Friday, April 10, 2009

Singapore, a First World country?

Straits Times Article (April 10, 2009): S'pore's meritocratic edge

Let me put aside my anger with MM Lee's obvious hypocrisy (quoted by ST, am seeking the original speech transcript for a better understanding of the context. Could have sworn the ST had a link to the PDF file the last time I checked):

MINISTER Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has urged Singaporeans not to delude themselves that they are a part of the First World in South-east Asia.

Singapore is situated in a region with 'special features' which makes it particularly vulnerable, so to keep its competitive edge and be relevant to the world, it must stay a cohesive, multiracial, multireligious nation based on meritocracy, he said.

If he had apologized about having repeatedly pronounced Singapore's "arrival" at First World status when trumpeting his achievements, I might have felt better about this.

Anyway, I want to focus on the definition of "First World" on this blog entry. Here's something from Wikipedia (link):

The terms First World, Second World, and Third World were used to divide nations into three broad categories. The three terms did not arise simultaneously. After World War II, people began to speak of the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries as two major blocs, often using such terms as the "Western Bloc" and the "Eastern Bloc". The two "worlds" were not numbered. It was eventually pointed out that there were a great many countries that fit into neither category, and in 1952 French demographer Alfred Sauvy coined the term "Third World" to describe this latter group; retroactively, the first two groups came to be known as the "First World" and "Second World".

It was intended as a political moniker, not an economic one. It so happened that most Third World countries were poor. Economically speaking, now that we are past the era of the Cold War, people often use the term Developed Countries and Developing Countries. Singapore is defined as a High-Income Country by the World Bank.

Notice how MM Lee abuses the term "First World" by taking advantage of (what I think is) the general misunderstanding of the phrase. Also notice how he has twisted the use in the context of a mixed social-political-economic environment.

The question now is "What is the motivation behind this exhortation?". Personally, I hope it is not a veiled threat against a (very slowly) rising tide of liberal thinking (which is, unfortunately, mistakenly tied to "First World" or "Western" countries whenever it suits people in power).


Anonymous said...

I think he should refund the money to his book "From Third World to First".

Chee Wai Lee said...

Hahaha, exactly! Made a ton of money telling people something that he says we should now not be "deluded by".

Fox said...

I don't think LKY said anything about Singapore NOT being a First World country. As a trained lawyer, he is smart enough to know that is too blatant a lie.

Instead, he said that our neighbours are not first-world countries. There is a clear difference but the intended message is the same: "our neighbours, as third world countries, pose a potential threat. Hence, you cannot expect a first world society (in politics and culture) in Singapore."

In other words, he can no longer use the excuse that Singapore is a developing country to justify the 'special' political regime. Instead, he shifts the blame to our neighbours. Nice.

Kevin Jang said...

You know that trained lawyers are meant to be able to shift the gears in rhetoric. That is a part of what they do. For the most part though, we have been "taught" somehow too via the media not to think of ourselves as First World by default of our location too, part of that rhetoric concerning where we are situated. It makes me wonder where we would fall into in terms of category then.....