To Cuba or Singapore? A tale of two roads diverging

Ng Weng Hoong November 4, 2016 8:31 AM (UTC+8)
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In 1959, the post-colonial Third World confronted its two roads, both untraveled and without signposts.

One led to Cuba under Fidel Castro whose revolutionary army had just overthrown the Caribbean island’s US-backed right-wing regime to end over a century of political turbulence and neocolonial influence.

The other, half a world away, led to Singapore which achieved peaceful independence after 140 years of British rule, paving the way for Lee Kuan Yew’s rise as the city-state’s founder.

Lee, who died at 90 last year, and Castro, who recently turned 90, were larger-than-life independence fighters who, without hesitation or irony, imposed authoritarian control on those they had just liberated. The two leaders were also ideologically opposed. Had they met in battle, Castro would have attacked Lee for selling out his people to foreign imperialists in the pursuit of wealth; Lee would have dismissed Castro as an ideological crackpot out to doom his countrymen to poverty and isolation. Both were probably correct.

Castro adopted nationalistic policies that kept Cuba hunkered deep inside the anti-US communist bunker throughout and after the Cold War. He has won the respect of both friends and enemies for surviving decades of tough US political and trade sanctions, not to mention attempts on his life. Combining austerity with support from Russia, China and Venezuela, Cuba has largely upheld its egalitarian ethos in an increasingly unequal global economy. It has retained the use of Spanish in a mostly English language-driven world.

Lee took the opposite route by embedding Singapore into the US-led order. Instead of joining the anti-West bandwagon of former colonies, he turned the Southeast Asian state into a hub for global capitalism. His government facilitated foreign domination of the economy to develop export-oriented businesses. It rejected the advice of left-leaning economists who argued for state-protected import-substitution industries. English, the language of the recently deposed colonial power, superseded Chinese, Malay and Tamil as Singapore’s main medium of communication. Instead of expelling the British, Lee sought to prolong their presence, including their military. Singapore wore its British colonial heritage with more than a tinge of pride; Cuba was desperate to wash off its American legacy.

Capitalism’s Success Story

Lee executed one of history’s boldest, most successful industrialization programs by persuading the oil majors to build a world-class refining industry in Singapore from scratch. Between 1961 and 1974, Shell, BP, Esso, Mobil, Caltex, Chevron and the Singapore Petroleum Company invested an estimated total of US$350 million — substantial sums those days — to build five refineries with a combined daily capacity to produce more than a million barrels of fuel and oil products. In less than a decade, the strategically-located island with no crude reserves had emerged as an international oil refining center alongside Houston and Rotterdam. As a net producer of fuel and refined products, Singapore was among a handful of countries to benefit from the First Oil Shock of 1974. Big Oil helped launch the Singapore economic miracle. Its formidable presence gave confidence and investor endorsement, not to mention huge profits, to the startup country.

“Two roads diverged in a wood / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.”

-Robert Frost, American poet

Boosted by the oil trade and an influx of foreign capital and expertise, Singapore’s GDP per capita surged by 123 times from US$445 in 1959 to over US$55,000 in 2015, according to the World Bank and Population Pyramid. The wealth accumulation is expected to continue through the next decade. Knight Frank consultancy predicts Singapore, now a major financial center, will have the world’s fastest growth in the number of super rich individuals.

But critics say Singapore has also become a heartless economic machine. Today, it has one of the world’s most extreme wealth divides among its 5.6 million people living and competing on one of the most densely populated cities. of its residents with an average wealth of US$5.2 million live alongside a sizable population who struggle on a monthly salary of less than US$1,200 in the world’s most expensive city.

Locked in a permanent rat race, Singaporeans have earned for themselves a reputation as an emotionless people with a pessimistic outlook on life. Despite its well-educated people, Singapore has failed to produce any writer, musician or artist of significance. At the opening of the National Stadium in 1973, a proud moment in Singapore’s history, Lee crushed his people’s sporting aspirations by telling them not to “waste time” in the pursuit of gold medals in competitions. Singapore’s cultural poverty plumbed new depths in 2011 when the organizers of its national day celebrations were embarrassed into abandoning their adapted, possibly illegal, use of a Lady Gaga song after a taped rehearsal was leaked. In 2014, a group of local writers published an anthology of 65 poems titled, A Luxury We Cannot Afford, in mocking tribute to Lee for dismissing the value of poetry.

