How foreigners misunderstand Singapore: The Economist

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“The city state’s success offers much to admire but little to emulate.”

So says The Economist newspaper in an article on 1 July examining why would-be copycats of Singapore fail to understand how the little Southeast Asian island works.

“Many leaders of developing countries respect Lee Kuan Yew, its founding father, for taking his city-state from third- to first-world status while resisting Western calls for greater political liberalisation,” the newspaper says.

Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew

American and British politicians have expressed admiration for Singapore’s system or method of governance in recent times, even as their own systems are called into question.

However, “like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant by feeling just one part of the beast, each of these admirers gets something right about Singapore, but all miss the big picture,” The Economist said.

It argues that two distinctive features of the Singapore system make the island quite different from the rest of the world, and not just the United States and the United Kingdom.

First is that “Singapore’s system… features far more coercion and government intervention than Americans would plausibly accept,” the newspaper says.

For example:

“Most hospitals are state-run. Most hospices and nursing homes are private but government-funded. The government heavily subsidises acute care. It promotes competition by publishing hospital bills; American health-care providers, by contrast, make their prices as opaque as possible to discourage shopping around. The government compels Singaporeans to divert up to 10.5% of their wages into “Medisave” accounts (employers contribute, too). It also subsidises “cost-effective and essential” drugs; unapproved drugs, if available, can be prohibitively expensive.”

Second, Singapore emphasises “personal responsibility supported by coercion and a lean but robust safety net.”

This is evident in public housing.

“More than 90% of Singaporeans own their own homes, but most are government-built flats bought at government-set prices, often with government-provided grants,” the article says. “Where Singaporeans can live depends in part on their ethnicity: to avoid racial ghettos, Singapore requires the composition of public-housing blocks to reflect the country’s racial make-up.”

The newspaper says such social engineering would appal Western voters and be struck down by Western courts.

“Yet Singaporeans accept it,” says The Economist. “Paternalism has enforced racial calm.”

It went on: “The country’s Chinese majority has been spared the atrocities visited on the Chinese diaspora in, say, Malaysia and Indonesia.”

The paper added: “More important, the trade-off that Lee Kuan Yew offered still holds: illiberal politics in exchange for good government and high living standards.”

At the end of the day, while “Singapore’s leaders vigorously defend their reputations with defamation suits, and gerrymander constituencies to help preserve the ruling party’s majority…  they deliver safe streets, first-rate health care, good public transport and a clean, responsive public administration.”

The paper then concluded:

“Lee [Kuan Yew]’s bargain is hard to emulate. Both parts have been essential to Singapore’s success. Yet admirers such as Mr Duterte and Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman, are adept only at the authoritarian bit, without the clean government or wealth creation. Singapore’s rich-world admirers, meanwhile, lack the tame politics that allow Singapore’s rulers to set policy without worrying too much about the next election—or their citizens’ civil liberties.”

You can read the full article on The Economist here.

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