‘Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
‘Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore.
‘Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave:
Oh! Hard times come again no more.”
Stephen Foster, “Hard Times” (1854)
The mood in Singapore these recent “circuit-breaker” weeks, since April 6, has been a mood mixed and muddled, hovering between expectations of new mirth and fears of protracted melancholy. It has borne several dimensions.
There is illness abroad in the land. Since COVIDageddon descended upon the world, and early did it descent upon the Red Dot—the first case was confirmed on January 23—26 people have died here out of roughly 5.7 million citizens and others on this little island. That’s a small number compared to most affected places, certainly in absolute terms and even more so in proportional terms. Deaths per million in Singapore equal about 4; the comparable U.S. figure, as of June 15, is 356.
But while mild by comparison both to most other countries and to the SARS ordeal of 2003, Singaporeans are by and large a risk-averse, stability-appreciating lot. These are traits with cultural roots planted deep from experience that run through all of East Asia to one degree or another. Unlike most Americans, East Asians retain some imagination for tragedy, and that inculcates a capacity for stoicism that can be summoned when needed.
After a while, however, any community’s reservoir of stoicism begins to run low. A novel form of fatigue eventually sets in, layered over a de-animated kind of waiting that Carlos Ruiz Zafón once called “the rust of the soul.” It is a fatigue exacerbated by the shape-shifting of time, which seems to move too fast and too slow simultaneously, and for many by the cumulative consequences of nervous nibbling, needless snacking owed to a combination of boredom and enervation born of frustration.
Stoicism here wears off faster now, along with any vestigial passion for politics, in rough proportion to the burgeoning in recent decades of affluence and a culture of conspicuous consumption. Naturally enough, it wears off faster among the young and energetic than among the older, more world-weary but also more patient. Lately, as the island has strode into June, it feels like the place is about to burst forth like a bikinied beauty out of a birthday cake. That, no doubt, is why the authorities are being conservative about allowing the full reopening of the economy. The bad news from the wholesale market in Beijing on June 13 might have reinforced their caution—so, anyway, many thought. So when the announcement came forth from the government on June 15 that the relaxed, phase II of the circuit-break would start on Friday, June 19, a frisson of excitement pulsed across the island. The recent announcement that an election would take place on July 10 is a natural follow-on: Poll the people while they’re in a relatively good mood . . . before the details of the descending economic recession hit home.
But the excitement is decidedly guarded because, with the coming of Singapore’s second monsoon season, the island is suffering the worst bout of dengue fever infections in more than a decade. Dengue is pretty awful, frequently requiring hospitalization. It takes a long time to get over, and leaves some long-term damage in many people. It’s caused by a virus, so there’s no magic bullet treatment and no commonly used vaccine to prevent it. It kills people, too—12 so far in just a few weeks. There are more than 10,000 cases, and numbers are rising fast. More than 800 cases were registered in just five and a half days this past week, more than the previous all-time record for a full week.
It did not have to be an unusually bad season for dengue, coming on top of COVID-19. But it is, and it’s hard for some to get over the sense that something out there is just screwing maliciously with Singapore right now. As in many other places, too, the economy is hurting. The current estimate is for a 5.8 percent GDP decline for 2020, and if there is a second coming of COVID-19 in the fall the number could move to -7.5 percent or lower. Also like many other places, richer people and businesses in Singapore have accumulated buffers to help them hunker down without losing all, while the poorer skate closer to the financial edge.
The downward economic inflection of the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing economic strains. Older people in the lower socio-economic quintiles often complain about not being able to live a dignified life. Many older people work because their work ethic bids them to, but many also work odd jobs because they need to. You can see them at the hawker stands sweeping floors and sidewalks with old-fashioned brooms. The Singaporean system lacks an open-ended entitlement akin to the U.S. Social Security system. It uses a market-based system with much to commend it, but it isn’t perfect. The system is designed to rely in part on multigenerational families taking care of the elderly, so as is the case everywhere, when a family doesn’t cohere well for one reason or another, its elderly members often suffer most.