Castro’s Socialist Paradise

Having turned its back on globalization and capitalism for decades, Cuba has evaded the curses of extreme inequality, poverty and wealth concentration. Most working Cubans, from bus drivers, construction workers to doctors, engineers and civil servants, earn official wages of between US$20 and US$30 a month, and receive heavily subsidized food and transportation as well as free housing, education and health care. Personal and household debts are nonexistent. All this gives Cubans an annual GDP per capita of nearly US$6,800, according to the World Bank, putting the country in the middle of the world’s middle-income economies.

While not materially rich, Cubans have a big heart and will help others in need, said Raoul, our guide on a recent tour of Communism’s last stronghold in the Americas. Cuba has accepted a small number of Syrian and Algerian refugees as part of its humanitarian duty, and regularly dispatches its medical professionals to help other developing countries.

“If I went into a stranger’s house asking for water, I would get it. If I fell on the road, others will come to help me. This is the Cuban way,” said Raoul.

Cuba has also kept its love for music, literature, the arts and baseball. The people’s flair for music and dance is evident on Havana’s streets and growing night jazz scene. There are no signs of mass starvation or overt wealth, although malnutrition is visible. Cubans have lean, small-built frames and are likely stunted by the lack of nutrition. Farm animals as well as stray cats and dogs with their protruding bones betray emaciation. At the same time, spared the curse of fast foods, and the pollution and congestion of motorized traffic common elsewhere, Cubans have a healthier lifestyle than most people.

“Cuba has one of the lowest maternal/child death rates in the world and one of the longest average life spans,” wrote Bill Haseltine, a trustee for the Brookings Institute, in a 2012 report lauding the country’s biotechnology sector. According to the World Bank, the average Cuban has an expected life span of 79.24 years, putting them ahead of Americans (78.84) although well below Singaporeans (82.35). Cuba’s well-regarded free health care system focuses on illness prevention, shielding the economy from the burden of runaway costs associated with curative medicines and equipment.

Cuba’s army of doctors and medical professionals has had a unique role in promoting their country abroad as health diplomats since Castro took power in 1959. Cuban doctors earned high praise from the World Health Organization and other agencies for their role in fighting the spread of Ebola in West Africa in 2014. Medical services have also emerged as Cuba’s main revenue earner through inbound tourists seeking health care and the export of an estimated 37,000 doctors to 77 countries. Cuba now secures its oil supply from Venezuela, its largest trading partner, through a unique exchange program involving doctors and medical services.

But its young are growing impatient with socialist austerity as they covet the good life enjoyed by wealthy foreign tourists and visiting relatives and friends. Cuba is completing nearly a decade of cautious market reforms forced upon Raul Castro, 85, who succeeded older brother Fidel as president in 2008. The small steps taken to allow private businesses to trade real estate and cars, and operate restaurants, coffee shops and Airbnb accommodation have started to widen the income gap that will only grow when the US finally lifts its trade embargo.

Dilapidated buildings remain a common sight throughout Cuba despite a mild tourism-driven construction boom since the turn of the decade. The island’s aging infrastructure is under no threat of collapse from a population that has barely grown beyond 11.3 million over the past decade. The lack of housing along with rising food prices have dampened the urge to reproduce even for the country’s largely pro-family Catholic population. Havana continues to experience intermittent power disruptions while much of the countryside is not connected to the grid. Cuba last experienced massive widespread power outages in 2012, but these could easily return if the tourism boom continues. There’s little traffic congestion in the cities as cars are expensive while the lightly-used roads and highways linking most parts of the island’s 110,000-sq km area are in good shape.

Cuba’s Great Shift: Tourism, Obama and the Rolling Stones

In the upside-down economic order of Cuba’s socialist utopia, tour guides and shop assistants selling its world-renowned cigars and rum have the most coveted and best-paid jobs, not doctors, engineers or civil servants. Tour guides have direct contact with foreign tourists — a growing source of the country’s revenues — as well as access to free meals and drinks at hotels and resorts, and frequent travel to other parts of the sprawling 1,250-km-long island that are beyond the means of most citizens.

