When modern Singapore's founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, died in 2015, The Atlantic's obituary claimed that Singapore's transition in just half a century "from third world to first"—the title of Lee's memoir—"leaves students and practitioners of government with a challenge."
Singapore has combined classical liberal policies such as free trade, an open port, and low taxes with an authoritarian single-party government that centrally plans large swaths of the island's economy and infrastructure, plays the role of censor in practically every media sector, canes petty criminals, and executes drug offenders. Because of, or despite, this seemingly incongruous combination, Singapore for most of the 21st century has reported higher annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth than the U.S., as well as lower infant mortality, greater trust in government, a comparable GDP per capita, and a longer life expectancy. The island city-state, as its proudest inhabitants love to mention, is also cleaner than the U.S. and has much less crime.
Perhaps American elites should feel challenged by such a mix of liberalism and authoritarianism, but they tend to talk about Singapore as a policy buffet from which they can take what they like and skip what they don't. In 2006, President George W. Bush, while trying to convince Congress to pass a trade deal with Vietnam, traveled to Singapore, where he praised the country for demonstrating that "open markets are capable of lifting up an entire people." That same year, then–Sen. Barack Obama bemoaned at a campaign event that America wasn't "providing math instruction and science instruction for our children that matches countries like Taiwan and Singapore."
Somewhat ironically, Singapore became what it is today by treating the American system like a buffet. Lee Kuan Yew admired America's clean-cut corporate culture and wanted U.S. companies to set up factories in Singapore. So he reflected back to American executives what they liked (golf courses, smooth roads, comfortable hotels) while erecting significant obstacles to Western individualism. As a result of this strategy, Lee in the late 1960s was able to convince a host of major American semiconductor manufacturers to build factories in Singapore without importing any other major aspect of late 1960s American culture.
While many policy enthusiasts in the U.S. have something to say about Singapore, one group has taken an interest that borders on obsession: American libertarians and fellow travelers. From an orthodox libertarian perspective, Singapore should not be thriving, yet it is; many of us want to dismiss its success, but we can't.
The cause of Singapore's success, and to what extent it's replicable, is a perennial topic of debate among American market enthusiasts, going back at least to when Milton Friedman visited the island in 1981 and tried to convince an audience of academics and civil servants that the country was thriving despite its interventionist government. During the Q&A period, one person asked Friedman if he really believed that Singapore's spending on infrastructure counted as "excessive government spending." In a winding answer, Friedman argued that "Hong Kong is an even greater success, in the sense that it had so much more difficult a problem. And yet Hong Kong did it without government involvement of the kind that you were describing." This led to several audience members in a row challenging the fairness of the comparison, and Friedman attempting to explain that Singapore's success did not mean its model of government could work everywhere or anywhere else in the world. The audience would not accept this. "Have you seen the slums in Hong Kong?" one questioner asked. "Can you find a slum in Singapore?" Eventually, a harried Friedman concedes, "I would much rather live in Singapore than I would in Hong Kong. I am not questioning that."
That tradition continues today, and no three American economic thinkers have written more about Singapore in recent years than George Mason University economists Bryan Caplan, Garett Jones, and Tyler Cowen. The latter two espouse a mostly positive view of the diminutive nation in the South China Sea, while Caplan is a Singapore skeptic.
Are there practical policies that Americans broadly and libertarians specifically can adopt from a country that combines free markets with forced collectivism? Or does a close look at Singapore teach us why that country is, and will continue to be, so immutably different from our own?
New York City in Southeast Asia
Singapore is tiny: 5.6 million people packed into roughly 280 square miles off the coast of Malaysia. If it were an American city, it would have a land area slightly smaller than Lexington, Kentucky, with a population roughly the size of Cook County, Illinois, home of Chicago. To keep it simple, think of it as New York City in Southeast Asia. And not just because it's a small, mostly urban metropolis with lots of people.
Like New York, Singapore has what's called a "one-party dominant" government, which means that the same political party forms the government, election cycle after cycle, and thus does not have to govern by coalition or bipartisan consensus. In Singapore, the People's Action Party (PAP) has formed the country's government continuously since 1959, yet its leaders chafe at the idea that the country is undemocratic. "Nobody questions whether there is a democracy in New York," Singapore Minister of Law Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam told a gathering of American attorneys in 2009.