Middle-class Singaporean families often refer to themselves nowadays as the “sandwich generation,” by which they mean that between needing to care for elderly parents and spending heavily on tuition or tutoring and uniforms for school-age children, they have little left to spend on themselves. You hear about this “middle class squeeze” often, generally unbidden, from second-jobber Grab drivers. Of course, with conspicuous consumption and teasing status-bedecked advertisements everywhere, one may question whether the spending ambitions of many parents are realistic. I never give voice to such questions during a Grab ride.
The government has provided temporary buffers for the more vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis, and unlike the United States, it has plenty of cash-in-the-black to do so. There are social downsides to affluence, hard as it is to get older folk here to appreciate that on account of their memories of Singapore when it was impoverished. But they’re right to rebut that, when unexpected problems arise, it’s nice to be able to throw money at them as a holding action while you figure out how to solve them.
But none of that arrests the attention of the political and intellectual elite here right now. They have larger visions of coming difficulty and danger in mind, nearly all of them involving the United States one way or another.
Singapore’s good fortune in recent decades is by no means entirely an accident of its ambient geostrategic surroundings, but it owes much to those surroundings. While Singaporeans were honing the arts of good government, saving and investing in the country, educating and inventing value-added jobs for themselves, all the while keeping intercommunal relations inclined toward greater tolerance and harmony, the world was cooperating mightily with their ambitions. At the business end of that world was the United States.
The U.S. grand strategy of providing security goods to the global commons sheltered Singapore’s efforts in more ways than one over the years. In 1965, when Singapore was thrust into independence from the Malaysian union, a more fraught environment could barely have been imagined. Indonesia was going crazy in the year of living dangerously, and the konfrontasi spilled over violently onto Singapore’s streets, layering on the raw feelings of race riots here in 1964. Communist Chinese infiltration of every trade union movement in the region was a fact of life, not to exclude shards of Singapore’s, and the Cultural Revolution was at full froth in China. So when U.S. Marines hit the beach at Da Nang in February 1965 the independence-generation leadership here counted it as a blessing.
One Lee Kuan Yew vignette sums up the matter. In the autumn of 1968, at a dinner in his honor at Harvard, the Prime Minister had to sit through a litany of complaints from leading scholars about President Johnson’s disastrously escalatory war policies in Vietnam. When they were through, no doubt expecting sympathy from an Asian leader, LKY, never one to bite his tongue, turned on his hosts and announced: “You make me sick.” He proceeded to explain that the U.S. effort in Vietnam had already bought the new nations of Southeast Asia shelter from communist onslaught for three to four precious years.
LKY’s son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, repeated the same conclusion in a recent Foreign Affairs essay. He added that ever since the Vietnam War era, regardless of the end of the Cold War and dramatic changes in China, the U.S. role in East Asia has been both benign—he did not say error-free—and stabilizing.
More than that, U.S. support for an expanding free-trade accented global economic order has enabled Singapore to surf the crest of burgeoning economic growth in Asia, becoming the most successful transshipment platform in history. It has enabled Singapore to benefit from several major technological developments—containerization is a good example—that have revolutionized international trade in manufactures.
It has also enabled Singapore, in many ways a global-reach international corporation masquerading as a city-state, to become a successful rentier hub benefitting from the expansion and integration of global capital, labor, and intellectual property flows. No country in the world has benefited more than Singapore from U.S. postwar grand strategy, except perhaps China. Which is an interesting observation, often made here, in its own right.
Few realize that military power can do more than either compel or deter. Most of the time most military power in the hands of a status quo actor like the United States neither compels nor deters; it “merely” reassures, except that over time there is nothing mere about it. That’s what the 7th Fleet does on a daily basis, and Singaporean leaders know it. They know that, notwithstanding their own efforts, Singapore has ridden the great whale of Asian advancement in a sea of American-guaranteed tranquility.
So this is exactly the problem now: Those massively benign trends are at risk of inanition, if not reversal.
While China is no longer either Marxist or crazy, as it was during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it is still Leninist, as its recent summary arrogation of Hong Kong’s negotiated special status shows. It has meanwhile grown mighty economically, advanced technologically at surprising speed, and has taken to investing grandly in its military capabilities. Its diplomacy has become more assertive, some would even say arrogant, as its Wolf Warrior nationalism has grown alongside the economy. Despite a still-unrequited search for a usable past, China’s military has expanded and begun throwing elbows in the no longer time-abiding Xi Jinping era.
