Singapore Revisited: Introduction (I)

James Myburgh on why we should look East not West for a path out of South Africa’s predicament


I shall be telling this with a sigh___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

                        ‘The Road Not Taken,’ Robert Frost, 1916.

Singapore is an island city state in South East Asia. Unless you were familiar with the geography of the region, knew where the Malay peninsula lay, and that Singapore was located at the end of it, you would have a hard time pinpointing it on an unmarked map of the world. Indeed, the dot it is commonly marked with to convey its location extends far beyond its real size on such charts. With a land area of 729 km2, it is one of the smallest countries in the world, one 23rd the size of Swaziland and less than a third the size of Luxembourg. Its extent is somewhat less than even that of cities such as New York or Berlin.

It is separated on its northern side from Malaysia by a very narrow stretch of water known as the Straits of Johor and from the Indonesian island of Batam, 16 kilometres to the south, by the Singapore Strait. The Indonesian island of Sumatra lies some distance further to the west and the south. It is strategically located on the south-eastern entrance to the Straits of Malacca.

It has been ruled since 1959 by the People’s Action Party. Its population of 5,7 million people is three quarters ethnically Chinese. By contrast its far larger neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, are predominantly Malay-speaking Muslim stock.

Singapore had been a bastion of the British Empire since its founding by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 but by the mid-1950s its future and survival were very much in doubt. Of all the territories and colonies starting to emerge from European rule in Asia and Africa it had, despite its storied past, one of the grimmest prognoses. “Singapore needs a miracle”, was the headline of a New York Times article in October 1955.

The idea that it could gain independence separate from the then Malaya – and/or ever survive as an independent state – was described as a “political, economic and geographic absurdity” not by one of its more pessimistic critics, but by its own founding leader, Lee Kuan Yew. Do people seriously believe, he asked in a speech to the legislative assembly in August 1960, “that an island with 1½ million souls but with no natural resources, can be independent?” It was a “fraud on the people” to suggest it could be.

Singapore gained independence in 1963, in accordance with Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes, by merging with Malaya, along with the former British crown colonies of Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah), to form the federal state of Malaysia. But it was unceremoniously ejected from the federation two years later.

Yet this geopolitical “absurdity” did not just manage to scrape out its survival, it succeeded in a quite exceptional way. In his valedictory dispatch to London in October 1970, the departing British High Commissioner, Sir Arthur de la Mare, observed that while in many other former British possessions the “governmental and civil structures” that the present rulers had inherited had now fallen into “misuse, corruption and decay”, in Singapore they were “kept in first-class working order, furbished and efficient”. They had built upon the heritage left to them, not squandered it.

The historic significance of Singapore’s success was not that it impressed the departing British during the final stages of their withdrawal from the region. It lay rather in the way it subsequently provided a developmental and state model for many of its Asian neighbours in general and the People’s Republic of China in particular.


In November 1978, the Vice-Premier of Communist China, Deng Xiaoping, visited Singapore as part of a three-nation tour of South East Asia. This was a year after Deng had emerged as the paramount Chinese Communist Party leader in the political manoeuvrings following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

China was a great power because of the huge size of its population, and the Communist Party remained in unchallenged political control, but it was in a desperate state. The Great Leap Forward of 1959 had led to mass famine and the deaths of tens of millions. Though he still possessed a godlike status among the population at large, Mao had lost credibility and authority in the senior structures of the Party and had ceded operational control to reformists such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng himself.

To restore his position Mao unleashed the radical youth of the Red Guards against their Communist Party elders through the course of the Cultural Revolution, launched in August 1966. Both Liu and Deng were publicly denounced and placed under house arrest. Liu died in 1969, his death hastened by physical and mental maltreatment he received at the hands of the Red Guards, combined with inadequate medical care.

Deng meanwhile was wildly criticized for departing from the path of revolutionary purity, as reflected in his famous saying that “It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white. As long as it catches mice it is a good cat.”[1] Unlike Liu, Deng and his wife, though not their children or other family members, were protected by Mao from physical harassment at the hands of the Red Guards. But he would nonetheless spend two years under house arrest in Beijing before being banished to the countryside. He would only be brought back to the capital by Mao in early 1973 to begin his political rehabilitation.