Shanmugam has a point. Chicago has not had a Republican mayor since William Thompson left office in 1931. Detroit has had only Democratic mayors since 1962. Washington, D.C., has elected exclusively Democratic mayors since the federal government created the office in 1973. And save for Republican Sanford Garelik's stint as president of the New York City Council in 1970–1973, that body has been controlled by one party longer than Singapore's parliament has been controlled by the PAP.
COVID on the Island
To understand why Singapore is not New York City, let's start by looking at a policy area with which many Americans are now intimately if reluctantly familiar: the government response to COVID-19.
Singapore was prepared, partly because it had been woefully unprepared for the 2003 SARS-CoV outbreak. The country recorded 238 cases and 33 deaths from that virus, the fifth-worst SARS-CoV outbreak in the world.
While those numbers seem inconsequential compared to the global impact of COVID-19, SARS-CoV catalyzed a major change in how Singapore prepared for pandemics. "The government did not just lay in wait because SARS-CoV was over," wrote medical researchers Oppah Kuguyo, Andre Pascal Kengne, and Collet Dandara in an August 2020 article for OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology. "Instead, they went on to establish 900 rapid response public health preparedness clinics (PHPCs) across the country, ear-marked for improved response to pandemics and outbreaks." When COVID-19 arrived in Singapore from Wuhan this year, those clinics—of which there are now roughly 1,000—served as a geographically dispersed sorting system.
After Singapore recorded its first COVID-19 case on January 23, 2020, the country relied on temperature checks and contact tracing to control the spread. Initially, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's government echoed the World Health Organization (WHO) by telling people to wear masks only if they were sick. But on April 3, Singapore's government switched to encouraging universal masking. That same day, Lee announced a "circuit breaker" stay-home policy for nonessential workers for one month beginning on April 7. On April 14, Singapore made wearing a mask outside one's home mandatory. "The minute you leave your house, you have to wear a mask when you go out," Education Minister Lawrence Wong told the media.
On May 2, Singapore announced that all businesses in the country would need to use the SafeEntry contact tracing system to participate in phased reopening. SafeEntry requires visitors, students, patients, and employees to check in on a mobile app any time they enter a business, store, school, or hospital—almost like punching an epidemiological timecard.
Despite these measures (and a high rate of compliance), Singapore had recorded 57,951 infections and 28 COVID-19 deaths at press time. Not a particularly impressive record on infection control compared to fellow "Asian Miracle" countries Taiwan (population 23.78 million), which recorded only 548 total infections and seven deaths as of the same date, and Hong Kong (population 7.45 million), which had recorded 5,285 cases and 105 deaths.
There's actually a simple explanation for why Singapore has seen the worst outbreak, as a fraction of its overall population, in Asia. As of August, 94.6 percent of Singapore's COVID-19 infections had occurred in company dormitories housing some 300,000 migrant workers.
Singapore needs low-skilled laborers from foreign countries, but it grants them fewer protections compared to high-skilled permanent residents. They are required to live in crowded dormitories where their movement is closely tracked, and COVID-19 has further limited their mobility. Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations that advocate for immigrant laborers claim many employers have for years quietly repatriated laborers injured on the job in order to avoid paying for their care. In other words, Singapore's centrally planned public health infrastructure didn't fail; its centrally planned immigration system did.
A Different Kind of Health Care System
Even with massive COVID-19 clusters breaking out in its worker dorms, Singapore's case fatality rate (CFR)—the percentage of people who die of COVID-19 out of all the cases identified—is just 0.04 percent. That's lower than Hong Kong's, and much lower than America's, which stands at 2 percent nationally as of this writing.
It is tough to fully explain Singapore's low CFR. One obvious factor is a world-class health care system that, at its core, reflects the disdain with which Lee Kuan Yew regarded both "free" government-provided health care and what he saw as grossly inefficient private models.
"It was quite obvious it didn't work," Lee said of Britain's National Health Service in a 2001 interview with PBS. "These are scarce resources. You've only got a limited number of top-class surgeons or doctors, and if you promise everybody that they are entitled to the same treatment, it's just not practical. So the system malfunctions, [but] they can't dismantle it now because it's too popular; it's gone into the national psyche."
When one of his ministers returned from a tour of several Beijing hospitals in the 1970s and insisted that Singapore go the fully public route, Lee Kuan Yew called bull. "I said I did not believe they had such medical standards for everyone in Beijing, let alone for all in China," he wrote in From Third World to First. But he also didn't think highly of American health care, writing that "American-style medical insurance schemes are expensive, with high premiums because of wasteful and extravagant diagnostic tests paid for out of insurance."
