UK Foreign Secretary touts S'pore as post-Brexit Britain model & colonial legacy as reason for success

For some, Singapore is a feverish dream.

Matthias Ang | Belmont Lay | January 03, 2019, 06:01 PM

It has been two years since the British talked about the fantasy that is UK emulating Singapore post-Brexit -- and they are still at it.

But with more fervour.

Singapore as example

On Dec. 30, 2018, the UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, published an opinion piece in British tabloid, The Daily Mail, calling Singapore an inspiration in its "remarkable transformation... from a tiny territory devoid of natural resources into the world’s eighth-richest country".

Hunt also pointed to the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles' landing in Singapore, highlighting how the "British adventurer" had "stepped ashore to found what would become a free port and a modern city".

Hunt added tenuously that this was the basis of longstanding relations between Singapore and the UK: "Our connection with the people of this part of the world has never wavered".

Singapore and UK analogy

And it is this sort of skimpy connection that is holding the analogy between Singapore and UK together.

In the past two years, Singapore has been held up as an example for the UK to emulate as a post-Brexit model.

The basis for this emulation stems from how Britain’s exit from the European Union shares a narrative superficially similar to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia.

From colonial overlord to slavish emulators.

Talk about how the tables have turned.

Speech on New Year's Day praises Singapore and colonial legacy

Subsequently, on Jan. 1, 2019, Hunt arrived in Singapore to give a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which elaborated on his sentiments first articulated in his opinion piece.

It was a speech that was heavy on effusive praise for Singapore's economy and mode of governance, along with the contribution of the British to Singapore's history.

Here's a quick summary of what Hunt said:

  • Singapore and UK are "joined at the hip... by common interests and our shared dedication to the rule of law... (and) by a shared history that has bound our two peoples together for 200 years".
  • Singapore's development has "vindicated" the judgement of "the great naval strategist, Admiral John Fisher", who identified Singapore "as one of “five keys” of the world."
  • Singapore "exemplifies the dynamism and vitality of Asia", having "turned itself into the greatest artery for trade in the world, transited by cargo ships 84,000 times in 2017 alone."
  • As the eighth-richest country in the world with real per capita GDP standing at US$58,000 a head, "Britain can draw encouragement from how Singapore’s separation from the Peninsula did not make it more insular but more open."
  • While not all aspects of the Singapore model will be applicable to the UK, much can still be learned, such as "the excellence of its education system, the long term investment in infrastructure and a strategic approach to how a nation sustains competitive advantage in the world".
  • With the centre of global economic activity shifting to Asia, the UK has already become the largest European investor in Southeast Asia, with Asean trade standing at nearly £37 billion, and "over 4,000 British companies employing more than 50,000 people in Singapore alone".
  • Such links are "why Britain’s post-Brexit role should be to act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world, those countries which share our values and support our belief in free trade, the rule of law and open societies".
  • For Singapore, the British colonial legacy "of the rule of law, clean administration, independent courts and the English language have all been part of Singapore’s success", one which Singapore has continued to build upon.

Criticised back home

Suffice to say, Hunt's visit did not go down well back in the UK, with several other British newspapers criticising his visit.

The Guardian took issue with the analogy that Hunt had drawn between Singapore's separation from Malaysia and Brexit, stating how Singapore defanged trade unions and adopted authoritarian rule.

It also questioned how relevant Singapore's transformation into "an export-orientated manufacturing base for international capital" will even be for the UK.

The Guardian added that this was due to Singapore growing at a time when "globalisation allowed multinational corporations to take advantage of different labour and production costs in manufacturing".

It also quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's scepticism on the matter.

PM Lee had noted that the UK would have to give up a significant amount of government spending to follow Singapore's lead.

Meanwhile, The Times slammed Hunt for displaying ignorance of Singapore for even praising the Asian country as an "open society."

It quoted the UK shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, who said:

"Singapore is a country where basic freedoms of peaceful assembly, free speech and even sexuality are not respected but criminalised, and where the rule of law routinely means the brutal use of the cane. If Jeremy Hunt wants to go and tout for post-Brexit trade to the lowest bidders abroad, that is no surprise, but he should not besmirch our values by singing the praises of a country like Singapore when it comes to human rights."

As for both The Spectator and The Mirror, their criticisms of Hunt focused on the implications of having a lower tax rate for corporations in emulating Singapore.

The Spectator attributed Hunt's implication to his leadership ambitions and framed it as an attempt to woo British in favour of Brexit.

The Mirror quoted a spokesperson from an anti-Brexit civic group, Best for Britain, who stated that such a route would turn the UK "into a bargain basement for business", which would help the elite, "while stealing from the public purse vital funds for key services and damaging worker's rights".

Missing the point about bicentennial commemoration

As for Singapore, it's worth noting that Hunt's statements about Singapore and the UK come at a time when our country is looking beyond the British colonial legacy, on the 200th year since Raffles' arrival here.

After all, there's a reason why the Singapore Bicentennial Office (SBO) engaged help to make the statue of Raffles "disappear".

In a statement released to the media, the SBO explained that the rationale behind such an act was to recognise:

"... that there were other significant milestones in the nation’s journey, which began some 500 years before the British arrived in Singapore. There were also many men and women who arrived in 1819, and in the years that followed, who contributed greatly to the nation.

The 'disappearance' of the Sir Stamford Raffles statue is thus an opportunity to engage Singaporeans in an open dialogue on the contributions of the British, and of those who came before and after. It is an invitation to explore our longer history.”

To top it off, the SBO has also released a video titled, "We are more than just Raffles".

Of course, whether the British think a history that looks beyond their own empire is worthy of emulation is anyone's guess.

Some 200 years after Sir Stamford Raffles set foot onto Singapore as part of Britain's colonial enterprise, it is now the coloniser who seeks to emulate the colonised.

Those within the British government who take seriously this idea that Singapore is the way to go, are likely nowhere close to impressing Singaporeans who look west and can't imagine how it can be so.

Top image screenshot from UK Foreign Office Twitter