We’ve heard every iteration of a ‘country’ plus or minus, model or deal, and I can’t help but feel like each vision for post Brexit life has sounded like a half-baked Frankenstein job.
Sure, UK governments can and should learn some lessons from policy success stories overseas, and there are plenty of them. Finland has its employment and housing scheme to ‘end homelessness’, New Zealand has its well-being budget, Norway has its inclusive economy and Costa Rica has its 100% renewable energy reliance. The list goes on, but the model that frequently captures the imagination of British – especially Conservative – politicians, is the Singapore model.
This news will be little surprise to most. The party focused on GDP growth and productivity maximization, likes a country which burns a relentless work ethic into its youth and has gone from economic zero to hero within a matter of decades.
The response to the likes of Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt applauding Singapore’s efforts has been anything but entirely positive, though.
Speaking in response to the praise delivered by Jeremy Hunt, Guardian Diplomatic Editor Patrick Wintour said,
“Quite how Singapore, an authoritarian state capitalist economy akin to China, has become the pre-eminent Tory model for the UK post-Brexit, as opposed to other more democratic economies, is puzzling.”
“Brexit critics often claim the Tory party vision is for a deregulated Singapore-on-Thames, and here is a senior cabinet minister only weeks before the key Brexit vote travelling 6,700 miles to confirm this to be the case.”
“For EU negotiators, anxious that a bargain-basement Britain does not have privileged access to its single market, the warning could not be clearer.”
“It is also not clear if Singapore’s transformation into an export-orientated manufacturing base for international capital is relevant to the modern UK. Singapore grew at a time when globalisation allowed multinational corporations to take advantage of different labour and production costs in manufacturing. There is little chance, for instance, of the UK becoming a major exporter of electronic goods based on low wages.”
These are all damning contradictions: an authoritarian government, a kind of market liberalism that would exclude us from the single market and wages too low to be acceptable to most UK citizens. Not to mention the fact that most of Singapore’s housing is nationally owned, while it provides neither a national health service nor state pensions.
So, what can we learn?
Well, from the approach of negative principles (or put simply, what we shouldn’t do), we can ask ourselves about why we detest some of the components of the Singapore system. We should imagine what we’d miss most if such a system were imposed on us – free participation, healthcare which is free at the point of use, and decent wages and workers’ rights, among other things.
From a positive approach, we should certainly aspire to adopt certain principles, if not practices.
For me, the successes of their system draw primarily from their attitude towards education. Singapore celebrates its people as its primary commodity, and the fact that they’ve been raised with a first class education and strong work ethic makes them an extremely skilled and productive workforce.
What I wouldn’t want the UK to emulate is Singapore’s dismissal of creative and critical thought faculties, which is likely done to optimise vocational skills. What I do agree with is an educational ethos which doesn’t just equip citizens with basic necessary skills, but prepares them to be an active and meaningful part of national productivity.
The fact that Singapore has an economy made up 22.0% of manufacturing, 17.6% wholesale and retail, 14.9% business services, 13% financial services (etc) is also worth observing.
To many, the very activity of measuring the UK alongside Singapore is contrived, with Singapore being more comparable to London than an entire country. However, we should take on board two things if nothing more. First, the intuitive point that it isn’t prudent to have an economy so overly biased towards particular sectors. Second, the productive capacity of a country, and perhaps the quality of life of its citizens, is only maximized if we have an economy which attempts to utilise the productive potential of as many people as possible.
Granted, the UK faces the challenge of trying to revive once-lively hubs of productivity, as well as regions which are far away from urban metropolises. What we should remember, though, is that even if some traditional industries have died (or more accurately, been outsourced overseas), we still have concentrations of potential workers who haven’t been given the chance to fulfil their potential.
It isn’t my intention to completely disregard existing efforts to inspire business in places such as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, but the London bias is still plain to see. This isn’t to say the bias involves continuous and ongoing policies in favour of London’s primacy, but rather not enough is being done to reverse the structures that made it the only global hub in the UK.
Two way we could look to kill two birds with one stone in the UK are via:
- Implementing a framework of first-mover incentives. This may involve lower taxes, infrastructural spending or some form of subsidy. The bottom line is that any business has strength (and a country creates a specialisation) in numbers and in density. If we want to inspire other sectors to set up base in the UK, and specifically not in London, we have to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.
- We should consider a return to manufacturing. I’d ask readers to resist the temptation to eye-roll and consider for a moment, the possibility of the UK being at the forefront of both developing and using automated hardware and software. It is self-evident to anyone in touch with the times, that a major power play that is occurring (and will continue to occur) is the race to develop and patent automated and AI systems. If we cater our education system to help the generation understand and design the machines of the future, we could aspire to be a hub of automated manufactured goods and technology patents.
Apart from the two principles I’ve laid out, the efforts of our government should be directed away from making the UK more like Singapore.
First, we’d benefit from a more substantive effort to build council houses, especially within a right-to-buy scheme which focuses on first-time buyers and consults Local Housing Authorities. Increased access to the property market would not only give people an incentive to work towards a goal (and encourage them to work to pay off mortgages) but gives them an asset which provides stability and an incentive to be enterprising and work to advance their position.
Secondly, it’d be greatly beneficial to the collective national narrative to consider greater scrutiny of unfair electoral practices, greater parity in education and where possible, enforcement of tax collection on the highest earners and companies not paying taxes on their UK operations. These goals are less straightforward than my first suggestion, but important in achieving the ends of creating a sense of fairness, reciprocity and collective participation, which are necessary preconditions for bringing about a greater sense of belonging and solidarity within a national community.