Lee wanted Singapore to chart a course that would keep the country healthy without overburdening the public fisc, so he and the PAP developed a multipronged approach that required nearly all Singaporeans to pay some portion of their own medical bills while using the threat of social censure and a network of competitive public hospitals to keep provider costs down.
In 1984, they introduced MediSave, a health savings account that was part of the country's mandatory savings scheme, called the Central Provident Fund (CPF). Adding the MediSave bucket to the fund (which also has a bucket for housing and a bucket for retirement) forced all Singaporeans to pay something for medical care. This was followed in 1990 by the introduction of a catastrophic insurance policy called MediShield Life that is mandatory for all Singaporeans and permanent residents. Finally, in 1993, Singapore introduced MediFund, a government-managed endowment for Singaporeans who cannot cover their medical bills using the above two funding methods, cash, or family assistance. Interest from the endowment is given to certain health care institutions to underwrite the bills of patients who can't pay. (The family help aspect is important, as MediSave funds can be used to pay the health bills of an immediate family member.) Although the country also has a supplemental private insurance market, Singaporeans under 55 must contribute 20 percent of their salaries, and their employers another 17 percent, to the CPF.
A network of public hospitals are meant to encourage what Lee Kuan Yew called a "self-administered means test." Patients can choose any kind of hospital "ward" they like, but the subsidies slide based on consumer income and ward grade. A public hospital's cheapest ward might sleep four patients to a room and lack air conditioning, while its most expensive wards sleep one person to a room and are cooled. While the vast majority of Singapore's hospital beds are in public facilities, there are also private hospitals. (The situation for primary care and clinics, where care is cheaper, is the opposite: Most practices are private.)
Singapore has found that making people pay a nominal amount for every type of medical service discourages unnecessary consumption and that the spectrum of service upgrades—from shorter wait times to one-person rooms—allows prices to work as a mechanism for allocating resources. The system is greatly aided by a requirement from the Ministry of Health (MOH) that all public hospitals report to the government what they charge. The MOH then posts facility-specific averages on an easily searchable website where consumers can sort hospitals and wards by how much they charge for specific procedures. Private hospitals aren't required to submit this information to the MOH, but many do so voluntarily. The differences are stark: The median cost of repairing a one-sided lower abdominal hernia at Singapore's cheapest public hospital ward in 2018–2019 was $966. The median cost for the same procedure at Singapore's most expensive private hospital was $15,729.
Singapore's high COVID-19 infection rate and low death rate reflect two sides of the governing coin. The country's health care system works well for nearly everyone who lives there and consumes less than 5 percent of GDP. (America's health care system, by contrast, does not work all that well and consumes 17 percent of GDP.) But the system's successes were partially undermined by an immigration policy—hardly unique to Singapore—that allows white-collar workers the freedom to socially distance while requiring employers to warehouse blue-collar workers in close quarters.
Noncompliance Is Not an Option
What about people who did not comply with Singapore's COVID-19 orders? Since 1994, when Singapore made global news by sentencing an 18-year-old American accused of vandalism to be whipped across his butt with a rattan cane, the country has enjoyed a reputation for punishment. COVID-19 has not inspired any rod sparing.
In May, an American FedEx pilot was sentenced to jail for leaving his Singapore hotel room during a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Brian Yeargan, 44, was told to stay in his room as a precaution because he'd flown through China and other hot spots in the weeks prior to his arrival. But the day before he was scheduled to fly from Singapore back to the U.S., Yeargan, still under quarantine, left his hotel room to buy a thermometer and masks for his wife, who had told him those things were hard to come by back in Alaska. He was busted by a security guard who stopped by the room to make sure Yeargan and his co-pilots were complying with the order.
Yeargan admitted his guilt, apologized to the court, and was given four weeks in jail. His attorney, Ronnie Tan, told the Associated Press that Yeargan was relieved by the verdict: He'd gotten only half as much time as prosecutors requested. In August, as Singapore was reopening its borders, it began requiring some people coming into the country to wear bluetooth and GPS tracking devices that would alert the government if they violated quarantine.
