Yana guest post on Singapore

by on February 10, 2014 at 12:57 am in Economics, History, Political Science | Permalink

This is from Yana and by Yana, and she passed it along to me just after returning from India, though she wrote it in Singapore:

So I’m in Singapore this week and it’s always been my dream to come here. I love their health care system. I love their food. I love that it came out of left field (here is Singapore 50 years ago, and here’s Singapore today). But the underlying question I love is “why?”

Many people point out that there’s plenty not to love about Singapore, like their mandatory military service and capital punishment for drug users. But these critiques rely on the assumption that democracy and negative liberty are necessary conditions for economic flourishing. Once you’re Singapore everything gets a lot fuzzier. While complaining about Singapore’s autocratic management and lack of freedoms, nobody is asking whether Singapore might be a place we want. Namely, an apolitical society by design, great to live in by global standards but emerging due to strong, and sometimes strong-handed, public policy.

People run in circles discussing whether Singapore is replicable based on its public and economic policies. It seems to me that a third set of institutions running in parallel is what actually makes Singapore so unique and probably impossible (or at least very difficult) to replicate: the Peranakan culture and its predilection for commerce and trade.

Peranakan culture is a pan-Asian blend of descendants of merchants and traders from China, Malaysia, Indonesia and India. It is the culture both of Lee Kwan Yew’s family as well as that of a sizeable percentage of Singaporeans. This culture is a very powerful conduit for passing down a relatively rare trait: a positive view of commercial activity as the machine of wealth creation and basis of improving one’s life. We see this in a rare few historical settings, including the Industrial Revolution in Scotland as well as the American founding. It comes through in Singapore’s public policy, casual discussions with cab drivers (one volunteered to me that “Singapore is the best managed city in Asia”), in the museums, and in daily interaction with a wide variety of merchants. Young Singoporeans love to complain that Singapore is too boring, too orderly, and too strict on personal freedoms, but I’ve yet to hear any complaints about commercial society.

So when Peranakan culture was combined with the British Enlightenment model of governance in the 19th century, the result was truly unique. A set of cultural institutions characterized by positive attitudes towards commerce, innovation and globalization was combined with robust political economy in the form of strong rule of law, property rights and free trade.

Yet unlike so many other former colonies (my current home of India comes to mind), Singapore did not reject these values during its transition to independence. Most other colonies reacted intellectually, if not downright violently, against many of the values promoted by the British. But in Singapore, the continuity of broadly liberal attitudes toward trade and commercial society following independence was supported by continuity in liberal economic policy and enforced by deep-seated cultural attitudes.

To put it bluntly: Singaporeans more or less went along with the policies laid before them. Today that means a thriving economy in Asia with population growth of over 200% since the 1960s, the world’s second largest port, and a significantly more human flourishing than for many people in surrounding countries that didn’t take this leap. I just hope it can last.

A.B Prosper February 10, 2014 at 1:23 am

Singapore has one truly massive problem though, the one that may bring it down. The birth rate you mentioned back in December.

This low birth rate suggests to me that the current system in Singapore provides little happiness for the people there and that no matter how many immigrants are brought in such a society cannot be sustained in the long term . Also the diversity of Singapore at this time may (operative word,may) be diminishing its ability to create the social capital , thePeranakan culture that was used to found it.

The best solution is probably a signifucantly smaller stable population focused around kinship needs but the type of state Singapore is, is not going to like such a society and will resist.

How this will end up is wellbeyond me though.

SPP February 10, 2014 at 1:31 am

I had a similar experience on my recent visit to Singapore. In fact, my cab driver from the airport, who was a fourth/fifth generation Chinese, made a claim that Singapore is one of the happiest countries on earth (recent employment surveys indicate otherwise). But this “happiness quotient” came out as a distinct aspect to me during my visit. The government seemed to be running a media campaign to see “how happy you are” with the things around you, and life in Singapore in general. You could see such posters on MRT and other public transport.

Another important aspect of the society is overall tolerance of various cultures. I’m not sure if this originates from the Peranakan culture or the subsequent globalization. My two friends (Indians, one of whom is a permanent resident now) who live in Singapore attest that except with very old generation, there is little resentment towards migrants, even though this has affected job opportunities for the locals.

Doug February 10, 2014 at 1:41 am

Ultimately authoritarian countries can tolerate much more diversity than democracies. Democracies are in a perpetual state of low-level civil war where competing sides are trying to capture the state and distribute the loot to their allies. You can never be fully positive about importing people different than you, especially if you’re already in the majority. It weakens people likely to be in your faction and strengthens factions likely to be against you.

A benevolent, enlightened dictator, fully secure is his reign, presents no such worries. Doesn’t matter what the composition of the population looks like, government will go on operating the same regardless.

