Should we use Singapore as a model for a post-Brexit Britain?

James Yucel

April 16, 2021

Originally coined by former Chancellor and spreadsheet-enthusiast Philip Hammond, the term ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ refers to the prosperous, low-tax, regulation-free Britain that many Brexiteers spent decades campaigning for.

They will no doubt welcome the news that the Prime Minister has begun to consult businesses about cutting red tape – though it may be greeted with a pinch of salt and a handful of scepticism by free marketeers who are troubled, as the 1990s liberty-loving Boris would have been, about the raft of nanny state, anti-business policies that have been announced as we emerge from the third national lockdown.

Singapore is, along with South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, one of the ‘Four Asian Tigers’ that underwent rapid industrialisation in the latter half of the 20th century. The East-Asian Miracle, as it has come to be known, is now a source of inspiration for a number of developing countries looking to replicate similar levels of phenomenal economic growth. These include the ‘Tiger Cubs’ – a clan of developing nations consisting of Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

However, as inspirational as the approach taken by the ‘Little Red Dot’ may be, the UK would struggle to follow in the footsteps of a nation that is one three-hundredth our size and has a population half that of London. It is worth addressing the sacrifices we’d have to make were we to truly become the ‘Singapore of Europe’.

As Daniel Finkelstein rightly highlighted in a recent Times article, the architect of Singapore’s growth and the man now regarded as the nation’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, took deeply illiberal measures to achieve economic success, such as ruthless legal action against any political opponents or his belief that free press must be subordinate to the elected government. This might explain why, last year, Singapore was ranked 151st out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index. 

Further, while a crucial component of the Singapore Model are the pro-business policies which enabled the nation to reach second place (behind Hong Kong) in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, the state’s role in its economic success cannot be overlooked. For instance, its sovereign wealth fund Temasek manages a net portfolio of $228bn – which is the equivalent of over 60 per cent of the country’s GDP. Like Norway, the state owns a vast amount of the means of production and is now in possession of 90 per cent of the country’s land (up from 31 per cent in 1949). This would be inconceivable in the UK.  

While Singapore is among the most forward-thinking economies – as evidenced by how highly it ranks across the board in indexes such as GDP, quality of life, education, life expectancy, healthcare, housing, and human capital – there are insurmountable barriers to a Western democracy mimicking its path to pro-business prosperity. Sure, we can take a leaf out of its book, but we might do better to drop the mantra of “Singapore of Europe” and begin building a model of our own that other countries can look to for inspiration in the years to come.


Written by James Yucel

James Yucel is the founder of the Defund the BBC campaign.

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