Yeargan, at least, understood enough about Singapore to admit fault and express regret. Around the same time, a woman named Paramjeet Kaur captured national attention after appearing on cellphone videos taken at a market on April 30. In the video, Kaur is maskless and loudly declaring herself "sovereign" (that is, a "sovereign citizen" who is not beholden to government statutes) in response to marketgoers insisting she wear a mask. "I have no contract with the police," Kaur tells them in one video. "They have no say over me." Several days after the market incident, Kaur was arrested, charged with violating COVID-19 rules and causing public disruption, and remanded to a mental hospital for two weeks before being released on $10,000 bail. No media outlet in Singapore has reported on her case since May.
Even minor quarantine violations are not taken lightly in Singapore. Tay Chun Hsien, 22, did not test positive for COVID-19 but was still ordered to self-quarantine from March 19 until noon on March 22. At 11:30 a.m. on the 22nd, he left his apartment to get breakfast. At 11:40 a.m., according to Singapore's The New Paper, a security officer "made a video call to Tay's mobile phone to check if he was home" and found that he was not. Perhaps because he ended his quarantine just 30 minutes early, Tay was spared jail and only fined $1,500.
Harsh Penalties for Drug Crimes
Even the most severe pandemic-related penalties look light compared to the fate suffered by Nigerian man Chijioke Stephen Obioha, who was caught trafficking just under six pounds of cannabis into Singapore in 2007. Obioha, who had moved to Singapore to play soccer, spent nine years in prison and then was hanged in 2016 for violating the Misuse of Drugs Bill.
A Malaysian man named Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to death after he was caught entering Singapore with 42.72 grams of heroin strapped to his thigh. A 2012 reform allows judges—who decide capital punishment cases without a jury—to give drug traffickers life sentences instead of the death penalty. Dharmalingam's legal team tried and failed to get his execution commuted to a life sentence once an independent psychiatric examination revealed that he had an I.Q. of 69, which is the cusp of intellectual disability in the United States and most developed countries. Both the appeals court and the prosecution conceded that Dharmalingam's I.Q. was as low as his attorneys claimed, but they said it was not so low that he didn't understand it was illegal to bring heroin into Singapore. Dharmalingam is now awaiting a response to a request for a presidential pardon. (In Singapore, the president is elected to serve six-year terms and is the nominal head of state, while the cabinet, led by the prime minister, is vested by Singapore's constitution with determining the "general direction and control of the Government.")
In May, as residents were social distancing due to COVID-19, one Singapore judge used Zoom to sentence 37-year-old Punithan Genasan to die for his role in coordinating the importation of 28.5 grams of heroin—about six sugar packets' worth.
In From Third World to First, Lee writes that his support for the death penalty dates back to 1951, when he defended a group of Singapore men accused of murder, shortly after finishing his law degree at Cambridge University. "I got all four men acquitted, but it left me with grave doubts about the practical value of the jury system for Singapore. Seven men, deciding by majority verdict, made for easy acquittals."
When as prime minister he set out to abolish juries for -capital cases, Lee did so on the grounds that Asian juries preferred "acquittal or conviction on a lesser charge" over ordering a person's death; abolishing jury trials would result in "fewer miscarriages of justice arising from the vagaries of jury sentiments." In an interview from the late 1990s with former BBC HARDtalk host Tim Sebastian, Lee said, "If you come in with a few kilos [of a prohibited drug], which will destroy hundreds, thousands of families, one death is too kind, because you are killing that family, every day, for years and years and years." When then told that the per capita execution rate in Singapore is higher than in the United States, Lee replied, "Per capita of what? Per capita of drug traffickers? Or per capita of Singaporeans? I am executing foreign drug traffickers."
If limited survey data are to be believed, Singaporeans are fine with all this. In 2019, the Ministry of Home Affairs published the first survey the government had ever conducted on Singaporean attitudes toward the death penalty and drug trafficking. Out of 2,000 respondents, 902 of whom were "young people aged 13 to 30," 97.8 percent "agreed that Singapore should continue to maintain tough anti-drug laws" and 97.5 percent felt "that drug consumption should remain illegal." A bare majority—52.7 percent—of respondents between the ages of 13 and 30 felt the death penalty was an appropriate response to drug trafficking, compared to 74.6 respondents over the age of 30.
The combination of single-party dominance and widespread public approval leaves this system—a brutal outlier in the developed world—unchallenged and largely unexamined.