By the time of Mao’s death China was wrecked institutionally, educationally, and organisationally. During the Cultural Revolution senior party officials had been driven out of their positions and replaced with often incompetent military officers and ill-qualified revolutionary fanatics. Universities had been effectively out of operation for a decade.

Educated urban youth, who had been driven into the countryside on Mao’s orders, now wished to return home. But there were no jobs for them in the cities or for the millions of peasants also looking for work. The larger factories were reliant on decrepit equipment that had been imported from the Soviet Union in the 1950s.[2]

This technological backwardness had left China militarily vulnerable. It had fallen out with its past Communist allies in the Soviet Union in the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s. Its deteriorating relations with its former Communist allies in neighbouring Vietnam – who had been progressively pulled into the Soviet orbit – would lead to war in 1979, as China sought to deter any further Vietnamese and Soviet expansionism along their borders.

The Maoist version of socialism had left the country completely impoverished economically. In 1978 while China’s population of 956 million was 35 times larger than that of South Africa’s 27 million people, its total Gross Domestic Product was only 1,7 times as large. This meant that South Africa’s nominal GDP per capita of $6 391,87 at the time (constant 2010 US$ values) was 20 times more than the $307 GDP per capita of China.[3]

In the West there was a widespread belief that China’s greatness lay permanently in the past. There must be some intrinsic flaw within the Chinese character, so the thinking went, that prevented the country from modernising successfully. This view was reflected, in a backhanded way, in the articles and editorials in the American press praising Mao extravagantly on his death, while skipping lightly over the havoc, destruction and suffering he had unleashed in China over the final two decades of his life.


Though they did not express this sentiment in public Deng, and other serious-minded Chinese Communist Party leaders who had managed to survive the Cultural Revolution, were acutely conscious of the fact that Mao had failed in the project of laying the “the pragmatic, philosophic foundation upon which a new, modern and greater civilization could be built out of the ashes and ruins of the ancient and great civilization of China's past.”

Deng did not abandon his belief that this project could be achieved and that only the Communist Party could and should lead this effort. How this would be done was another matter. He would only say – in the poetic manner embraced by Chinese politicians – that the Chinese must “cross the river by feeling out the stones with our feet”.

Deng arrived in Singapore on 12th November 1978 on the third leg of his ten-day tour of Asean nations – Thailand and Malaysia were the first two stops – intended to make the case for China’s position in its escalating conflict with Vietnam and the Soviet Union. This followed Deng’s visit to Japan the previous month. In talks described in the press at the time as “free and frank” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told Deng that the Asean nations would not get involved in the Sino-Soviet dispute over Indochina. Deng’s efforts to drum up support for China’s position were undercut by the fact that China was the main sponsor of the underground Communist parties still seeking the overthrow of the governments in the region, and because it also continued to broadcast bloodcurdling calls for insurrection into the region over shortwave radio.

Speaking at a state dinner held in his honour at the Istana, the official residence of the President of Singapore, Deng said the Chinese people had begun a new Long March intended to turn China into a socialist country with modernised agriculture, industry, national defence, and science and technology by the year 2000. He told his audience that while China would adhere to principles of independence and self-reliance, it would seek to learn from the experience of other advanced countries. “We may meet difficulties of various kinds on the road to progress, but we shall certainly be able to achieve our great goal in the spirit of the Foolish Old Man in the fable who removed the mountain.”[4]

This was a reference to an ancient Chinese folktale, also cited by Mao, about the “foolish old man” who, in the tenth decade of his life, decides to flatten two mountains that blocked the direct route to the south. After his family had embarked upon this effort a “wise old man” tried to persuade the foolish old man of the futility of this impossible project.

The foolish old man replied that because the mountains did not increase their height it was just a matter of time and determination to remove them; after his death, his children would continue with this work, and after their death, their children, until at last the mountains were finally flattened. When the Supreme Being was informed of the foolish old man’s resolve he was deeply impressed and ordered two powerful deities to lift up and move the mountains, which they did.