Rahul February 10, 2014 at 2:03 am

Interesting point. I wonder if historically too minorities have thrived more in less democratic societies? Not that much data to go by I guess.

Millian February 10, 2014 at 5:06 am

Good critique. The problem you hint at is that no dictator is truly secure, and a minority can be victimised as a means of binding the majority to the regime by pandering to their worst sentiments.

Ray Lopez February 10, 2014 at 6:04 am

Also the opposite can be true: Syria’s Assad uses the minorities to keep him in power, pandering to their fears.

Yana writes like her dad, good show.

The Anti-Gnostic February 10, 2014 at 9:22 am

@Ray Lopez:

The fear that the Sunni Muslim majority will act like Sunni Muslims? I wouldn’t call that “pandering.”

carlospln February 10, 2014 at 2:21 am

‘little resentment towards migrants…’

A lot more than before. ~ 18% of Singaporeans are millionaires, mostly migrants from Indonesia, China, etc. Increases in real estate values feed through to everything. Middle class being increasingly squeezed, and resentful.

As far as overall tolerance, emphatically agree. & the most meritocratic business culture in Asia.

Andao February 11, 2014 at 5:24 am

It seems much more like the tolerance thing is shoved down your throat. When looking at Singapore apartment adverts, you’ll frequently see “No Malays allowed” or “No PRC Chinese allowed”. I don’t have any stats, but I would guess wealth is heavily, heavily concentrated among the Chinese, and they throw goodies to Malays and Indians to keep them complacent. But in the end, the Chinese are controlling all the wealth, and doing whatever it takes to keep it that way.

I’ve spoken to several recent PRC immigrants to Singapore, and their experiences seem to be very bittersweet. Perhaps because they were working in rather low end service jobs, but they seemed more downbeat than PRC citizens actually in the PRC.

Doug February 10, 2014 at 1:38 am

“This culture is a very powerful conduit for passing down a relatively rare trait: a positive view of commercial activity as the machine of wealth creation and basis of improving one’s life.”

Isn’t this the reason that New York rose to economic supremacy over other rival American cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston and Newport. NYC is really the only place in America with Dutch roots, and Holland has traditionally been the most commercial-positive culture anywhere in Europe. New Yorkers have always revered the commercial elite, whereas New Englanders preferred the intellectual elite of the universities and Southerners their landed aristocracy.

Alexei Sadeski February 10, 2014 at 3:03 am

That’s what I’ve always thought as well.

So Much For Subtlety February 10, 2014 at 3:10 am

So the harbor and the great big canal bringing in the plentiful bounty of the mid-West had nothing to do with it then?

Millian February 10, 2014 at 5:38 am

Yup. To be fair, the canal came after New York’s pre-eminence. But the natural harbour, and the huge wealth that the slave trade gave to New York City, came before.

Rahul February 10, 2014 at 3:32 am

Was the commerce reverence a Jewish thing? Or not really?

Doug February 10, 2014 at 3:47 am

I would guess the causality goes in reverse. Jews moved to New York because they’re simpatico with Dutch-rooted commercial culture. Along the same lines the Netherlands had the highest Jewish concentration in pre-holocaust Western Europe (1.8% vs 0.6-0.75 for France, Britain, Belgium and Germany).

Rahul February 10, 2014 at 3:57 am

Well I was wondering about Netherlands really. I assumed it was such a thriving trading community partly because of the Jews that reached there after being exiled from Spain etc. I could be getting both history & causality wrong here. Dunno.

Adrian Ratnapala February 13, 2014 at 12:04 am

In the French history books I’ve read, around the 100-years war, the rich burghers of Flanders were constantly revolting against the monarchy, demanding civil rights. I expect their neighbours to the east had similar sentiments. They certainly did when they revolted against the Spanish. All this was long before the Jews fled Spain.

So Much For Subtlety February 10, 2014 at 3:58 am

I notice that nice sleight of hand when you use “Western Europe”. Because by Eastern European standards, the Netherlands did not have a large concentration of Jews. Poland’s pre-War population was about 10% Jewish. Jews who were more or less the same in terms of culture as those of the Netherlands. Although the Netherlands may have had more Sephardic and fewer Ashkenazi Jews.

And those Eastern European Jews so revered commerce that they were grossly over-represented in all the Communist Parties of all of Europe.

It is not a surprise that immigrants move to a wealthy city. Nor that they would flee to a tolerant one. Let’s not over-read the data here.

