I left Singapore in 1961. On my return thirty years later (*1991 thereabouts - added by TS) everyone on the flight was handed an introductory leaflet. The front page was a photograph of Orchard Road, Singapore's main street, looking just as I remembered it. Then I noticed the heading: "Singapore - as it used to be". Most of the world's cities when you revisit them after 30 years, are still much as they were, with a few new buildings altering the skyline in places. I could not find my way around the new Singapore. All the old landmarks were gone, except for the cathedral and the cricket club, those enduring reminders of a colonial past. Singaporeans, I reflected, were now richer than the British and their economy was growing faster. With a population the size of Ireland's or New Zealand's, and no natural resources, they had overtaken the British.
Singapore had initially joined Malaysia but soon left to stand alone, when the Chief Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, realized that his country would be dominated by the other states in the new federation. He records in his memoirs how he slept little on the night after he had announced independence, worried by what he had done. The little island had nothing, not even its own water, which still comes through a pipeline from the Malaysian mainland. He was staking his country's future on a belief in the capabilities of its people, in what we would now call their potential intellectual property.
His gamble, for that was what it was, was abundantly justified. Harry Lee, the Cambridge-educated radical lawyer, as he was when I first met him, had proved that capitalism, can in one generation, produce riches out of nothing, turning a 3rd World society into one able to compete with the First, even to top the league tables of that world in productivity.
That's what the statistics say. But is life necessarily better, I wondered? Much of Singapore seemed to be one extended shopping mall, filled with people selling, people buying. Much of that new GDP, I reflected was chindogu
, a word the Japanese used to describe the unnecessary things we buy - windscreen wipers for your spectacles in the rain is one of my favourite examples. But chindogu
also includes that extra pair of shoes that I don't need, the 20 ties hanging in my cupboard that I never wear, the books that I order from Amazon on impulse and never get around to reading, or all the expensive products of our son's bouts of retail therapy.
is one of the first signs of capitalism's problem of excess. Economic growth requires more people to spend more money. That in turn provides more work for more people ,creating more money to spend on more things, and so the spiral of growth continues. It is the sort of spiral that America enjoyed at the end of this last century, and, give or take a few temporary lulls, it has been the story of the world economy over the last 50 years. That could hardly be called a problem.
It isn't, as long as there are ever more appetites to be satisfied. Capitalism falters if demand diminishes, when we move beyond our needs and can't be persuaded to want more than what we have. A faltering consumer demand was Japan's problems in the 90s, when the government even considered giving people vouchers to tempt them into the shops. New products and product upgrades titillate our appetites and keep demand alive. So does the desire to have what we see others having, or to have what they don't have. Fashion, boosted by advertising, is an important stimulus to demand, as is envy.
I was enough of an economist to recognise that chindogu
has its uses in providing employment and more money for people to spend, but a part of me worried about the waste involved in all those unnecessary things, the waste of people's time as much as the waste of materials. It can't be much fun standing in the shopping malls all day and increasingly all night promoting chindogu
, even if it is upmarket stuff, nor can it be satisfying to be one of those who produce it, in a factory, or nowadays, to be sitting in a call centre backing up yet another unneeded website. Not the best use of a life, I reflected, even if it does provide the bread to sustain that life.
A part of me worried too, about a world where the rich were locked into the spiral of growth and increasing opulence, while more than 4 billion people throughout the world were still living in poverty, an imbalance that capitalism seems to be unable to correct, and may even be making worse. Singapore, however, had shown how capitalism could be harnessed to the advantage of the poor, given determined leadership. In 30 years it had managed to lift all its citizens out of poverty, only for some to find that their increasing aspirations are creating their own problems.
"It's odd," a young Chinese banker there told me, "my income is at least 5 times greater than what my father earned, but my parents had a house and garden, with a live-in servant and a car. Houses with gardens are rare now, and too expensive. I lie in a fifth-floor apartment with no servant. I don't own a car because you have first to buy a permit which costs almost as much as the car. My father came home at six every evening. I don't get home until after nine most days. I don't really know who was truly richer, my father or myself."
That's one other problem with successful capitalism - you have to swim twice as hard to stay in the same place. Two incomes and longer working days are needed to live as well, relatively, as one's parents did on one income. The word 'relatively' is important, because few would want to go back to the physical conditions in which our parents lived, for all the nostalgia about their slower and easier world. The reality is that we compare ourselves with those about us, not with our past or our parents. The river of affluence may be flowing fast and carrying us with it, but if we don't watch the bank, and instead, look only at the people alongside us we won't feel that we're moving at all.
Politicians continue to be disappointed when no one thanks them for economic growth, but they shouldn't be surprised. We aren't looking backwards as they are, proud of their record; we are comparing ourselves with our contemporaries. Furthermore, if economic growth puts more people into the swim, the river becomse more crowded, the conditions more stressful and more competitive. Some are then tempted, as I was, to leave the river, sit on the bank and watch the other struggle. But if everyone opted out in that way the economy would falter and they would soon be complaining that the road were full of potholes, health care deteriorating, and schools failing to educate their children. Those who sit on the bank are inevitably freeloading on the economic infrastructure that is financed by the wealth created by the swimers.
I realized, as I walked the clean, safe streets of the new Singapore, that I had no answers to these problems. They were not, however, problems that greatly exercised the locals. Most of them seemed to like all the getting and spending. Even my friend who was comparing his lot with that of his parents was doing so ruefully, not angrily or even nostalgically. Singaporeans seem proud of their state and of what they have achieved.
Westerners acknowledge the economic achievements of Singapore but often deplore the suppression of dissent, what they see as the control-freakery of its government and the docile conformity of the people. "Would you like to live there now?" they ask. Well, I can reply, there is much to commend it for the foreigner who is not concerned with the politics of the ploace. Things work in Singapore. Drugs and violence are rare. It is well-regulated and well-policed. THere is no detectable under-class. They do many sensible things, such as paying their civil servants and ministers good salaries, too good in some ways because they suck talent out of the private sector. Their pension arrangements are a model of self-provision, with everyone tucking away 30% of their income in a provident fund against which they can borrow for things like mortgages. It is, most expats would agree, a good place in which to do business and house a young family.