Singapore in our political imagination | Inquirer Opinion

Singapore in our political imagination

12:07 AM July 20, 2016

“CONGRATULATIONS on your new president!”

I was heading to Changi Airport, excited to come home after a monthlong visit at the National University of Singapore (NUS), when the taxi driver engaged me in a political discussion. “The mayor… Duterte right? He’s always in the news here.”


I smiled and said, “What do you think of him?”

“I think it’s good if he can bring discipline,” the cabbie said. “Filipinos always say that your country needs discipline. Here in Singapore, if you throw garbage, there’s a fine of S$500… I’ve been to Manila and I think it’s not very clean…”


It’s always good to pick the brain of a foreigner who’s interested in our national affairs. But a Singaporean talking about the state of the Philippines, I am not surprised. After all, Singapore and the Philippines have figured in each other’s political imagination for many decades.

For Singapore, the Philippines has always been an object lesson in how (not) to govern. Whenever there are debates about more freedoms, one of the responses would be: “Are you really sure you want more democracy? Look at the Philippines!” In 1992, Lee Kuan Yew delivered a lecture in Manila in which he famously said that what a country needs is more discipline and less democracy.

In 2007, LKY warned Singaporeans that “our women will become maids in other people’s countries” if their government became incompetent. Surely, the allusion to 220,000 foreign maids in Singapore (including 70,000 Filipinos) and their respective governments could not have been lost.

Perhaps the Singaporeans’ views about our country have changed, with Filipinos now working in various industries from computer programming to healthcare. Inevitably, there are frictions along the way: In 2015, a Filipino nurse was dismissed from his hospital job after ranting about Singaporeans on Facebook—exacerbating what an NUS sociologist called preexisting “negative vibes.” Nonetheless, “many Singaporeans have positive experiences with Filipinos,” as the Straits Times quoted a political analyst as saying. LKY himself, in his memoir, spoke highly of Filipino professionals.

Even domestic helpers have gained a newfound appreciation: Many Singaporeans prefer the educated, caring, English-speaking Filipino maid—and are willing to pay for their relatively-higher salaries (S$550 a month, compared to S$400 for Sri Lankans). At the airport, I saw a Singaporean woman accompanying her Filipino maid to the check-in counter, and giving her a big hug before they parted.

* * *

Singapore, too, inhabits a place in our politics: a vision of what could have been—and what the future can be. We have the same tropical climate, and similar colonial and wartime pasts, but why did our political and economic outcomes turn out to be so different? Walking under the shadow of the Supertrees in the futuristic “Gardens by the Bay,” I cannot help but revisit that question. Grudgingly then, and more openly now, we admire the island-country for what we perceive to be its cleanliness, efficient public transport, disciplined people, meritocratic government, overall economic success, and, of late, fast internet speeds.


With over 700,000 Filipinos visiting Singapore each year, many people can relate to references to it. Doubtless, it is this familiarity that led fraudsters to put the following words in Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s mouth: “Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is the only presidential candidate that could make Philippines like Singapore.”

The Singapore Embassy quickly disavowed the fake endorsement, but many Singapore-based Pinoys could have claimed the statement for their own, convinced that Mr. Duterte can truly bring about change in the Philippines. “Puro Duterte kami dito!” (We’re all Duterte [supporters] here!), says Lovigildo Delima, a maritime engineer who works in the Sembawang docks. Indeed, Mr. Duterte won by a landslide among the absentee voters in Singapore—perhaps inspired in part by what a “strong” government can accomplish.

But in holding up Singapore as model for the Philippines, we may lose sight of its own challenges and problems: social cohesion amid a multiethnic society, income inequality, allegations of cronyism, among many others. Even its famed cleanliness is a matter for concern. “We are a cleaned nation, not a clean nation,” lamented Lee Bee Wah, a Singaporean MP, explaining that the cleanliness does not come from societal values (as it should), but because of its army of 70,000 cleaners.

And, of course, many observers think that Singapore needs more press freedom. “There are ways to silence you,” a Singaporean writer told me. “You can write a sensitive book, but you cannot find a publisher who is willing to put their name on it.” Cyberspace, too, is policed: Just last year, a 16-year-old blogger named Amos Yee who appeared in a YouTube video critical of Lee Kuan Yew was arrested for “criticizing Christianity.” In Singapore, it will be hard to be a Carlos Celdran.

Many Singaporeans don’t hide the fact that they have “less democracy,” but see it as a small price to pay for stability and economic prosperity. And if someone argues otherwise, perhaps they can still be deterred by the age-old rebuttal: “Just look at the Philippines!”

If Rodrigo Duterte—like Lee Kuan Yew—can bring peace and prosperity to his country, will the Filipino people be willing to turn a blind eye on his objectionable actions, like marginalizing the press, favoring certain groups, or even taking a laissez-faire attitude toward human rights?

As the Singapore example shows, it’s hard to argue against success.

 Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.

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TAGS: Commentary, democracy, Duterte, Lee Kuan Yu, opinion, Rodrigo Duterte, Singapore
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