Doug February 10, 2014 at 5:05 am

There’s nothing indicative about Jews being in Eastern Europe. That’s where virtually all Ashkenazim were prior to 1600. Western Europe developed centralized states much earlier, virtually all of which expelled Jews. Consequently the entirety of the Ashkenazi population wound up to the East of the Holy Roman Empire. Of course Eastern Europe is going to have much higher concentration of Jews, this has nothing to do with cultural affinity but rather historical accident.

Jewish distribution in Western Europe though represents much more deliberate cultural selection because almost all of it came post-1600, representing a specific immigration wave of opportunity rather than exile. In addition Western European Jews were quite culturally different than Eastern counterparts, specifically much more Western and integrated into their communities. For example most German and Dutch Jews celebrated Christmas. Another example is the King of Denmark and many other Danes personally risking his life to shield and eventually evacuate Jews during the Nazi occupation. In contrast Poles and other Eastern Europeans went though little to no effort to protect local Jews and often actively participated themselves. The primary difference being that Western Jews were actively integrated into their communities, and people saw them as fellow countrymen. Whereas strict separation was the norm in Eastern Europe.

Behemot February 10, 2014 at 7:34 am

@ Doug

Factually incorrect.

“In contrast Poles and other Eastern Europeans went though little to no effort to protect local Jews and often actively participated themselves. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/02/yana-guest-post-on-singapore.html#comments

Poland

6,394

The largest contingent.[3] It includes a wide variety of individuals of different occupations and organisations activists, including Irena Sendler (Polish social worker who served in the Polish Underground and the Żegota resistance organization in Warsaw, saving 2,500 Jewish children); Jan Karski (who reported the situation of the Jews in occupied Poland); Tadeusz Pankiewicz (a Kraków pharmacist), Henryk Sławik (a social worker); Rudolf Weigl (a scientist); Stefan Korboński (a politician), Sister Bertranda (a Roman Catholic nun); Eryk Lipiński (a comedian); Franciszek and Magdalena Banasiewicz (a married couple of painters); Irena Adamowicz (a leader scout); Maria Kotarba (a Polish Resistance fighter); the Podgórski sisters (shop assistants); Józef and Wiktoria Ulma (a family of farmers murdered with their six children for helping Jews); Leopold “Poldek” Socha (a sewer inspector who hid a group of Jews in a remote corner of the Lviv sewers); and writer/activist Zofia Kossak-Szczucka (see Polish Righteous among the Nations for additional names).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Righteous_among_the_Nations_by_country

Graf February 10, 2014 at 11:40 am

Jews expelled from Western countries ended up in 1,000 of miles east? No, most migrations were a few hundred miles and often temporary. Spanish converted or moved to Alexandria or elsewhere along the Mediteranean. Various Italian city states were also welcoming at different times.

Peter Schaeffer February 10, 2014 at 11:46 am

Rahul,

“Was the commerce reverence a Jewish thing? Or not really?”

No. The number of Jews in New York in 1750, 1800, or even 1850 was quite low. The entire Jewish population of the United States in 1800 was only 2,500 (Library of Congress) or 0.04% of the population. See also “JEWISH HOUSEHOLD AND POPULATION ESTIMATES”,. Quote

“Not long after its humble beginnings, New York’s Jewish population began to grow — slowly at first and then gaining speed. For most of the 17th and 18th centuries, Jews constituted a mere 1% to 2% of New York City’s total population, a time when Long Island and Westchester housed few people let alone many Jews. In the mid-1800s, those with Spanish and Portuguese ancestries were joined by a large influx of Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Poland, bringing the Jewish population up to 3% to 4% of the city’s population. By 1880, Jews numbered 80,000 out of 1.9 million people.

Explosive growth occurred from 1880 to 1920. The great migration from Eastern Europe brought more than a million Jews to these shores along with far smaller numbers of Jews of Syrian, Turkish, and Greek extraction. By 1920 or so, the Jewish population expanded twentyfold, to more than 1.6 million, fully 29% of the city’s population. These largely Yiddish-speaking, often impoverished immigrants and their American born children were markedly different both culturally and socioeconomically from their predecessors — so-called German Jews who constituted the community’s elite in the first part of the 20th century.”

The early Jewish population of New York (and the United States) was small, but distinctly more elite in character. It was also typically Sephardic, not Ashkenazi.

Peter Schaeffer February 10, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Rahul,

“Was the commerce reverence a Jewish thing? Or not really?”

As others have pointed out, the Dutch deserve more of the credit for New York becoming a commercial center. I will add that it was the Dutch who enabled the first Jews to settle in New York. Actually the Dutch were divided on this point. Peter Stuyvesant wanted them out. The Dutch East India company thought otherwise.

See http://nychistory.blogspot.com/2010/08/return-to-establishment-of-shearith.html for one article. As it turns out, the early history of Jews in New York City has been very well documented. See 350th.org/history/300AJHSpub.pdf for a very long version of the same story.