Speech and Sedition
Singapore doesn't control just the pharmaceutical choices of its residents; it also controls most of their media choices. Consider that Singapore's buskers—the independent street performers one sees in public transportation systems and parks around the U.S.—not only need a permit (as is the case in Boston and several other American cities) but "are required to attend an audition to ensure consistency in the quality of busking activities," according to guidelines published by Singapore's Media Development Authority (MDA). Video games and movies "deemed to undermine public order" or that are "likely to be prejudicial to national interest" are prohibited. Press freedoms are nonexistent.
In 2015, the MDA revoked the publishing license of a blog called The Real Singapore because it ran content that was "objectionable on the ground of public interest, public order and national harmony." The site's co-founders, husband and wife Yang Kaiheng and Ai Takagi, were charged with sedition for publishing articles that stoked racial tension (for instance, by reporting "that a Chinese woman had encouraged her grandson to urinate in a bottle while traveling on Singaporean public transport," according to the Committee to Protect Journalists). Yang and Ai, who was pregnant at her trial, were convicted of sedition and sentenced to eight and 10 months in prison, respectively.
Meanwhile, The Straits Times, Singapore's largest news media outlet, operates like a shadow press agency for the government. Its former political editor previously worked for Singapore's Internal Security Department (the country's version of a secret police) and now works for the National Security Research Centre in the prime minister's office. The CEO of Singapore Press Holdings, which owns The Straits Times, is Ng Yat Chung, a former chief of defense for the Singapore Armed Forces, and most of the company's top executives going back to the company's founding have served in the People's Action Party. A dispatch published in the trove of U.S. State Department embassy cables that WikiLeaks obtained and released in 2010 claimed that one Straits Times bureau chief confided to an American official that the paper's "editors have all been groomed as pro-government supporters and are careful to ensure that reporting of local events adheres closely to the official line."
Controlling speech is also consistent with Lee Kuan Yew's philosophy. From Third World to First contains an entire chapter on "Managing the Media," in which Lee recounts the many times he and other PAP officials succeeded at reining in foreign media with lawsuits and reduced circulation (which is set by the government) in retaliation for their being "tendentious at the expense of the facts." Speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1988, Lee said that his country "allowed" American media to report in Singapore, "but we cannot allow them to assume a role in Singapore that American media play in America, that is, that of invigilator, adversary, and inquisitor of the administration."
The many sides of this debate occasionally meet at a stark nexus, as in December 2005, when the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) reported that Singapore had denied a performance license to a theater group that planned to put on a play about the country's execution of drug courier Shanmugam Murugesu six months earlier. Unfortunately for the performers, the play was scheduled to premiere the day after Singapore was to hang Australian national Nguyen Tuong Van (also for transporting drugs) despite formal protests against the execution lodged by the Australian government.
According to SEAPA, "local coverage of Tuong Van's trial, conviction and sentence has been almost non-existent in [Singapore's] government-owned media." The government demanded that the play be rewritten to omit any mention of executing drug traffickers, and the same week, an installation at Singapore's LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts was "altered" to remove a reference to Tuong Van. Artist Matija Milkovic Biloslav "had displayed under falling nooses a single standing stool carrying a card with Tuong Van's execution number, C856," according to SEAPA. "The college, which receives government funding, said the artwork was about suicide and hastily removed the card."
In 2019, Singapore's government introduced the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which allows the PAP to exercise the same censorship powers on social media platforms that it has historically wielded against print and broadcast outlets.
Even people who abhor the draconian policies in Singapore begrudgingly admit that it is a well-put-together place. The science fiction writer William Gibson visited the island for a 1993 Wired article in which he described the airport, streets, and buildings as perfectly maintained and the flora as immaculate. He could find no "wrong side of the tracks" or dilapidated infrastructure. The whole country was safe and polite and advanced. "Only the clouds were feathered with chaos," Gibson wrote.
Following the publication of the piece, which described the country as "Disneyland with the death penalty," Singapore banned the distribution of Wired.
Importing Less Democracy
Singapore is complex, but its core tension comes from the pairing of highly effective public and private institutions that take into account how people respond to incentives while engaging in shocking incursions on personal liberty and bodily autonomy. Imagine for a moment that it were possible for America to import what's "good" about Singapore—the effective institutions, the economic growth, the tranquility. Could it be done without accidentally importing what's bad?