The historic significance of Deng’s visit to Singapore lay not in the diplomatic outcome of the meeting, but in the enduring impact that it had on Deng. On the 13th of November Deng and his wife were taken on an extensive tour of the island. As Ezra Vogel notes:

Although Deng's purpose in going to Singapore had been to win support to stop the Vietnamese and Soviets in Southeast Asia, Singapore made a deep impression on Deng. When he visited New York, Paris, and Tokyo, he had not been surprised that they were all more modern than China. But Deng, who had spent two days in Singapore on his way to France in 1920, marvelled at the progress that had been made there in the intervening fifty-eight years, even as China's economy and society were still mired in poverty. Deng had not yet decided what policies to pursue in China, but Singapore helped strengthen Deng's conviction of the need for fundamental reforms.[5]

Following Deng’s return to China there were a series of glowing reports in the Chinese media around the rapid economic growth of the countries that Deng had visited, and their high living standards. As a Reuters report commented at the time “Japan was depicted as the sort of economic giant that China hopes to become while Singapore, although tiny in size [its population was 2,3 million people at the time], was in the world’s front ranks also – which seemed designed to prove that being Chinese was no handicap.”[6]

Deng and Lee Kuan Yew would form a close personal bond. After his retirement from politics in 1984, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, Goh Keng Swee, would be brought in to advise the Chinese government on coastal development and tourism, the first outsider to serve in such a capacity.

As the Chinese Communist government sought to “cross the river” towards successful modernisation Singapore increasingly became an example of what could be achieved, and a closely examined model for how to achieve it. Nicholas Kristof noted in an article in the New York Times in August 1992 – headed “Chinese See Singapore as a Model for Progress” – that when Deng had travelled to southern China earlier that year to campaign for faster economic liberalization “he mentioned only three countries by name: Japan, South Korea and Singapore, all cited for their sound development. One of the most illuminating statements he made was this: ‘Singapore's social order is rather good. Its leaders exercise strict management. We should learn from their experience, and we should do a better job than they do’."

There was subsequently a steady stream of Chinese officials to Singapore to study why that state had been so successful. According to one estimate, 22 000 officials “made study visits to Singapore between 1990 and 2011. Singaporean universities offer public administration programs and courses tailored for Chinese administrators”.

It was a sign of the debt that China felt it owed to Singapore that on his death in 2015 Lee Kuan Yew was greatly mourned in the Chinese media and by Chinese Communist Party leaders. As Chris Buckley noted in the New York Times in an article on the response to Lee’s death, “Mr. Lee and his government came to offer successive Chinese leaders an idealized example, much visited and studied, of how the Communist Party could absorb market changes and exposure to the outside world without succumbing to public discontent and rampant corruption”.


The modernisation efforts initiated by Deng achieved quite spectacular economic success. Two years after Lee’s death, China’s GDP per capita matched that of South Africa for the first time. A twenty-fold gap had been closed in the space of 40 years. Only ten years before South Africa’s per capita GDP had still been double that of China’s. Yet China’s per capita GDP grew on an average of almost 8% per annum through this period, while for South Africa it was stuck at close to zero. Per capita GDP in South Africa was approximately the same in 2017 as it was in 2008. It was only 17 percent higher than it was in 1978.[7]

It is instructive to compare the way in which China set about learning from Singapore on Deng’s instructions with the reaction to similar advice many years later from a South African politician.

In early March 2017, the Western Cape Premier and former Democratic Alliance leader, Helen Zille, visited Singapore for the first time. Just as Deng had been some four decades before, she was hugely impressed by what she saw in the now even more prosperous and well-governed city state. She too thought that perhaps there were lessons South Africa could learn at this point in its history. Though South Africa was in nothing like in the impoverished condition that mainland China had been in 1978, the country was clearly in trouble. Corruption and looting were rampant under President Jacob Zuma’s rule, economic growth had been stalled for close to a decade, the universities had been brought to a standstill by radical students demanding the ‘decolonisation’ of the universities under the Fallist banner, and all levels of government (outside the province Zille herself governed) were characterised by their dysfunction.

