In the eyes of China’s neo-authoritarian reformers, Singapore, despite being a tiny city-state, long exemplified a state of affairs for which the PRC should strive: resilient authoritarianism alongside but unweakened by liberalizing steps conducive to economic growth. On behalf of Beijing’s effort to learn from Singapore, tens of thousands of officials visited the city-state and thousands of articles and books were written about it. Today, however, Xi Jiinping has derided foreign templates and relegated adopting the “Singapore model” to a path not taken by China’s current hard-line leadership and unavailable for authoritarian reformers to pursue. Although the demotion was triggered by Xi’s anti-reformism and China’s rise, Singapore’s loss of “model” character was also path-dependent. Chinese academics studying Singapore had long misunderstood fundamental institutional differences between the two countries that went back to the city-state’s colonial past and China’s Stalinist-Maoist revolution. Efforts to model reforms on the Singaporean “state-party” ran into the prerogatives of the Chinese party-state. Proposals to strengthen market forces, impose limited legal constraints on the party, and introduce semi-competitive elections were seen as threatening the institutional foundations of the CPC. Moreover, despite a (partial) revival of Confucianism in China that imitated the city-state’s attraction to “Asian values,” Singapore’s neo-liberal “pragmatism” and multi-racialism contradicted the CPC’s self-portrayal as an engine of Marxist socialism embodying the Han-Chinese nation.
Mark R. Thompson heads the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. He is president of the Hong Kong Political Science Association (HKPSA) and a former president of the Asian Political and International Studies Association (2013-14). A comparativist specializing in Southeast Asian politics, his publications include China’s “Singapore Model” and Authoritarian Learning, ed. with Stephan Ortmann (forthcoming 2020); Authoritarian Modernism in East Asia (2019); The Routledge Handbook of the Contemporary Philippines, ed. with Eric Batalla (2018); Dynasties and Female Political Leaders in Asia, ed. with Claudia Derichs (2014); Democratic Revolutions: Asia and Eastern Europe (2004); and The Anti-Marcos Struggle (1995).