Singapore’s approach to dealing with China has been one of strategic hedging. There is no getting around the need to cooperate economically and functionally with China, for Chinese influence permeates the entire region. Do a simple thought experiment: Even if Singaporeans determined to avoid China, how could they avoid the emanations of Chinese relations with and influence on Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, and Korea? Impossible.
Singapore’s close relationship with the United States needs to be seen as similarly enmeshed with the greater web of U.S. relationships in littoral Asia, as well as with India and the Middle East. It is misleading, therefore, to define the issue as one of Singapore’s confidence, or lack thereof, that the United States will come to Singapore’s aid and defense en extremis. The utility of the U.S. role vis-à-vis China is mainly one of regional balancing that indirectly benefits Singaporean security. The presence of a U.S. air wing and port-of-call naval facilities here, which no one calls a base and so no SOFA agreement is operative with regard to it, is the positive opposite of a tripwire. It’s not designed to trigger an American rush to arms if violated; it’s more like an ante Singapore puts up to be a small part in a larger game.
Obviously, Singapore’s hedging strategy, which reflects a similar disposition throughout Southeast Asia with variations here and there, only works within certain ranges of enabling reality. It doesn’t work if American power or will wanes too much, and it doesn’t work if the broader Sino-American regional balance collapses into glaring enmity and major-power conflict.
Over the past dozen years the worry has been too much American waning, less of capability than of strategic attention, competence, and will. Now, over the past year or two, the worry has shifted to anxiety over potential system collapse into conflict and even outright war. The new, testier climate generates cumulative pressure on Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries to choose between China or America, and choose in public. That is something they all would rather avoid, for the non-chosen might be incentivized to exact a price. It’s no fun being a sentient ping pong ball between two behemoths with stinging paddles, so they join together in ASEAN hoping that this will deflect such incentives. It won’t, but people do what they can when they cannot do what they like.
For now Singaporean leaders watch the weather and tread water. The hope is that the country will not ever find itself doing the backstroke toward a waterfall, for a descent into kinetic regional conflict would threaten the whirlwind. If U.S. aircraft and naval vessels in and near Singapore got involved in fighting with the PLA/PLN, the island might be threatened or even attacked. Transshipment activities would all but cease; a vast percentage of the island’s business would freeze up altogether.
On top of these ongoing but so far inert concerns, the not theoretical but very real stalling out and retrogression of globalization with COVID-19 are advents Singaporeans could well have done without. Withal, most senior people here trust that the erosion will be mostly temporary and in the end only partial. The state of Sino-U.S. relations will affect the regional commercial metabolism, but won’t entirely define it.
But if politics comes to drive policy in Washington and Beijing, as two leaders in different ways struggle with challenges to their tenures, there is concern that relations could deteriorate further and fast. The timing as well as the message of Prime Minister Lee’s carefully crafted essay can be seen as a subtle but unmistakable plea to Americans not to let things go rogue.
Will Prime Minister Lee’s fine essay do any good? I doubt it.
Over the past year I’ve been asked many times how I assess the nature and future of the U.S. global role, often with specific application to Asia, Southeast Asia, and Singapore. I usually begin an answer by warning people that a couple of years of working in the State Department failed utterly to make me over into a diplomat. So I tell them the flat-out truth: The United States is in the process of doing something no other great power in modern history has ever done. It is knowingly and voluntarily abdicating its global role and responsibilities. It is troubled within, so is internally directed for reasons good and otherwise. Thus distracted from the rest of the world in a Hamlet-like act sure to last at least a decade, it is unlikely ever to return in full to the disinterested, active, and constructive role it pioneered for itself after World War II.
The recessional began already at the end of the George W. Bush Administration, set roots during the eight years of the Obama presidency, and became a bitter, relentless, tactless, and barely shy of mad obsession during the Trump presidency. Some of the madness, some of the norm and institution destruction of the Trump years, can be patched up and restored. But the strategy itself is unlikely to be revivified for several reasons.