In a series of early morning tweets on her return to South Africa, while in transit at OR Tambo Airport, Zille asked what lessons could be learnt from this former British colony. She suggested that some of these were:

1) Meritocracy; 2) multiculturalism; 3) work ethic; 4) open to globalism; 4) English. 5) Future orientation. Other reasons for Singapore's success: Parents take responsibility for children and build on valuable aspects of colonial heritage.

The reference to valuable aspects of the “colonial heritage” provoked an angry response from some of her followers on Twitter. One commented: “South Africa would be better if all your people left and we drive forward Africa instead of embracing colonialism heritage.” Another: “There was nothing valuable in the colonisation of South Africa... NOTHING!” In reply to such responses Zille then replied in frustration: 

For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.

This comment provoked further indignation on social media and from within the Democratic Alliance itself. DA leader Mmusi Maimane went onto Eusebius McKaiser’s Radio 702 show to claim that Zille’s remarks were “indefensible” and “completely unacceptable” – and announced that disciplinary action would be taken against her. There was a sustained effort by top party officials to drive her out the party both for her Tweet and her subsequent effort to defend herself. They backed down only because of Zille’s willingness to fight the matter all the way to the Constitutional Court, if need be.

The public denunciations of Zille flew thick and fast among South Africa’s intelligentsia. The general tenor of this commentary was captured in the headline of an article by Professor David Everatt, Head of Wits School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, in The Conversation: “Zille, tweeting and inanity: more reasons for white South Africans to shut up”. The underlying view in much of the foreign media’s reporting on the incident meanwhile was that Zille had said something deeply despicable.

A complaint was also laid with the Public Protector by the ANC Western Cape provincial chairperson Khaya Magaxa. Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane duly found that Zille’s Tweet had violated the executive ethics code. It was, she ruled, “offensive and insensitive to a section of the South African population which regarded it as re-opening a lot of pain and suffering to [sic] the victims of apartheid and colonialism, particularly considering the position of influence she holds.”

Through this combined effort by leading figures in the official opposition, the local and foreign media, academics, and constitutional ‘watchdog’ institutions, the debate that Zille had sought to initiate was shut down. The ANC government barely had to lift a finger through all this to defend its ideological world view. If you took Zille’s critics at their word, the unarguable consensus was that nothing that the ANC government had inherited in 1994 from the previous dispensation, institutionally or infrastructurally, was of any value whatsoever and it was beyond the pale to suggest otherwise.

This incident highlighted the enormous hold certain ideological ideas have over the current public debate – notably Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism and its translation to the local South African context in the form of the SACP thesis of Colonialism of a Special Type. This is due not just to the ANC’s efforts post-1994 to penetrate and neutralise independent centres of power in South Africa, including the universities and the newspapers, but also to the dominant intellectual trends in the West.

It is striking to see the same racial ideology that has made a major contribution to bringing South Africa close to failed state status – and which ruined Zimbabwe and immiserated its people – now taking hold across Britain and America. The conflation of race and class, ‘resentment and impatience’, ‘the guilt of Europe and the innocence of Africa and Asia’, ‘salvation through violence’ – such ideas are being discovered anew by an emerging generation of Western intellectuals. In Nationalism in Asia and Africa, published in 1970, Elie Kedourie concluded his introduction by noting how anti-colonial theory was the “most popular and influential one in Asia and Africa” at the time. It was but “Europe’s latest gift to the world”, one which could and usually did excite its addicts into a “frenzy of destruction”. Half a century on that terrible gift has returned whence it came.

Arresting South Africa’s institutional, infrastructural, fiscal, and economic decline – let alone avoiding collapse – is an enormous project that cannot be achieved without developing an alternative to the ANC’s failed ideology and programme. This requires having the wisdom to learn from the country’s own mistakes and, as important, from the mistakes and successes of others.[8] This means looking East rather than West, both to understand South Africa’s current predicament and to find a path out of it.

