In the heart of Singapore, along the Singapore River, near to the perfectly engineered design statement that is the Asian Civilizations Museum, stands a diminutive and elegant monument to the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng was arguably among the greatest men of the twentieth century, because he dramatically lifted the living standards of close to a billion people throughout East Asia by introducing a version of capitalism to the Chinese economy. No man in history improved the quality of life for more people in a shorter time than Deng. But Deng elicits mixed feelings in the West. He was a ruthless authoritarian, who was the driving force behind the massacre of perhaps thousands of protesting students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Only in Singapore would he be so openly honored—at so appropriate a measured level, and for the right reasons. “Singapore has raised pragmatism to the level of a philosophy,” explained retired local diplomat Tommy Koh, whose idea it was to erect the monument to Deng. Singapore, he told me, stands against the beauty of ideas in favor of what works.
Standing next to the monument to Deng, I looked out at downtown Singapore: a dull grayish and blue-slate corporate park built on the scale of a megacity, the product of a meticulous mind, with sharp puzzle pieces of skyscrapers all neatly fitting together, maddening in their mathematical logic. At work was the abstract genius of the Chinese, who understand the conceptual utility of empty spaces; as opposed to the Indianized Malay mind, which is more at home in the world of thickly colored and deliciously cluttered textiles, with their floral and cartouche patterns (as evidenced by the displays in the nearby museum). But to call Singapore cold and impersonal is too easy a judgment. For everywhere there is civilizing greenery, starting with the dazzling bougainvillea bushes that line the road from the airport. Singapore is the only place in the Indo-Pacific, other than Japan, where traffic stops voluntarily for pedestrians.
At the end of history there is somnolence: that is the lesson of Singapore. Pragmatism carried to the furthest degree may not inspire the Western humanist mind, but it has been the only way for Singapore to survive as a physical speck of a city-state at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, whose location is coveted by the great powers. Singapore’s inner logic follows from its geographical vulnerability.
08 February 2015
Deng Xiaoping in Singapore
From Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1569-1586: