On a recent episode of the unmissable podcast The Rest is Politics, hosts Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell discussed the Truss cabal’s extreme ideology and their obsession with Singapore – the ultimate libertarian ‘paradise’ – as a model to follow.
At one point, Stewart asserted that the idea of Singapore-on-Thames becoming a reality was pure fantasy and could never happen. Campbell retorted:
“Well, you say that …”
And it got me thinking. It got me thinking in the context of Britannia Unchained, Truss and Kwarteng’s now-notorious cult bible. It got me thinking in the context of Rees-Mogg’s fixation with tearing up regulation; Braverman’s willingness to break international law, Kwarteng’s absolute disregard for the life chances and living standards of the vast bulk of the UK’s population, the cabinet’s zeal for cutting public spending, and the fascistic ‘othering’ of all those who seek to oppose their agenda.
Since they are operating with, as Stewart described it, untrammelled executive power, what will stop them from attempting to make the Singapore dream a UK reality? Campbell’s instincts are right. I share them. And here at West Country Voices we have sometimes been criticised for being ‘alarmist’ about what this bunch of Tories will do. I am afraid that our worst fears are steadily being proved right.
Let’s take a look at Singapore. Stewart described it as being the ‘London for Malaysia’ much in the way that Hong Kong is the London for China. The emphasis on London is key. This Truss cabinet is very London-centric. It’s geared to the rich, and in particular, the City/financial services rich. Don’t forget that the City of London is itself an enclave, with its own independent police force and the oldest government in the country. The King may not enter the City without the permission of the Lord Mayor. No. Really.
Back to Singapore. For a start, population-wise it’s one tenth of the size of the UK, and 339 times smaller in square kilometres. It’s officially a republic, a sovereign island country, and city state. It has the third-highest population density in the world. The island grew in importance from its origins as the maritime emporium Temasek. Stamford Raffles (now immortalised in the eponymous hotel and its famous bar) established Singapore as an entrepôt trading post of the British Empire – the era so beloved and hankered-after by Rees-Mogg and his ilk. (See Simon Kuper’s book Chums).
It is technically a democracy, but the People’s Action Party has been in power since 1959. Rory Stewart stopped short of calling it a dictatorship, instead settling for ‘authoritarian’. You cannot protest against the government. That has a chilling resonance, doesn’t it?
Singapore is one of the most unequal countries on the planet, with a Gini index score of 65.5, where 0 represents perfect equality, while an index of 100 implies perfect inequality. The UK currently has a score of 34.4, but it seems obvious from Kwarteng’s ‘fiscal event’ that this is something this government plans to ‘grow’.
Singapore was ranked 149 out of 157 in its commitment to reduce that inequality. Here in the UK we continue to be sold a risible levelling-up agenda, but talk is cheap and actions have not given much confidence that closing the inequality gap is in the plans at all.
Economically, Singapore looks to be a huge success story. It has no foreign debt. It majors in exports (electronics, bio-medical sciences, chemicals etc), financial and logistics services and, of course, it is a vital regional hub for AsiaPacific business and finance (pretty much like we were when we were in the EU). It boasts very low levels of unemployment, an open and corruption-free environment (that will be a challenge to emulate!), and a higher per-capita GDP than most developed countries. It is ranked as the world’s most open economy by Truss’s old friends and fans at the Heritage Foundation (a conservative, libertarian think tank in the US: warning bells!). It’s identified as a tax haven (of course) and has the world’s highest percentage of millionaires.
It’s also one of only four countries in the developed world to have capital punishment – a deterrent used to tackle drug trafficking.
It’s when we start to look at employment that we can understand why Rory Stewart says Singapore can never have a parallel incarnation here, but why I agree with Alastair Campbell’s retort “Well, you say that …” It is a glimpse into a dystopia.
Around 30 per cent of Singapore’s population is accounted for by non-resident foreign workers. They come from some of the poorest parts of the world – Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc. Needless to say, there’s no such thing as a minimum wage because that goes against the free market ideology. This imported labour accounts for 80 per cent of the construction industry and around 50 per cent of services, including those of maids, nannies and hospitality workers. Whilst the average income for citizens is in the region of $54,000 (about (about £34,000), these people, housed in dormitories in packed high-rise blocks, are paid a pittance and, in a shocking revelation from Stewart, even on different scales according to their nationality: $450 a month if you are from Myanmar. $550 if you’re from Indonesia. $590 if you’re from the Philippines.
As Stewart said, that would be completely unacceptable in Britain.
Well, you say that …
Having left the EU, we no longer have easy, seamless access to a workforce prepared to travel and tempted by higher wages than those back home. We have a hostile environment and, in any case, why should we build wealth on the back of cheap imported labour? That’s just a form of slavery.
A pre-condition for the exploitation of cheap labour is desperation – having no choice, or the choice between bad and worse. Since immigration is anathema to the Blukip faction of the Conservative party, one can only assume that the plan is to secure a domestic supply of desperate people. One could easily do that by … hmmm … let’s see! Cutting ‘benefits’. Allowing the cost of living to drive more people into poverty. Ensuring education standards decline – keep the proles in their place. Shut off avenues for social mobility. Let property prices soar, boosted by second home buyers shutting locals out. Deny access to healthcare by pricing people out. Create investment zones freed from the shackles of employment law. Pull out of the European Court of Human Rights.
Oh, and in Singapore, the cabinet are the highest-paid politicians in the world ( in terms of salaries. We’re not counting other ‘sources’!) They’re on over $1m. Apparently, they are chosen for their aptitude, and are some of the brightest and best, so while the paycheque may be aspirational for a venal UK cabinet, the qualifications are probably not. Plus they’d have to give up on the corruption …
In any event, the British won’t tolerate any of this, Rory Stewart says. When these Truss Tories fantasise about creating Singapore-on-Thames to achieve their growth, growth, growth mantra, they are ‘imagining a Britain that does not exist’.
But you know what? You say that …