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Singapore is not a model for Australia

The following is an excerpt from The Intepreter

Photo by Flickr user Amizyo.

Dr Michael Barr/

Australians looking at Singapore as a model for pulling the poor up by their bootstraps (such as Noel Pearson in The Australian) will be disappointed. Singapore's success is not replicable or desirable.

Singapore had its economic take-off by turning itself into a regional manufacturing and exporting base while China and India were sleeping and the US was booming and buying. If China or India had been competitors in the global market during the 1960s, '70s and '80s, then Singapore would never have followed the path it did and could not have succeeded as it did. Needless to say, China and India are no longer sleeping, and the US is no longer booming or buying.

Furthermore, the manufacture-for-export pattern of development upon which Singapore relied and continues to rely to this day, is already past its prime. The Singaporean Government recognises this, and is desperately trying to find alternative models. To suggest that Australia revert to a model that worked for Singapore in the 1970s and is being systematically abandoned as we speak would be a foolish move indeed.

Pearson argues that Singapore has developed without the creation of an underclass and that the country has 'free(d) itself from poverty'. In fact Singapore has two underclasses. The first consists of poor Singaporeans who live in a high-cost city, but who work without significant political or industrial protections: without a minimum wage, without independent unions, without much by way of welfare or health benefits and without much hope of themselves or their children ever climbing out of the poverty trap.

There are many Singaporeans working 10 and 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for as little as Singapore $3-4 per hour (S$1 is worth about 80c Australian) with few social security benefits. Members of this underclass become very visible late at night in food courts, where aged grandmothers and grandfathers work for a pittance serving food and cleaning tables and toilets.

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Dr Michael Barr is Senior Lecturer at Flinders University. His most recent book, written with Zlatko Skrbiš, is Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project.