Rahul February 11, 2014 at 12:05 am

@Peter Schaeffer:

Thanks! Very interesting.

Matt February 10, 2014 at 2:55 pm

“This culture is a very powerful conduit for passing down a relatively rare trait: a positive view of commercial activity as the machine of wealth creation and basis of improving one’s life.”
Isn’t this the reason that New York rose to economic supremacy over other rival American cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston and Newport. NYC is really the only place in America with Dutch roots, and Holland has traditionally been the most commercial-positive culture anywhere in Europe. New Yorkers have always revered the commercial elite, whereas New Englanders preferred the intellectual elite of the universities and Southerners their landed aristocracy.

Cause and effect are getting all mixed up here my man.

A “culture first” view of positive predisposition to trade is a great tool for entrenched commercial classes to propagandise for- “If we just believe in commerce, we’ll all get rich!”. Great for manufacture consent to scamming those economic actors who are not commercialists left, right and center.

A “commercial success first” view of positive predisposition to trade, on the other hand, probably merely *actually* explains positive predisposition to trade – i.e. its those who’ve got rich through it (and who’ve been able to get rich from it due to their merits and chance) that like it.

foochoochoon February 10, 2014 at 1:53 am

“Peranakan Chinese and Baba-Nyonya are terms used for the descendants of late 15th and 16th-century Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian archipelago and British Malaya” – In short, Chinese culture.

k February 10, 2014 at 2:51 am

peranakans remain a minority in singapore. the majority of the ethnic chinese in singapore immigrated here or are descendants of those who immigrated here since the 1940s.

david February 10, 2014 at 4:04 am

But the British-aligned Peranakans/English-speaking Chinese rule the dialect-speaking Chinese, not the other way around, even when the latter were the majority.

So Much For Subtlety February 10, 2014 at 3:14 am

Actually the Baba Chinese are those of Chinese racial origins who are culturally more or less Malay. They speak Malay as a first language. Or they used to before Lee Kwan-yew got to their children.

And Lee’s family is not Peranakan. They went straight from China to English education. Lee’s family called him Harry until he went into politics and needed to use his Chinese name.

david February 10, 2014 at 4:06 am

Lee’s family is Peranakan on his mother’s side; the British found the Peranakans very useful for mediating between Chinese coolies/merchants and the local Malay villagers, and so many Peranakans became English-speaking civil servants (as Lee’s own family did).

Someone from the other side February 10, 2014 at 3:38 am

Peranakan culture hardly explains the zeal for an efficient government (Singapore is the only place in the world where dealing with the government feels more efficient than dealing with the private sector – that most certainly isn’t true in China or any of the surrounding SE Asian countries).

nebulousfocus February 10, 2014 at 3:54 am

Is it the culture that explains the zeal for efficient government, or the personality of the dictators?

DavidN February 10, 2014 at 6:21 am

Not many dictatorships I know of have public sectors go hand in hand with efficiency.

nebulousfocus February 10, 2014 at 7:41 am

Point missed- How many governments of any kind have efficient public sectors?

Rahul February 10, 2014 at 6:27 am

Wikipedia defines Peranakan as “descendants of late 15th and 16th-century Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian archipelago and British Malaya”

If this is strictly true it excludes the Indian and other components of Yana’s “pan-Asian blend”? What gives? Are we expanding the definition to fit the story?

Govco February 10, 2014 at 1:16 pm
Seth Roberts February 10, 2014 at 3:41 am

When I was a professor at Berkeley one of my undergraduate students was from Singapore. She had a fellowship that required that she return there and work. Her big complaint about her home was the small range of jobs available.

Rahul February 10, 2014 at 3:50 am

When I was a TA there were tons of students like that from Singapore. It seems a common study abroad mode there. Most seemed very hardworking & decently intelligent.

jtf February 10, 2014 at 10:19 am

Very common; I had the opportunity to take one (but declined, partially because it would have required me to join the army and partially because I didn’t fancy working for the government of a foreign country). You get a full ride through undergraduate and often graduate school through Ph. D., but you then have to return and work for a set number of years. Among the people I knew it was a popular option for women holding dual citizenship, but not for men because they would first have to serve in the army.

Tiffany February 10, 2014 at 3:45 am

I’m from Hong Kong and my gut response to this post is that Hong Kong (Chinese culture in general) does not have a positive view on commerce, due to centuries of viewing serving the government as the high point of morality. Yet, Hong Kong developed economically along very similar lines to Sinagapore. I’m surprised such a one-sided, no evidence supported post would appear on Marginal Revolution.

