Singapore: If Thomas Hobbes Built a City

One can only observe the recent international mourning of the death of Lee Kuan Yew with mixed feelings; especially as a urbanist. In his book, ‘The Triumph of the City’ Ed Gleaser celebrates Singapore’s post-war rise to domainant economical powerhouse, but I have never felt it possible to be so congratulatory. Singapore is an extraordinary place to do business — but does that make it a good city?

Singapore, the world’s most successful city state, on the southern tip of Malay is perhaps the paradigmatic Hobbesian city. Thomas Hobbes was a mathematician. As England was descending into Civil War in the 1640s, he then began to think about how to use science to understand human society. In Leviathan, which was published in 1651, he set out a pitiful vision of human nature: that man was driven by his desires, and constantly at war with each other. In his famous phrase, life was therefore: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. (Chap. 13, para. 9)

Hobbes’s only solution to this vicious state of nature was firm and undissolvable power. This sovereign could take the form of one man — a monarch; a select group — the aristocracy; or a democratic assembly of all. Of these three, only the first was incorruptible. In Hobbes’s city, power came from only one place: from above; and was to be enforced in any way the sovereign saw fit. This authority was not to be questioned as all protest threatened a return to that vicious state of nature.

So: back to Singapore. Despite a constitution modeled on the British Parliamentary system, with frequent compulsory elections, Singapore has only had one party in power since gaining self governing status in 1959 and independence in 1963: Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party [PAP]. The city has been called many things from ‘Disney Land with the death penalty’ to ‘one of the cleanest, safest, richest, and dullest cities in the world’ but there is no question that, in its first fifty years, Singapore became one of the great global cities of our times.

This confused picture is reflected in Singapore’s standing within the many rankings that now catalogue the different faces of the world’s cities. In 2011, Singapore ranked first in the Mercer Consulting Best City for Infrastructure and the Ericksson Networked Society list; Forbes magazine called it the ‘World’s Smartest City’; it came third in the ranking for the Euromonitor Top City Destination and 5th in both the Global Power City Index and the Cities of Opportunity . Across the board the city had risen into the top five for business; however, in the Economist Liveability rankings, it came an unimpressive 52nd, brought down by the rankings in the categories of environment and freedom.

The island state first come to prominence as an Imperial entrepot between Britain and South East Asia and in the nineteenth century was developed as a multinational community of Europeans, native Malay, Chinese merchants who set up a bridgehead to the mainland, and Indians who arrived to service the Empire. After a failed experiment to unify with Malaysia between 1963–5, independent Singapore set out to establish a new identity alongside an economic policy of renewal, for as Lee Kuan Yew later wrote in his autobiography: ‘We had to create a new kind of economy, try new methods and schemes never tried before anywhere else in the world, because there was no other country like Singapore.’

The PAP were determined to make Singapore the gateway to Asia, to encourage foreign investment into the city and to make the port the transport and business hub for the region. Lee developed an idiosyncratic method to ensure Singapore’s future: he had been inspired by Japan’s authoritarian control of the island taken in 1942, as he was starting off his career as a wartime entrepreneur. After 1945, he travelled to Britain and was impressed by the Labour Government efforts to establish the welfare state. On his return, he formulated his own non-ideological pragmatic philosophy on how to get things done, a mixture of authoritarianism and welfare, as he famously told the Strait Times: “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think”. [NY Times, May 15, 2011]. This approach has proved to be remarkably successful.

Since the 1960s, Lee’s strong government nurtured the free market, initiated rapid state-led industrialisation and far reaching infrastructure schemes such as housing and transport as well as imposing strict social policies that encouraged savings rather than consumption, as well as a cheap and compliant workforce. As Lee has noted, there was not enough time to engage with the people over a shared vision of the city: “close engagement of the mass citizenry was not only unnecessary but would have been a nonstarter.” [ibid] Instead, he ensured that Singapore became the perfect environment for foreign investment. In addition to cheap labour, there was widespread promotion of education to improve the skilled workforce, so that where the average 1960s adult had only 3 years of schooling, today the city boasts a 95% literacy rate [worldbank data]. It was also important to stamp out corruption and as a result Lee raised civil service wages while also raising the penalties for being caught.

He then began by courting the petrochemical industry and electronics firms as well encouraging multinational corporations to make the island home for their local headquarters, attracted by the low costs of development, a good infrastructure and political stability. By 1980, the economy benefited from $7,072 million in foreign investment. Yet during that decade the city also suffered from its first recession. This was partly due to the rise of neighbours such as Indonesia and Malaysia who also started to offer low labour costs and basic services, forcing Singapore to rethink.

In response the city declared another era of redevelopment both to the fabric of the city as well as the people who lived in it. There was an effort to encourage local entrepreneurship while also attracting more hi-tech and knowledge-based industries, such as Lucas Films and Biopolis, an international bio-tech research centre, to the island. Culture and tourism have also become important, accounting for $5.6 billion by 1999, and exemplified by the new Marina Bay complex including theatres, a new business hub, even more malls to a city that seems dominated by ‘consumptionscapes’, as well as a Formula 1 race track.

Singapore now sells itself as the supercharged Asian creative hub. Yet this commitment to the information age comes with risks and could altered the relationship between the government and the people, who are now encouraged to be innovative, independent and educated. You cannot encourage innovators and a knowledge economy and then expect them to act like dutiful servants: schools began to teach a new curriculum that encouraged critical thinking rather than learning by rote; the launch of the ‘Singapore One’ initiative guaranteed every citizen with high speed internet connection while the iN2015 masterplan hopes to develop a new generation of global business leaders.

This revolution within a revolution — which in time will surely come to question, and in time undermine, Singapore’s Hobbesian way of life- was nonetheless been dictated from the ‘top down’. The appearance of the new regime as a ‘listening government’, that today encourages criticism needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, as commentator Karl Hack notes: it may no longer be ‘just an authoritarian one way street but rather a two way street in which the lane travelling towards the government is narrower.’

Singapore’s Hobbestown may appear to be an unsurpassable example of how to develop a world-beating city, proving that a firm hand and strong government are the only things that can assure the metropolis. But also within its success is the glimmer of change. With the shadow of Lee Kuan Yew now growing weaker, perhaps the city will be allowed to express itself — for better or worse.