“Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia” by Jeevan Vasagar

Jeevan Vasagar Jeevan Vasagar

Viewed from a perch in Hong Kong, one of the most striking things about Lion City, Jeevan Vasagar’s new book on Singapore, Hong Kong’s best frenemy, is that it includes nary a mention of Asia’s World City.

A Hong Kong reader’s hackles will be immediately raised by Lion City’s somewhat breathless subtitle: “Singapore and Invention of Modern Asia”. The book itself, thankfully, is far more measured. Vasagar was formerly Malaysia and Singapore correspondent for the Financial Times and has family connections in the city. The journalistic training shows through: the book, essentially a collection of extended essays, is balanced, reasoned and thoroughly readable. The result is also—like Singapore itself, some might say—a bit colorless. At a time of heightened political rhetoric, this may be no bad thing.


Vasagar’s account is grounded in history: he runs through it quickly but effectively. He outlines the country’s formative periods, such as the Japanese occupation and the break with Malaysia and includes details both piquant—Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a descendant of William Farquhar and “a local woman named Antoinette ‘Nonio’ Clement, of Malaccan-French descent”—and significant, that for example it was the Suez Canal that made Singapore:


In 1869, the year the Suez Canal opened, 99 steamers called at Singapore’s wharves. A decade later that figure had risen to 541.


He notes that


Singapore is the only non-white nation composed entirely of the descendants of settlers (except for the island nations of the Caribbean, where the native people were wiped out and replaced by enslaved Africans)


and the country’s unusual relationship with colonialism:


Around the globe, the impact of the West is recalled in many countries as a collective disaster. China invokes the memory of a ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of Western powers. Across Africa, imperialists brought ruthless economic exploitation in diamond mines and rubber plantations, alongside a cruel system of racial dominance. In Singapore, the name of its European founder is a mark of prestige…


Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia, Jeevan Vasagar (Little Brown Australia, August 2012; Little Brown UK, September 2021; Pegasus, March 2022)
Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia, Jeevan Vasagar (Little Brown Australia, August 2012; Little Brown UK, September 2021; Pegasus, March 2022)

Vasagar soon moves on to a thematic treatment of his subject: a selection of chapter headings—The Engineered Society, The Model City, Authoritarianism with Gucci Handbags, Fighting Disease: From TB to Covid-19, ‘No one owes Singapore a living’, Asian Values—gives a pretty good idea.

These can read at times like boosterism: Singapore has done many things and weathered a number of global crises and transitions relatively well. The country has prospered and achieved social and political stability:


In 1965 its GDP per capita … was on a par with Jordan. Now it has outstripped Japan. The upside of the Singapore model is not limited to the super-rich… the government ensures there is a state-built home for everyone. There is very little homelessness – a count in 2017 found just 180 people, mostly male, sleeping rough in Singapore. The state-funded education system is one of the best in the world …


That no longer seems a surprise—it’s Singapore, after all—but Vasagar makes a point that this outcome was hardly guaranteed.

He does note the trade-offs:


For those who do not question the system, life in Singapore can be very good. Unemployment is low, incomes are high, crime – especially the threats to personal safety that can make daily life miserable in many developing countries – is a rarity… But daily life in Singapore can sometimes feel like a gilded cage. Unlike Westerners, Singaporeans cannot read an unmuzzled press. They cannot join a trade union that is independent of government or easily add their voice to a pressure group that challenges government policy.


Vasagar gives Singapore a fair—and detailed—shake. Many readers from outside will undoubtedly come to Lion City looking for lessons. They may find these elusive. The Singapore model has proven neither terribly scalable nor exportable: the “only example of a country that has successfully adopted elements of the Singapore mode” is Rwanda. It has proven difficult to pick and choose policy solutions: Singapore seems to come as a package deal and—like Hong Kong in it’s different way—sui generis.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.