Ricardo February 10, 2014 at 4:32 am

I would start by setting aside both Hong Kong and Singapore and look at the rest of Southeast Asia. Whether you are in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia, a sizable number of the big firms will be run by people who are not just ethnic Chinese but who, specifically, are Hokkein-speaking and can trace their roots to migrants who came from Fujian. Singapore fits this model as well as traditional “Chinese” culture there seems to have Hokkein origins although more recent ethnic Chinese migrants have hailed from all over China.

Given this, it’s not clear that Chinese in Hong Kong can shed much light on the culture of overseas Chinese communities scattered throughout Southeast Asia (including Singapore) who come from a linguistically and culturally distinct part of China.

Tiffany February 10, 2014 at 5:01 am

I meant that this post implies that why Singapore is a hard to replicate story because of a specific type of culture. I pointed out that Hong Kong is a similar story, yet missing that specific type of culture. I think these single cultural explanations of development often fail to explain a whole picture.

david February 10, 2014 at 5:38 am

Hong Kong also had an English-speaking civil service shoot its communists protestors, exile their leaders, shut down their newspapers, etc. It’s merely that the Royal Navy did it directly rather than via a local proxy.

guest February 10, 2014 at 5:22 am

I am not surprised that such lazy analysis appears on here. Cowen might be a solid economist in whatever his actual specialty is but he does a lot of pop-economics, pop-history on here if you are paying enough attention. Thats how you get famous in America, be an ‘expert’ on everything.

Nate February 10, 2014 at 8:30 am

“This is from Yana and by Yana, and she passed it along to me just after returning from India, though she wrote it in Singapore”

Christopher Chang February 10, 2014 at 6:24 pm

Exactly, I was going to make a nearly identical comment. Anything which is only true of Singapore but not Hong Kong, or vice versa, can’t be that important.

Chris H February 10, 2014 at 6:43 pm

Thank you for this!

I honestly hate these cultural explanations. They (with rare exceptions) appears to just be really lazy. First there’s at best weak defining of the relevant aspects of the culture, no attempt to carefully measure it relative to other areas, and chains of causation are generally more assumed than established. How do we know a culture is “pro-commerce?” Well they engage in a lot of commerce! Maybe the culture is just anti-poverty or pro-money and commerce is just a side effect of that. Or maybe they started becoming more commercial and then we read “pro-commerce” traits into their past. Indeed didn’t Alex have a post not long ago demonstrating rapid cultural shift in attitudes toward competition vs. cooperation in Brazilian fisherman in different conditions? Evidence like that seems to indicate to me that if anything, culture tends to follow other explanations rather than vice-versa.

Not to mention that Bryan Caplan would argue that it’s not even that clear Singaporeans are actually that distinctive in their pro-market beliefs (and supports the idea that Hong Kong isn’t). https://www.cscollege.gov.sg/Knowledge/Ethos/Issue%206%20Jul%202009/Pages/Singapores-Political-Economy-Two-Paradoxes.aspx

Andao February 11, 2014 at 5:36 am

Tiffany is right about this. I mean how do you explain the PRC? Just the one Chinese anomaly that happened to hate commerce for 40 or so years? If there was some secret Chinese proclivity towards commerce, I don’t think communism would have been quite so popular for so long.

More likely, it’s just that a minority with similar language, cultural, and racial traits (Straits Chinese) banded together, as opposed to the natives in Malaysia or the Philippines for example, who were more fragmented. Which explains why Chinese businesses are still so successful in these countries today.

Adversity is the mother of invention, or commerce in this case.

Michael G Heller February 10, 2014 at 3:49 am

Tyler, your daughter definitely has your smarts. Please tell her about this blog post I wrote last month on the economic history of Chinese merchants in Southeast Asia. I share her admiration for them. Nice photos too.
http://michaelgheller.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/the-china-dream-in-southeast-asia.html

So Much For Subtlety February 10, 2014 at 4:05 am

Yet unlike so many other former colonies (my current home of India comes to mind), Singapore did not reject these values during its transition to independence. Most other colonies reacted intellectually, if not downright violently, against many of the values promoted by the British. But in Singapore, the continuity of broadly liberal attitudes toward trade and commercial society following independence was supported by continuity in liberal economic policy and enforced by deep-seated cultural attitudes.

I am not so sure about that. I think Singapore did have a partial rejection of those values. Singapore is not a free trading sort of place. It is strongly authoritarian in the East Asian model – the State is happy for the economy to be owned by private individuals, but those private individuals have to be disciplined and controlled by bureaucrats. Singapore is just an extreme example of the Japanese MITI model. The PAP did not opt for the British system that Hong Kong got. In fact, and I mean this in a morally neutral way, Lee Kwan-yew seems to have been most strongly influenced by Fascism. Hence the Party logo and the uniforms. His model is corporatist.

