Singapore, the foremost practitioner of the economic liberal order

By Chris Kuan

If I say Singapore is the foremost practitioner of the liberal order that is now said to be rejected first by Brexit referendum result in the United Kingdom and then the US presidential election, somehow it does not sound right.

People’s Action Party (PAP) government and liberalism simply don’t mix. But if I exclude the social part of the liberal order, and prefix liberal order with economic, perhaps you get what I mean.

Singapore is a big beneficiary of free trade and free movement of capital. That’s the good part of the liberal order. But where the rejection of the liberal order may be most pronounced is how the single-minded pursuit of free trade and free movement of capital leads to free(ish) movement of labour which then results in an existential problem of what constitutes identity and citizenship. This is the reason the rejection of the liberal order has a much larger coalition than just the poor and the so-called losers from globalisation. It includes the middle class and the winners from globalisation, as Francis Fukuyama wrote in the Financial Times, nation trumps class.

In the movement of labour, none capitalise on it more than Singapore, Not a single country in the European Union (EU) where free movement of labour is enshrined in the legislation of the Common Market has anywhere close to the level of immigration and the amount of foreign labour utilised by Singapore.

In hands of the government, the liberal order in its economic sense has been stretched to an extent that the supposedly out of touch liberal elites in the West would turn green in envy. It can even be said that Singapore is gaining an unfair trading advantage by such pervasive use of low-cost foreign labour. Mr Donald Trump does not care if foreigners are having Singaporeans’ lunches, all he is concerned is that Singapore is taking away American jobs. And if Singapore is a large enough economy, this would have been called out long before the US President Elect.

Who said being small and “vulnerable” does not have its advantages.

Even as Singapore is the foremost practitioner of the economic liberal order, the social part of that same liberal order is firmly denied by the government. This is not just about high-minded issue of free speech and civil rights but much more the dollars and cents of redistribution. Singapore benefit enormously from free trade and free movement of capital but once free movement of labour gets capitalised to the extent it is now, the benefits accrued mostly to the high income and the owners of capital and businesses, the rest are getting left behind with stagnant wages and financial and job insecurity. There is no liberal order of sufficient redistribution to spread the benefits wider.

But then Singaporeans are quite happy with the state of the nation even if it is sailing into the fog of economic uncertainties. Maybe Singaporeans are ignorant of the proposition or are carefree about the issue of national identity and the existential meaning of citizenship and national service. If so, the media and political control have done their job in helping to hold the entire edifice together.

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