Colombo City in Singapore Style? Its Hinterland Trumps That Idea …. Witness: The Recent Elections

Wilfred Jayasuriya

I assume that the government is using the Singapore model of economic development, which focuses on services and not on agriculture or industry. In the 1970s when economic development or development economics became the favourite subject of politics and economics I was lucky to do a one year post graduate diploma in Oxford University for government officers. One question raised was “How valid is the Singapore model?” and the short answer given by Robert Mabro, an Egyptian academic who ran the course was: Singapore has no hinterland.

The recent local body elections which took on a kind of national referendum image were in the hinterland and appear to confirm that thesis that the Singapore model is invalid for a country with a hinterland. Singapore is only a city state. The reader can work out for himself what this implies and it includes what the recent local elections have conveyed as a message.

Let’s look back briefly on the history of economic development in the last couple of centuries in our country. Economic development in its transformational mode began with the Colebrooke Reforms of 1832 which freed the country from the feudal system, made the factors of production: land, labour and capital available and mobile for exploitation and development. The Sri Lankan middle class or bourgeousie was a product of this freeing of the economy and society. Education, employment and a new social and political structure came into being. This macro view is based on the universally accepted proposition popularized by Marx that matter precedes mind. In 2000 AD when the Time Magazine carried out a world survey as to who was the most influential person in the 10 centuries since the year 1000 A.D. the choice was Karl Marx.

We know how our country adapted to the internal and external changes since 1500. We now have a free and self governing society, based on the rule of law, equality and freedom. The very recent events like the defeat of the Eelamists, consolidation of a unitary state and economy, the political activity based on the separation of powers and one man one vote have strengthened this process. The latest all country round of elections for local authorities has clarified and strengthened the political system. The results of the local elections illustrate the thesis that the Singapore model of a city state does not fit a country like Sri Lanka, which has a hinterland, independent of the city and able to influence the activity of the city. Even in the case of Singapore we can see in the relationship with Malaysia the strong economic bond with the hinterland, Malaysia. In Ceylon/Sri Lanka  however the connection is unbreakable  and this is the lesson that the recent local elections has produced.

The familiar  signs of the Singapore model are with us in Colombo. High rise buildings all over the city with no indication of any kind of moderation respecting the wishes of its citizens. I remember a Singapore taxi driver telling me when I told him I was from Colombo a few years ago.

“Colombo. Wonderful place. Lot of room. Can live on the ground. Not in the sky.”

Meanwhile the other worse aspect is also there: digging up the sea and putting iron towers in it. Galle Face was the face of our island beauty. It is now made up of iron structures and both water and sky have given up. The made up maiden is no longer worth visiting.

Thank God we have a hinterland and that the democratic system expressed the views of the hinterland. And expressed the suppressed wishes of the city.


Colin Lee:  Rising! Rising! In Sydney. Vertical Families,”” January 12, 2018


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One response to “Colombo City in Singapore Style? Its Hinterland Trumps That Idea …. Witness: The Recent Elections

  1. A COMMENT from TONY DONALDSON in Melbourne:
    Politicians often make sweet promises to seduce the masses. We’ve witnessed this in the rise of populist leaders of recent times from Dutere to Le Pen, but at the end of the day, a politician is still a politician and we shouldn’t put them on a pedestal. Pause to consider Aung San Suu Kyi. Once hailed as the goddess of democracy and human rights when it suited her, she has now chosen a different path. But it is not something that happens only in a country like Myanmar. Political leaders in the best democracies tend to be constricted by what is going on in their own party, and in the case of SL by having to always watch out for the constant threat of the previous leader making a come-back. Building a united country in which all groups feel a sense of belonging is the “ideal” but at the other end of the continuum is a “realist view” which is about how things actually work. That requires us to keep monitoring what is happening. Nothing is for certain. So let’s see how it goes…. In the case of SL, that process towards a united country that serves all people is fragile and the line between achieving success or failure extremely thin. Words alone are not enough.

    On the matter of economic prosperity, it is important, but the Singapore model is not necessarily the best model for Sri Lanka. Singapore has peculiar conditions being just a pimple dot on the world map one could easily miss it, and due to its particular circumstances, it has worked out a way to survive economically – though that does not mean all Singaporeans are well off. SL is not a pimple dot. Its situation is quite different in many ways and thus the Singapore model may not be the right one for it.

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