Now some of that was forced on Singapore. Given their enemies – Malaysia and Indonesia (Singapore is having a dispute with Indonesia as Indonesia has just named a war ship after two terrorists who blew up a building in Singapore 40 years ago) – it was inevitable that Singapore would have to rely on the West for arms and support. Israel for military training.

But Adam Smith would not be happy with Singapore at all. I can imagine only too clearly what he would think about a government that thinks it is their business whether you flush the toilet or not.

david February 10, 2014 at 4:17 am

Malaysia is not really an ‘enemy’ in this context. Both Kuan Yew and Abdul Rahman relied on British armed support. Both also relied on British colonial police to support their claim over their respective ethnicities – Kuan Yew over the Chinese-speaking Chinese communists, Abdul Rahman against the Malay ultranationalists, both using internal security provisions. But Malaysia had to wait until 1981 for a pragmatic strongman to maneuver himself into power, whereas Kuan Yew got going from the very start.

Indonesia, conversely, has a complicated relationship with the West. The US/UK/Soviet powers condemned the Dutch attempt to reassert power in Jakarta after World War II, remember. And Indonesian territorial claims very a lot according to Javan politics. All of Borneo? All of Malaya and Borneo and the Philippines? Maybe none of it? Friendship with East Timor today, or bitter irredentism? What about Aceh, are they More Loyal Muslims than you or not, do you value being more Indonesian over being more Islamically pure?

Andao February 11, 2014 at 5:40 am

Agree with this. I always find it amusing that a country where 80% of people live in government housing and the healthcare sector is dominated by public hospitals is considered the apex of liberal economics.

CBBB February 10, 2014 at 4:19 am

I love that it came out of left field (here is Singapore 50 years ago, and here’s Singapore today).

So you could same basically the exact same thing about South Korea. If this were the year 1914 you could basically say the same about Japan. Neither of which fit this pro-commerical cultural background thesis.

guest February 10, 2014 at 5:27 am

You could say that about every East Asian tiger if you look back far enough. Only Japan had a whole 100 years of industrialization.

Chip February 10, 2014 at 5:12 am

Singapore is indeed a great place to do business, and the people are generally hard working, ambitious and family centered.

But people also look very quickly to govt to “do something” whenever there is an issue somewhere. And whether it’s the education system or restrictions on expression, Singaporeans are not very entrepreneurial or willing to take risks.

So they still need to import talent and risk takers, and the people continue to get resentful of the increase of foreigners.

How will it end?

nebulousfocus February 10, 2014 at 6:08 am

This.
It seems possible that one of the results of such authoritarian rule is a lack of critical thinking.

jtf February 10, 2014 at 10:22 am

Lee Kuan Yew once complained while speaking at the Singapore American School that when Americans went abroad they started a school on their own initiative, but overseas Singaporeans petition the government to do the same.

http://www.singapore-window.org/sw06/060411cn.htm

Millian February 10, 2014 at 5:17 am

Welcome Yana – My critiques of your critiques (some of other people’s critiques):

“these critiques rely on the assumption that democracy and negative liberty are necessary conditions for economic flourishing” – No, one can be a liberal in principle.

“Peranakan culture was combined with the British Enlightenment model of governance in the 19th century” – be careful about phrases like this, they prejudge. Most notably, India and Ireland endured unprecedented famines under British “enlightened” rule. They also give little credit to policy choices made by countries after independence, which matter a lot.

“Singapore did not reject these values during its transition to independence” – Singapore is run on a corporatist basis. It intervenes in a manner which would be repugnant to Mr Gladstone. Temasek is one of the most domestically-focused sovereign wealth funds.

“Most other colonies reacted intellectually, if not downright violently, against many of the values promoted by the British.” – It would be useful to remember why. Apart from a few tiny rocks, more valuable for ports than cloth or rubber, British rule was extractive and occasionally destructive (how else could they have afforded to make London look so pretty?).

david February 10, 2014 at 6:03 am

FWIW I think the remark about ‘peranakan’ culture is unwarranted too; it completely misses the depth of variation in pre-colonial Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, and how they reacted differently to colonial government.

The idea that local citizens obviously embraced British values is undermined by the very first election in 1955, where local voters supported David Marshall’s (a Baghdadi Jew) advocacy for rapid independence over Tan Chye Cheng’s (a British-aligned Chinese) support for gradualist reform.

