted a no-nonsense approach toward incompetence and corruption in public administration by firing flailing bureaucrats who failed to research and back their presentations during meetings with data, while enrolling countless ministry officials in advanced management degrees, with scholarships provided by international partners.

The genius of the Indonesian approach is that it’s judiciously taking the best lessons from around the world, which are applicable to its scale and ambitions.

Instead of mindlessly embracing LKY’s authoritarian tendencies, Indonesia is rightly learning from the great bureaucratic reforms of the former Singaporean leader. philippine daily inquirer

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