There is no doubt that Singapore's very particular 'Peranakan Culture', as presented in Yana's observations on Marginal Revolution and highlighted on The Interpreter yesterday, has played a part in the island republic's remarkable success.
But as someone who first visited the city in 1959, has been a regular visitor ever since, and was a resident for three and half years in the late seventies, I think the explanation is both more complex and less easy to pin down to a single key factor we might summarise as 'Adam Smith in overseas Chinese guise'.
Remarkable leadership is certainly part of the answer, but that leadership has involved more than Lee Kuan Yew, vitally important as his contribution was. Far too little attention is given by outside observers to others in the PAP leadership team in the early years of Singapore's independence, a team that included Goh Keng Swee and many others whose names are now forgotten outside Singapore. And at the very least, the younger generation of politicians who followed have been dedicated and capable, even if the challenges they have faced have not, perhaps, been so great.
Commentary on Singapore often fails to recognise the extent to which it has re-invented itself over the years.
Inheriting a city which could accurately be called a tropical slum (Barrington Kaye's Upper Nankin Street tells the story), independent Singapore has steadily moved up the production value chain. I well remember when German camera maker Rollei opened in Singapore to great fanfare in the seventies, but of course such forms of manufacturing have long since gone. As early as the eighties Goh Keng Swee was talking about the opportunities to develop genetic engineering.
Once it was unwise for the young to arrive in Singapore with over-long hair. If one wants to look at social change then it's worth noting that gay bars are now a feature of the city (though it says something about local mores that Bugis Street [pictured] today is a recreation of the original).
Having lived elsewhere in Southeast Asia for long periods I would note one, to my mind, fundamentally important point contributing to Singapore's success that is not given sufficient weight by casual observers: the lack of corruption. This is a vital and remarkable fact of commercial and financial life that surely warrants the correct use of the term 'unique'.
Singapore may not be perfect — is not perfect — and I find its attachment to capital punishment distasteful. But it has been a remarkable success story, if perhaps, as Yana quotes one youth as saying, 'too boring'. Yet even if this is so (and I'm not sure all my Singaporean friends would agree) its very existence, given the obstacles its leadership has had to overcome since 1965, has to be judged a notable achievement.
Photo by Flickr user YL Tan.