Hoosier February 10, 2014 at 6:38 am

Who are the Singaporean authors, film makers, musicians or artists of any renown? That was always my complaint about Singapore and why I was never drawn to visit. It doesn’t strike me as a very inspiring place. This is compared to say Bangkok or Hong Kong.

jtf February 10, 2014 at 10:27 am

I would point to Chin Han (actor) and Edwin Thumboo (poetry) as the two most significant native-born artists. The former is rarely politically sensitive and the latter is common in Singapore, I think partially because its political subversiveness can escape a shallow reading. I find it hilarious that Thumboo’s poem “Ulysses by the Merlion” was actually engraved on a plaque near a Merlion statue by the government despite its withering criticism of Singaporean consumerism and culture.

Ziggurat February 10, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Indeed. There aren’t even any culturally oriented magazines – at all – produced in Singapore despite a population of >5 million. (At least not when I lived there 2007-2010). The daily press (e g Straits Times) is infuriatingly shallow – any substantial comments are always reprinted from the Washington Post or the New York Times.

Mickey February 10, 2014 at 7:23 am

Yana, while I applaud your effort to understand Singapore, I think you have seriously conflated Peranakan culture with capitalism.

You should specify how Peranakan’s view of commercial activity is distinctly different from capitalist’s view of commercial activity. It seems you conflated Singapore’s current capitalistic policies as a by-product of Peranakan culture and not its whole-hearted embracement of laissez-faire capitalism due to its history as a port since its inception. If you truly think that it is the unique Peranakan culture, you should provide some specific examples. For example, the pervasiveness of Peranakan culture in Singapore society. Currently, I don’t see the pervasiveness of Peranakan culture within the city-state, except as historical trinkets for tourists. Very few Singaporeans are familiar with Peranakan culture and tradition. Moreover, you mentioned that it is a culture for a “sizeable percentage of Singaporeans”. Currently, that number is about 500,000 people. With a population of 5 million, that translates to only 10%. I’m not sure if 10% can be considered “sizeable”, in light of Chinese and Malay cultural influence on Singapore. To argue that it is Peranakan culture, you should provide more concrete facts.

Similarly, a previous commenter remarked that you should be careful with the phrase “British Enlightenment model” as it is a loaded phrase. Again, many countries suffered under the “British Enlightenment model” (India, Ireland, Myanmar, etc).

Lastly, Singapore has always been a port city. One need only to look at other historical port cities (Hong Kong, London, New York, etc) to see that they generally would have a predilection for commerce and trade, regardless of Peranakan influence or not. I agree with your assessment that Singapore flourished through its liberal attitudes toward trade and commercial society which was a result of deep-seated cultural attitudes. However, I’m struggling with the way you reached your conclusion (as a by-product of Perakanan culture and not its history as a major port).

I understand that Singapore is not your main focus and so I applaud your effort.

Ian Leslie February 10, 2014 at 7:23 am

“Many people point out that there’s plenty not to love about Singapore, like their mandatory military service and capital punishment for drug users. But these critiques rely on the assumption that democracy and negative liberty are necessary conditions for economic flourishing.” Only if you’re a hardline economic utilitarian! Would you give up democracy if it meant more ‘economic flourishing’? I wouldn’t.

Wiki February 10, 2014 at 7:50 am

Doesn’t this depend on how liittle economic flourishing results from democracy? If the alternative is similar to a bad South American economy or widespread Indian style poverty, a lot of people would much prefer Singapore.

Millian February 10, 2014 at 8:38 am

Singapore is a democracy, though very flawed. Yana is arguing that “Singapore and X” involves too many contingencies to be a choice in the same way as “authority versus democracy”, and I agree with her.

jtf February 10, 2014 at 10:33 am

Singapore is at best a Potemkin democracy. Real democracies don’t give their government the power to: (a) sue politicians they don’t like into bankruptcy (b) use official harassment to prevent voting and (c) impose a GRC system to ease gerrymandeering and up the costs of opposition parties contesting districts. Just because they count the votes without any fraud (doubtful, in my opinion, but they keep it plausible) and keep some alternatives on a three-foot leash doesn’t give them the right to sully the label.

david February 10, 2014 at 12:20 pm

have you paid attention to state (not federal) US elections lately?

Andao February 11, 2014 at 5:47 am

60% of the vote = 93% of the seats in parliament?

Not very democratic, that.

Millian February 11, 2014 at 7:22 am

Still democratic. I agree that they should change their voting system, but a similar vote would probably give a similar seat result in, say, the United Kingdom.

Rahul February 10, 2014 at 11:33 am

India isn’t a good counter-factual but people often make it sound so. India wouldn’t be a Singapore even with a Singapore style partial democracy.

rayward February 10, 2014 at 8:25 am

Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference, but what impresses visitors to Singapore is the consumption; it’s like everyone just won the lottery and can’t spend fast enough. According to those I know who have visited Singapore in recent years, the conspicuous consumption outdoes every major world city, including Paris and New York. Facilitating trade and commerce may be important, but it’s consumption that propels the economy, and in Singapore it’s consumption run amok.