The lure has proved too tempting even for a proud nationalist like Raoul, 38, who said he resigned from his prestigious job as a military intelligence officer in 2004 to become a tour guide. The Cuban government reluctantly reintroduced tourism in the early 1990s to save the sagging economy which had lost Moscow’s generous aid following the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of Castro’s first acts shortly after taking power in 1959 was to shut down tourism as it was linked to gambling, prostitution and gangs under the previous regime of Fulgencio Bastita.

The sector is booming again, but Canadians, Europeans and Americans are returning not for the old vices (not yet at least) as these remain banned. Many are drawn by Cuba’s history and mystique as the last stronghold of communist ideals. There’s the inevitable curiosity to compare conditions with life back home, and to find out how the communist experiment has fared after over a half-century.

A record number of 3.52 million tourists visited last year. Their spending accounted for more than 10 % of the country’s GDP and 9.6% of total employment. Those numbers are set to grow as more Americans are expected to visit now that the US and Cuba have restored diplomatic relations, paving the way for increased trade and travel.

But tourism’s great revival grates the Cuban nationalist and poses questions about the value of Castro’s struggle and legacy. Has socialism not failed Cuba when its young, educated and talented aspire to become service staff to tourists? Is Castro’s vision no more than an updated version of the failed Batista regime where locals survived by serving wealthy foreigners? Castro has succeeded in making Cubans equal among themselves, but they have become unequal and poor compared with visitors from capitalist countries. Cubans can’t afford their own world-famous cigars and rum, or stay on the island’s numerous beach resorts. If capitalism is inferior, what explains the growing horde of tourists, not just from the West, but increasingly from once-poor Asia who now have the means to visit and taste the best of Cuba?

In these hard times, even Fidel Castro himself has become part of Cuba’s marketing draw; his charisma and defiance are as legendary as his gray beard and military fatigues. Another famous revolutionary, Che Guevara, the handsome Argentine doctor who fought the Cuban cause, has been reduced to an image adorning baseball caps, T-shirts and coffee mugs. Tales of Castro’s heroic struggles accompanied by thousands of photographs of him as a cigar-chomping soldier and the people’s great leader help pay for the upkeep of museums, historical sites and street bookstalls. “The Boss” continues to rail against the US, even slamming Barack Obama whose friendly visit in March made him the first US President to set foot on Cuba since 1928. Castro refused to meet Obama and derided the US leader’s offer to rebuild ties “as friends, neighbors and family” as insincere. But his people are slowly tuning off his trailing rants: they enthusiastically welcomed the Obamas and last year’s restoration of diplomatic ties with the US.

If Cubans were lifted by the US President’s visit on March 20-22, they were blown away by the Rolling Stones’ historic rock concert in Havana on March 25. The energetic 73-year-old Mick Jagger provided a wonderful closing act to Obama’s youthful presidential visit in the making of Cuba’s most upbeat week in memory. Thousands of foreigners flew in to join the hundreds of thousands of locals to party at the free 2.5-hour concert at the Ciudad Deportiva sports complex.

The crowd was ecstatic to experience Jagger and his “subversive” music that had been banned in Cuba for decades. The Rolling Stones represents much that Castro detests about the West as it evokes memories of his bitter struggle against American imperialism. The band was formed in 1962 when the US began imposing trade sanctions on Cuba to follow a failed CIA-sponsored attempt to overthrow Castro.

“It was a fucking awesome concert,” said Raoul, who attended with his friends. Growing up, they became fans by secretly tuning into western music despite the regime’s attempts to block out such influences.

Cuba’s new mood underlines its people’s readiness to embrace the world as they prepare to transition from Castro’s grim revolution. Having felt the people’s enthusiastic response to the Obama-Jagger shows, Castro appears ready to accept the inevitable by announcing it was time for a new generation to take over.

The Chinese Factor

While US rapprochement captured sensational headlines early this year, Cuba’s emergence from isolation has been quietly in the works for some years due to its growing links with China and developing Asia.

China is Cuba’s second largest trade partner after Venezuela, and is well positioned to be number one if restrictions are lifted. Chinese firms helped build Cuba’s Internet infrastructure that brought wireless connection into the country last year. Mandarin is increasingly heard on the streets of Havana as Cuba wants to bring in more free-spending Chinese travelers. From around 22,000 in 2013, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Cuba is expected to rise to 100,000 by 2018. Last December, Air China launched thrice-weekly direct flights between Beijing and Havana on its 400-seat Boeing 777 planes. Chinese investors are scouring the island for business opportunities, and have struck deals to explore and develop Cuba’s offshore oil and gas reserves.

