Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia by Jeevan Vasagar

Review by Liz Dexter

Open to global flows of capital but largely closed to political change, Singapore is a reform-minded dictator’s dream, suggesting that a country can enjoy the prosperity that comes with being open to foreign trade and investment without giving its people democratic freedoms.

Jeevan Vasagar was the Singapore and Malaysia correspondent for the Financial Times from 2015-2017, but he also has family connections to the nation state and has spent a lot of time there over the years. In addition, his Indian heritage means he’s outside of the colonial attitude to Singapore that has persisted in Britain. This means he’s well-placed to report on the state of the nation and its history, having an insider and outsider’s view of the place. While this reads sometimes more like a report or work of journalism than some of the narrative non-fiction I’ve read recently, this is by no means a failing and gives both an authenticity and an authority to the book. I can’t quite believe it’s Vasagar’s first book, actually, as it’s very well put together, wide-ranging and clear. 

After covering the history of Singapore, including its famous 20th century founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, but going back to its first origins and deep into the labour battles and joining and split with Malaysia, Vasagar takes broad themes for his chapters: how Singapore has handled dissent and disease, vice and art. He’s particularly interested in how people have subverted the authoritarian regime whether it be with protest, civil rights campaigns or art, and how their punishments have in fact become slightly less severe as the decades  have worn on. 

As the subtitle makes clear, Vasagar also sets Singapore’s history and current state within its Asian context, whether that’s launching an export business when the rest of the continent was effectively closed, becoming one of the “Asian tigers” alongside Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, or facing the challenge of juggling appeasing America and China nowadays as the latter grows in political and economic power. He’s clear-eyed and balanced about Singapore’s founders, acknowledging that Raffles saw colonialism as a power for good and Lee held the disparate ethnic groups of the state together through “clean, efficient government and economic growth”.

As mentioned above, Vasagar does well at placing Singapore within its Asian and international contexts, whether it’s seeking help from Israel with its national security after the split from the Malaysian Federation, importing even its national dish from Sri Lanka and its water from Malaysia, or providing a model for other nations to try to create their own mini-Singapores (China created some cities based on it which failed; India has tried, too; Kazakhstan lacked the stable and sleaze-free government needed to balance export prosperity; and Britain has sought to replicate some aspects post-Brexit). 

Vasagar is careful to address women’s rights, gay rights, minority ethnicities’ experiences, health and wealth inequalities and sex workers’ conditions through the book, making clear that Singapore’s record with all such groups is not exemplary and may give the prospective visitor pause for thought. As in the UK, inequalities in society were brought into sharp focus within the Covid pandemic; he cleverly draws parallels with other epidemics in this section. He’s also good on the contradictions inherent in what the leaders want for the nation and its society: a meritocracy, but one based very much on family structures, a “rugged society” that feels cosseted and safe. Citizens are “prickly” if their government is criticised but do protest at times. It’s notable that it’s one of the world’s least happy rich states, falling outside the top 30 in the UN World Happiness Report although claimed to be safe, crime-free and healthy. 

As well as looking back and at the current state of affairs, Singapore and Vasagar look to the future. Sustainability is a big theme in the nation, creating green spaces that control rainwater flooding and climate-change-resilient architecture that doesn’t rely so heavily on air-conditioning or electric light. Singapore’s system still works to root out corruption and promotes managerial ability over flashy campaigns in its politicians, but as its population changes and global society changes, Vasagar points out that it needs to “walk the line between populism and authoritarianism, allowing its people’s voice to be heard and embracing its place at the heart of Southeast Asia”. He’s cautiously positive on its ability to this. We finish with another section of memoir which ties the book in with its author nicely and doesn’t intrude on the efficacy of the text. 

This is a fascinating book with so much more detail than I can cover in this review. You really get a feel for how the state operates and the people Vasagar interviews are described vividly and help the book come to life. The notes are done in the way I like least (no footnote numbers, excerpts of text under their chapter heading with the reference after them so you don’t know what to look up) but are full and detailed, and there’s a short but useful Further Reading guide and a good index. 

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Liz Dexter enjoys reading about islands and history. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Jeevan Vasagar, Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia (Little, Brown, 2021). ‎ 978-1408713600, 328pp., hardback.

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