ChrisA February 10, 2014 at 10:39 am

As noted it is s little hard to attribute the relative niceness of Singapore to ” cultural” factors when there are nearby countries that have also reached similiar levels of development with very different cultures and history. I am thinking of Hong Kong, Korea and Japan. Also Singapore could be considered a city with the rural area in Indonesia and Malaysia. KL is also close to the same levels of development if you ignore the more rural areas. Truth is not that Singapore has any special sauce but that it is not screwing up. It is actually quite easy to make a fairly well developed country, just encorage businesses rather than hamper them, invest in basic transport infrastructure and clamp down hard on corruption. Simple but countries like Indonesia have venal politicians manipulating their people into thinking that mercantism is still a good idea so they can continue to skim. Singapore had a leader who was more ethical and looked to the longer term. Lucky them though they didnt get Pol Pot.

Sean Brown February 10, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Yes I agree, with caveats below. Also note that a lot of capital agglomeration and industry came from being a haven for wealth hoards (ill-begotten and otherwise) from Indonesia and Malaysia.

On the other hand, many Singaporeans I’ve met personally are quite smart, but do struggle with the lack of economies of scale in the city-state. So overcoming the lack of scale economies to the extent they have – though certainly helped by financial inflows + free-trade port status just like Hong Kong – is also pretty impressive. (Instead of becoming like a Caribbean tax-haven state, or something.) Becoming an Asian financial hub, “jumpstarted” by the SE Asian capital inflows, is one way Singapore has been able to do this.

Roger Sweeny February 10, 2014 at 2:10 pm

“IIt is actually quite easy to make a fairly well developed country, just encorage businesses rather than hamper them, invest in basic transport infrastructure and clamp down hard on corruption.”

It is actually quite easy to lose weight, just eat less and exercise more. That’s why everyone who is given this simple does it–it’s so easy!–and why there are no fat people in America.

sam February 10, 2014 at 11:45 am

Singapore can be easily explained by two statistics:

Illegitimacy rate: 4%
Savings rate: 40%

Switch the numbers and you have America, and that is why one nation is going up, and the other is going down.

The Other Jim February 10, 2014 at 12:10 pm

And don’t forget:

>capital punishment for drug users

The USA is not only going down, it is going down stoned.

CBBB February 10, 2014 at 12:14 pm

Bull%$& Bull&%$

Millian February 11, 2014 at 7:24 am

Huh? The savings rate is a technical point about old-age provision – if you included Western countries’ taxes offsetting pension contributions as “saving”, they’d look different too.

mulp February 10, 2014 at 2:46 pm

Reading the description of their health care system and I see that it and Obamacare have 90% commonality, with more”liberty” in Obamacare.

The parts of Obamacare that are designed to provide more rational pricing are already present in Singapore, and praised by many, but when it comes to implementing that same kinds of price transparency in the US, that is attacked.

Clearly, the Singapore health care system would never be supported by US conservatives, Republicans, or the health care industry.

Peter Schaeffer February 12, 2014 at 11:23 am

mulp,

“Reading the description of their health care system and I see that it and Obamacare have 90% commonality, with more”liberty” in Obamacare.”

Wow. The Singapore system is paid for by consumer using out-of-pocket spending and HSAs. Obamacare is paid for by taxpayers. The Singapore system discourages insurance and emphasizes cash payment for services. Obamacare is based on insurance and government handouts. The Singapore system uses public hospitals to deliver health care to the poor in a segregated manner. Obamacare is based on Medicaid and private service providers.

90% – Perhaps 1-5% would be more like it.

Casey February 10, 2014 at 7:53 pm

Too much nonsense gets written about Singapore. When Singapore split from Malaysia in 1963, it was able to take control of its immigration, and immigration policy has played the central role in Singapore’s economic success.

Firstly, with nation status Singapore was able to stop the unregulated flow of rural poor coming into the city state (Harris-Todaro). It is not a great stretch to imagine that if Jakata, Manila, Calcutta etc had been able to secede from their host countries, that they also would also be successful city states. As trade and commerce grew they had merely to exploit their favourable location and start-up infrastructure, and have had no need to share the spoils of success with the neighbouring poor.

Second, Singapore makes extensive use of guest workers (mostly from the sub-continent, low paid and sent home after two years – the child minding is done by Filipina nannies) to do the hard physical labour – if you doubt this is true, just go take a look. In much of the world such policies would be condemned as exploitive.

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