George Mason's Garett Jones has some ideas. At the start of his most recent book, 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less (Stanford University Press), Jones asks readers whether they would "be willing to support longer terms for politicians, tightened voter eligibility, and a single, hegemonic political party in exchange for a 300% raise." Jones later points out that a majority of Singaporeans have done just that. They're 23 times richer per person today than they were six decades ago; the country's GDP exploded from just under $1 billion in 1960 to $372 billion in 2019. "It's worthy to discuss how to get to Denmark," Jones writes of the Nordic nation, which funds a massive welfare state with high taxes and a market economy, "but it's wise to discuss how to get to Singapore."
Jones' argument will be familiar to anyone who has studied the literature on the tradeoffs that come with granting universal suffrage. He cites evidence from around the world that strongly suggests democratic participation produces a Laffer-style inverted U-curve: Too little and too much democracy can both stunt economic growth, but the right amount of people power paired with a free market makes an economy go vroom.
Accordingly, Jones' prescriptions range from the purely technocratic (have fewer elected positions with longer terms between elections; appoint bureaucrats using "merit commissions"; grant independence to central banks and the judiciary) to the explicitly and purposely illiberal (require a high school diploma or equivalent degree to vote; disenfranchise anyone with a felony conviction). He believes his suggestions would lower the volume of the hoi polloi chorus and afford government actors—who would behave better thanks to their longer terms, and who would eventually be better thanks to a more informed electorate—the security to implement policies that grow the economy and keep inflation low, to the betterment of voters and nonvoters alike.
When Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un met in Singapore in 2018, Jones' boss at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Tyler Cowen, wrote a Bloomberg column sounding a similar note and suggesting that the two men could learn from Singapore's mix of big- and small-government policies. Cowen noted that Singapore is one of the few countries in the world where the public sector outbids the private sector for talent, thanks to the fact that "cabinet level pay may exceed U.S. $800,000, with bonuses attached that can double that sum for excellent performance." The country's culture of public service is also bolstered by "complex and overlapping incentives whereby top public sector workers are…respected highly and develop the personal networks for subsequent advancement in either the public or private sectors."
While these suggestions do not represent the full extent of Cowen's and Jones' assessment of what Singapore has done right, it's hard enough to imagine implementing just these two things. Legally restricting the franchise is out of the question. Universal suffrage is protected by law in the United States. It's just not going anywhere. Even when it comes to felons, the last 20 years have seen most states conditionally restore voting rights, while only three maintain a blanket ban.
Paying government employees more, meanwhile—especially in an era of multitrillion-dollar deficits—seems like an impossible sell to voters. It also might be a misdiagnosis of the problem. How many of the 17,000 employees at the Food and Drug Administration, which failed spectacularly in the first several months of the COVID-19 crisis, have an M.D. or a Ph.D.? Either the government happens to have hired the worst terminal degree holders on the market, or American governance is plagued by ills that better talent can't fix.
When the U.S. does imitate Singapore (whose early success, remember, came from imitating us), our politicians generally make a mess of it. Singapore courted foreign investment in the 1960s and succeeded in convincing Texas Instruments, National Semiconductor, Hewlett-Packard, and General Electric to reorient semiconductor production to the island country, boosting Singapore's economy into rarified heights. Compare that to Wisconsin's 2018 deal with the Taiwanese LCD manufacturer Foxconn. The company negotiated for $3 billion in state subsidies in exchange for employing 13,000 people, which comes out to more than $200,000 per job. Two years later, the factory is unfinished and will instead be a storage facility, and "high labor costs" have caused Foxconn to hire fewer than 300 people in Wisconsin.
Despite his admiration for Lee's legacy, Jones does not suggest that rich democracies go full Singapore, as "the chance of a horrifying outcome, even if low to moderate…is too high." But even his softer approach feels like a risky gambit for America in 2020, where neither the electorate nor the leaders of the two major political parties endorse the kind of free market policies Jones favors. It would certainly not guarantee a more libertarian country, considering that senators already serve the longest elected terms in government and seem comfortable taking extreme positions (nationalizing tech companies, to name a major one) without fear of political consequences. And while it's conceivable that even longer terms and a smaller electorate would create the conditions for passing unpopular-but-necessary policies, who's to say Congress would stop at entitlement reform? What, exactly, would stop a politically insulated government from being as authoritarian as Singapore, especially considering that the people most harmed by government overreach in the civil liberties sphere would be disenfranchised in greater numbers?
