Singapore measures 277.6 square miles, almost the same size as Guam. Both are tiny rocks in the sea. The comparison, of course, ends there. One is a $292-billion economy with an unemployment rate of 2 percent; the other is an unincorporated U.S. territory, whose $5-billion economy largely depends on the military, tourism and federal aid.
There may be no real point of comparison, but for proponents of Guam independence, Singapore is a source of optimism.
An island with no homegrown industry to speak of, Guam struggles to attain self-rule — a quest that is tempered by separation anxiety and a lack of organic basis to achieve a coherently independent economy.
Guam weighs its political status options. Both statehood and free association will keep Guam still pretty much hitched up to the United States, an attachment that somehow guarantees a buffer. For those satisfied with the status quo, independence sounds like a quixotic idea.
“Choosing independence doesn’t mean choosing a path to doom,” said Ana Borja, a member of the Independence Task Force. “We have an opportunity to rewrite our story using Singapore as a model to follow.”
Once a British colonial trading post, Singapore is not bereft of historical struggles before it cut ties from the Federation of Malaysia and became an independent republic on Aug. 9, 1965. But in a single generation, Lee Kuan Yew elevated the port city-state from Third World to First World prosperity by adopting a model for rapid economic growth, boosted by free market capitalism. Lee’s growth strategy, known as the ''Singapore model,” placed emphasis on radical deregulation that makes the city state an attractive destination for overseas investors. In September, the World Bank reported that Singapore’s $292.74 billion gross domestic product represents .47 percent of the world economy.
Lee served as Singapore’s prime minister from 1959 to 1990, and senior minister from 1990 to 2004. He died March 23, 2015 at the age of 91.
Speaking at the Independence Task’s Sept. 25 meeting at Chamorro Village, Borja said Singapore’s economic success was also driven by its leaders’ ability to explore its own strengths to defeat its weaknesses. “Lee Kuan Yew pushed for foreign investments. They invest in their own people and did what they know best. They use their port to their advantage to make up for their lack of natural resources,” she said. “Their No. 1 asset is human resources; they invest in social services and education for their people.”
Singapore’s style of governance, however, is another story. Ranked by The Economist as a “flawed democracy,” Singapore’s treatment of its citizens is not exactly congruent with the American values—with emphasis on First Amendment as a way of life — that Guam has come to adopt. A semblance of stability and discipline in Singapore comes with a price: free speech is curtailed, the press is leashed, and citizens’ actions are controlled.
“We are not glossing over the bad part,” Borja said. “We know that Singapore is still struggling with civil liberties issues but we can copy their best practices.”
For all its paradox, Singapore remains to be an object of awe to the world, an inspiration to emerging economies, and a challenge to Guam’s political imagination.