Even more than the average Westerner, the Chinese visitor is eager to see for himself the outcome of Cuba’s long-drawn-out socialist experiment. The Chinese, especially those who have lived under Mao Zedong’s rule, aren’t impressed.

“If China had stayed the course of Mao, we would look like this today. No opportunities to grow, no skills, low wages and dependent on foreign tourists for tips,” said Zhang, a 48-year-old Chinese businessman living in Montreal on holiday at a Varadero beach resort. Accompanied by his wife and two children, Zhang said the Chinese leadership made the right decision to ditch Mao’s Soviet-styled communist system in 1978.

The Castro brothers are known to hold differing, possibly, opposing views on Beijing’s decision in 1978 to create a hybrid society run on market forces under one-party communist rule. Fidel wants Cuba to stay true to Karl Marx as he thinks leader Deng Xiaoping’s reform ideas have hurt China by reviving extreme inequality and capitalism’s other evils. Fidel carries the additional burden of having sided with the Soviet Union when Moscow quarreled with Beijing in the 1960s. He remains shocked by the horror stories of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and modern China’s full embrace of materialism that has led to widespread environmental degradation. The lack of industrialization means that Cuba has a much cleaner environment than even Singapore.

Raul, true to his derogatory nickname La China, wasted little time implementing Chinese-inspired reforms on land, business and property rights, albeit in a limited way, even before his election as president in February 2008. Almost immediately, new Chinese buses began operating in Havana to greatly improve the city’s commute.

The wind of public opinion is blowing ever so slightly in favor of change. No one in Cuba talks about exporting armed struggle or ideology any more as the people are more worried about their livelihoods. Under Raul, Cuba’s economy has grown by an average 2.5% to 3% per year, better than some of the disastrous years under Fidel, but disappointing considering the country’s low starting base. More importantly, this growth rate won’t be sufficient to raise Cuban living standards.

In July 2012, Raul led a delegation to China and Vietnam for the first time as president to expand bilateral ties and attract investment. He was also eager to see for himself the impact of market reforms on Asia’s two largest communist countries. Then, China had just overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy after growing by more than 8.4% per year since Deng started opening up China in 1978. Even more impressive were the new predictions contained in reports from official agencies and research groups that the Chinese economy could soon challenge the US for the number one spot.

Belatedly, it appears Cuba was ready to catch up on recent news about Asia’s booming economies. Raul and other leaders were to find out that China’s economic liftoff along with Vietnam’s were influenced by Singapore, the country that in 1959 had chosen a different path from Cuba. Deng’s visit to Singapore in November 1978 was a pivotal moment in China’s modern history. Not only was Deng inspired by what he saw, he was encouraged by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s offer to help transform China through the Singapore model. China’s control-obsessed communist party was particularly impressed by the ruling People Action Party’s (PAP) ability to maintain a tight grip on power while regularly tinkering with policies. Despite being mocked as a one-party state, Singapore has held 14 general elections since 1959 that the PAP has won with strong majorities owing to its ability to meet the people’s social and economic aspirations. Opponents and critics say the playing field is heavily tilted to favor the status quo as the PAP wields enormous influence over the civil service, defense forces, labor unions, the business community, grass roots organizations and the media.

China admires Singapore as “the only country … to achieve advanced economic industrialization without undergoing substantial political liberalization,” according to scholars Stephan Ortmann and Mark R. Thompson.

“The key ‘lesson’ that China is trying to learn is how to combine authoritarian rule with ‘good governance’ (“meritocratic” one-party rule),” they observed in an article in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

If China has found the breakthrough for its conundrum between retaining political control and spurring economic growth, shouldn’t Cuba also consider the Singapore model? Some scholars think Cuba should as it is facing mounting political and economic challenges in these fading years of the Castro brothers.

Debora L. Spar, the President of Barnard College that is affiliated with Columbia University, said Singapore offers a model of development that is “widely applicable” to countries hoping to avoid economic collapse in transitioning from communism.