The most important of these reasons—and, I’ve learned, the hardest one for foreigners to understand—is that the Protestant/Enlightenment DNA baked indelibly into the American personality requires a belief in the nation’s exceptionalist virtue to justify an activist role abroad. Security and commercial interests alone do not suffice to persuade the denizens of a uniquely secure “world island” to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Only a belief that some morally transcendent purpose is involved can sustain an active U.S. role. When, for justifiable reasons or not, the nation loses its moral self-respect, it cannot lift its chin to look confidently upon the world, or bring itself to ask the world to look upon America as a worthy model, let alone a leader.
That fact that most Americans today also increasingly see expansive international engagement as too expensive, too dangerous, too complex to understand, and unhelpful either to the “main street” American economy or to rock-bottom American security, is relevant too. It doesn’t matter whether these perceptions are accurate or not. The fact is that the disappearance of a single “evil” adversary in Soviet communism, the advent of near-permanent economic anxiety punctuated by the 2008-9 Great Recession—whatever numbers the stock market puts up—and the sclerotic polarization of American politics have left most Americans with little bandwidth for foreign policy narratives. Few listen to any member of our tenured political class with the gumption to argue that U.S. internationalism remains in the national interest. In any event, few try, and even fewer manage to make any sense when they do.
In that context, pleas from thoughtful observers that we must find a mean between trying to do too much and doing too little are likely to be wasted. No thoughtful, moderate approach to any public policy question can get an actionable hearing these days. Drop any policy proposal into any of the great lava flows of contemporary American irrationality and any sane center it may possess will boil away into nothingness in a matter of seconds. The political culture as a whole has become a centrism incinerator, an immoderation generator, a shuddering dynamo of shallow intellectual impetuosity of every description.
The whole world is watching, still, even if the show’s script has changed tone. Singaporeans see what is going on as the downward spiral quickens. They can’t help but recognize, for example, that in the wake of the George Floyd unrest one side thinks a slogan—“law and order”—that is mighty close to a dogwhistle for “shoot people of color” can make it all better, while the other side advocates defunding or abolishing the police, for all the good that would do struggling inner-city underclass neighborhoods. To any normal person these are brazenly unserious propositions, yet they suck up nearly all the oxygen the U.S. media has the inclination to report about. The optic once it reaches Singapore, 9,650 miles away, is one of raving derangement.
Already a year ago several senior Singaporean diplomats and politicians, some of whom I knew from earlier times, would ask me, with eyes radiating genuine perplexity and sadness, and with palms turned upward in dismay, what has happened to “the America I knew and so admired” that its people could elect a man like Donald Trump President? How could a great country deteriorate so quickly from apparent competence, lucidity of mind, and cautious self-confidence into utterly debilitating spasms of apparent self-destruction?
Since then the mendacious narcissism of Donald Trump, the eager acquiescence to it of nearly the entire Republican Party, and its deadly metathesis in the COVID-19 and George Floyd contexts, have changed their questions. They no longer ask how this man could have become President. Now they ask where is the bottom of this sputtering cacophonous mess? They ask what will happen before and then on and after November 3. That’s when the palms of my hands turn upward.
Meanwhile, I perceive a dawning of what all this means for Singapore. It’s hard for many to let go of hoary assurances about American benignity, constancy, and sound judgment. When I note that the U.S. government recently disavowed responsibility to protect the Persian Gulf, in the most public way and at the worst possible moment, just after an Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities, I ask them why anyone here would think the United States will protect the Strait of Malacca, and little, physically indefensible, oil-bereft Singapore at its terminus?
The preciousness of the tenured security thinking here is great, especially in light of the absence of any appealing or even plausible substitute for American partnership. It is a little like trying to peel a beloved but thoroughly battered toy out of the hands of a four-year old. They want to hold onto it, even though at some level they know it’s time to loosen their grip.
Many Singaporeans really, sincerely, care about us Americans, and not just for their own sakes either. I wonder sometimes if we deserve their good wishes, for all that so many Americans have ever really cared about others who don’t look like them.