It requires, in other words, returning to Singapore and reopening the debate that was shut down in 2017. This includes, but is not limited to, learning how to deal with the conflicting legacies of European or white rule. One of the obstacles to persuading South Africans to “learn from Singapore” though is that most fail to see the relevance. It is regarded as ethnically, culturally, and geographically alien; being in an unfamiliar part of the world and having an Asian population. Combined with this is the gulf in achievement that now exists between the two countries.

If you look at any world ranking measuring the quality of governance, Singapore will be at or near the top while South Africa will be far down, and on the way to slipping further, if not already at the bottom. For example, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report (GCR) in 2019 ranked Singapore as having the most competitive economy in the world. South Africa was in 60th position.

Singapore came top in the 2019 TIMSS ranking of maths and science achievement at fourth and eighth grade level. South Africa came last in science and third last in maths. In the 2016 PIRLS study of reading literacy Singapore came second among the countries surveyed, South Africa last. Singapore was at the top of the World Bank’s government effectiveness index; South Africa was placed 50th. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index Singapore was ranked the 4th least corrupt country in the world, South Africa came in at 70th. Thanks in large part to decades of exceptionally good government, in 2020 Singapore had the third highest GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) in the world, according to the World Bank (the second highest according to the International Monetary Fund.) South Africa was in 101st (or 103rd) place.

Singapore thus appears to operate today in a completely different realm to South Africa, with the latter’s corrupt and failing state institutions and its declining economy. This tends to trigger that common mental short circuit which explains differences in achievement between different nations and peoples, at any one point in time, on obscure but innate factors inherited from far back in the past.

Go back 60 years however and you will discover a great deal of history that was either shared with South Africa at the time or is relevant to South Africa today. The starting point economically was not that different either. In the early 1960s South Africa had a higher per capita GDP than Singapore, despite the latter being predominantly urban, and immeasurably greater natural resources at its disposal.

South Africa remains a country, as Rian Malan has noted, “where many possible futures beckon”. While the country still has residual strengths, these continue to be eroded. In the early 1960s Singapore was in a similar situation. Yet it somehow chose the best possible future for itself. It provided, in turn, a model to the rest of the Asia (most notably China). It was then one of the hinges – along with the other Asian Dragons – on which a vast, impoverished, and overpopulated continent turned towards a programme of successful modernisation.

The concern then of the series of articles that we will be publishing over the next several weeks is why Singapore made the decisions that it did in the early 1960s, and how these are relevant to South Africa today. From the Western liberal perspective, the reasons for Singapore’s success are self-evident. It had “good leadership” under Lee Kuan Yew and pursued the correct economic policies. This does not explain all that much, however.

The real puzzle is why Singapore did not pursue the policies of so many of its peers at a time when anti-colonial revolutionary nationalism was sweeping through so much of Asia and Africa, overwhelming all obstacles in its path. This South Africans can more intuitively grasp given that to this day the ANC government claims to remain unbendingly committed to the implementation of the “National Democratic Revolution”.

A study of what made Singapore exceptional thus needs to begin with an understanding of the road not taken. This means examining developments in Indonesia – Singapore and Malaya’s huge neighbour across the Straits of Malacca – after independence in 1949. Not only did these have a significant impact on Singapore, politically and economically, but they were emblematic of post-colonial trends across both Asia, at the time, and Africa, to the present day.

This will be the subject of the next week’s article in this series. It can now be read here


[1] Fox Butterfield, “Teng's New Power: Rehabilitated Leader Seems to Have Become China's Guiding Force”, New York Times, 31 August 1977

[2] Vogel, Ezra F. Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (p. 2). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] World Development Indicators, World Bank data.

[4] “Ties will improve with mutual visits: Teng”, The Straits Times, 13 November 1978, Page 1

[5] Vogel, Ezra F. Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (pp. 290-291). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

[6] Christopher Pritchett (Reuters), “Teng's tour — a diplomatic appraisal from Peking”, The Straits Times, 20 November 1978, Page 16

[7] GDP per capita (constant 2010 US$), World Development Indicators, World Bank.

[8] This formulation is borrowed from Lee Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Marshall Cavendish Editions. Kindle Edition.