In a commentary for Foreign Policy magazine in July 2015, she wrote that Lee and his colleagues “were honest and clear about what their country did and did not have; methodical in their planning and execution; and steadfast in their follow-through.”

She said Cuba’s next generation of leaders should consider Singapore’s approach and “build gradually from the assets that Cuba has — fertile land, an enviable location, and an eager and wealthy diaspora.”

Another scholar, Rajendra Abhyankar, has advised Cuba to adopt Singapore’s system of limited democracy while reforming its economy.

In an article for the Indian Council on Global Relations, the chairman at the Kunzru Centre for Defence Studies and Research in the Indian city of Pune, offered Singapore as “an interesting model for Cuba.”

“It blends the two imperatives of economically entrenching the big neighbor without falling totally under its spell. Its model of limited democracy presents an option which Havana could find attractive,” he wrote.

Roberto Blanco Dominguez, Cuba’s ambassador to Singapore, vaguely agrees that his country could learn something.

“There is so much we can learn from how Singapore has developed the economy, trade and education,” was his diplomatic comment in an interview with The Straits Times at the opening of Cuba’s embassy last November. Due to their opposing positions on the US, the two countries have had limited dealings with each other since they began diplomatic relations in April 1997. It is telling that Cuba established embassies in neighboring Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand well ahead of Singapore.

Doubts about China, Singapore

Cuba is clearly not sold on either China or Singapore. The gloss on the past success of both countries has faded significantly in recent years leading to questions if economic gains alone are sufficient to offset the rising political, social, cultural and environmental costs of their development models. China faces a growing list of problems including human rights abuses (possibly worse than Cuba’s), labor discontent and protests, environmental degradation, water scarcity from mismanagement, rising income inequality, unaffordable housing, corruption, abuse of power by officials, capital flight and tensions with neighboring countries. Critics argue that China’s single-minded pursuit of economic growth has created or worsened many of these problems that could eventually threaten the Communist Party’s hold on power.

At the opening of the Cuban Communist Party congress in April, Raul Castro affirmed the government’s commitment to a cautious opening of the economy even as he expressed frustration with the slow pace of growth.

“Cuba will never permit the application of so-called shock therapies, which are frequently applied to the detriment of society’s most humble classes,” he said in a review of the economy, according to an AFP story. He said Cuba would continue to provide housing, education, health and social security for its citizens — services that Singapore has increasingly privatized to the dismay of its less well-off citizens.

With Lee’s passing, the ruling party’s long-standing unwritten social contract with Singaporeans to deliver economic growth in exchange for a pliant citizenry is coming under strain. Faced with persistently weak exports, falling inbound investments, failing businesses and rising unemployment, Singapore’s economy has lost its way. Last year’s 2.1 % growth was the weakest since 2009. US ratings agency Moody’s has forecast Singapore’s economic growth to slump to an annual average rate of 2% over the next few years, less than a third of the average 6.2 % between 2000 and 2010.

The government is struggling to transform the economy as the forces of globalization, free trade and regional political stability that supported Singapore’s prosperity are rapidly weakening. Companies can no longer import cheap foreign labor at will to offset the workforce’s low productivity due to the political backlash against immigration. There are growing health, safety and security concerns from overcrowding as Singapore ranks as one of the world’s most densely populated countries with 5.6 million people packed tightly onto its tiny 720-sq km geography. Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease of poor countries, has become an embarrassing and regular deadly scourge. Radical Islamic groups are threatening to attack the city state, particularly for its role as a major base for US diplomatic, economic and military interest in Southeast Asia. While rated among the best in the world, Singapore’s infrastructure, particularly its subway system, has been frequently breaking down from overload. With no signs of political liberalization amid fading economic prospects, a small but vital number of talented Singaporeans is leaving each year, probably never to return.

Today’s world is probably more troubled than usual. The Cold War between Russia and the West has returned with a vengeance. A wealthier and more powerful China is upsetting the global order. There’s the new threat of the Islamic State, and Europe is once more in turmoil.

As their founding regimes fade into the history books, Cuba and Singapore are back in the woods to confront the old uncertainties and assumptions of 1959. And then some.

Ng Weng Hoong
Vancouver-based Ng Weng Hoong has been writing about political, economic and energy issues in Asia and the Middle East for over three decades. Contact: Ageless1@hotmail.com.
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