Pages Out of a Different Book
By contrast with his colleagues, Bryan Caplan has argued that Singapore is unique in a way that does not bode well for policy adoption in either direction. In a 2009 paper, he summed up the "Singapore paradox" thusly: The island nation "persistently adopts policies that the democratic process would overturn almost anywhere else on earth, but the same party keeps winning election after election by a landslide. Why doesn't a rival party promise to abolish the PAP's unpopular policies and soar to power? How, in short, is Singapore's political-economic equilibrium possible?"
Caplan probed several explanations in his paper, which he presented in Singapore. He ruled out the idea that the country is not actually a democracy, since it has free and fair (though not competitive) elections. Instead, he found strong survey evidence that Singaporeans were both "unusually concerned about economic performance" and deferential to the party that has delivered consistent economic growth for decades. The 2002 World Values Survey, where Caplan derived his data, reported that 58.8 percent of Singaporeans say "a high level of economic growth" should be their nation's top priority, compared to 48.6 percent of Americans. In terms of political culture, the differences were much starker: 3.2 percent of Singaporeans reported being "very interested" in politics, and 32.8 percent were "somewhat interested" in politics. In America, the World Values Survey reported those numbers at 18.3 percent and 47.2 percent respectively.
Based on both the last eight months of social upheaval and on the United States' decadeslong preference for swapping Democrats and Republicans in and out of federal power, Americans are almost certainly less deferential than are Singaporeans. And therein lies the rub: Being 10 percent less democratic requires American voters to trust elites and government far more than they do and, frankly, far more than they should.
Caplan is not the first person to take a stab at figuring out the Singaporean body politic, and others have also arrived at explanations that hardly suggest America could chart a similar course. Yana Chernyak, the assistant director of strategic initiatives at the American Enterprise Institute (and Cowen's stepdaughter), wrote a guest post for Cowen's Marginal Revolution blog in 2014 in which she posited that people "run in circles discussing whether Singapore is replicable based on its public and economic policies" and generally miss that "what actually makes Singapore so unique and probably impossible (or at least very difficult) to replicate" is its culture—specifically, Peranakan culture, which is passed down by the descendants of pan-Asian merchants and which holds a "positive view of commercial activity as the machine of wealth creation and basis of improving one's life."
Lee Kuan Yew was a big believer in the superiority of Singapore's culture. He wrote in his memoir of "fundamental differences between East Asian Confucian and Western Liberal societies. Confucian societies believe that the individual exists in the context of the family, extended family, friends, and wider society, and that the government cannot and should not take over the role of the family." This is why East Asians (Singapore is 76 percent ethnically Chinese) found so many aspects of American society—such as our focus on individual expression at the expense of collective cohesion—"totally unacceptable."
While placing his country's culture closer to China than America, Lee also argued that Singaporean Chinese have a profoundly different view of their place in the world. "No Chinese doubts their ultimate destiny after they have restored their civilization, the oldest in the world with 4,000 years of unbroken history. We, the migrants who have cut our own roots and transplanted ourselves on a different soil, in a very different climate, lack this self-confidence. We have serious doubts about our future, always wondering what fate has in store for us in an uncertain and fast-changing world." This may be how Americans would feel about our own country if we had to get all of our fresh water piped in from Canada, the way Singapore gets its water from Malaysia.
Culture, for better and worse, is as central to America's current predicament as it is to Singapore's, and American political culture is such that best practices are rarely nonpartisan. American Democrats are unequivocally opposed to abolishing the capital gains tax, lowering income tax rates across the board, and requiring that unionized public sector employees perform as well as nonunion private-sector employees, all of which are fundamental aspects of Singapore's "country as corporation" model. It will be many years before Republicans return to supporting free trade and immigration, without both of which Singapore would have died—and still might—on the global economic vine. The American health care industry, to name but one example of a private sector obstacle, would empty its lobbying war chests to fight against anything resembling Singapore's price transparency.
If anything, the policies Americans are most amenable to borrowing are the ones that are most corrosive: Among its more unappealing traits, Singapore's government is openly hostile toward media companies it doesn't own and has historically treated Marxists as enemies of the state, arresting them without the evidence necessary for a successful prosecution and holding them indefinitely.
While Jones, Cowen, and many others of a free market bent wish the U.S. could borrow some of the genuinely good pages from the book of Lee Kuan Yew, America writ large would rather read something else altogether. Thankfully, this is a country where we can read something else.
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