Inquiring minds wish to know for the purposes of the next few days…I have my own views, but first would love to hear yours.
From a recent cook-off challenge:
Singapore’s humble but beloved hawkers have triumphed 2-1 in a cook-off with the legendary Gordon Ramsay who runs restaurants that have earned not just one but three Michelin stars. Are our hawkers then worthy of Michelin star attention? Well, they may not be decorated, but it looks like they still win the hearts of locals.
Nearly 5,000 people thronged the Singtel Hawker Heroes Challenge to see the Ramsay, the Hell’s Kitchen star, pit his skills against three hawkers who were chosen in a national poll drawing 2.5 million votes. The chef only had two days to learn and prepare the same hawker food that these local masters have been doing for decades.
There is, by the way, plenty of talk that the hawkers are an endangered species. With rising rents, various bureaucracies are asking whether the hawker centers really deserve so much dedicated land in the city plans. There’s also a question whether the younger generation wants to take on jobs which are so stressful and demanding, when so many other good jobs are available in Singapore. Other hawker centers are suffering in quality just a wee bit from the gentrification of their neighborhoods. Let’s hope for the best but I fear for the worst.
My Singapore food recommendation, by the way, is the Ghim Moh Market and Food Centre, which has numerous gems and is one of those “pre-upgrade” hawker centers, with a design dating from 1977. (Unfortunately they will close it for renovation next year, which will probably mean the loss of some hawkers.) My favorite dish was the dosa at Heaven’s Indian Curry, arguably the best I have had, including in South India. They open at six a.m. each morning, every single day, see my remarks above. Their dishes cost either one dollar or two dollars (roughly, actually less).
That is the title of the new and remarkable Bilahari Kausikan Op-Ed in The Straits Times. I will serve up some bits, and please note this is now the world we live in:
Evoking the Long March [by Xi] is intended to prepare the Chinese people for a prolonged struggle with the US. It was, in effect, a tacit admission of the CCP’s mistakes with the consequent need for a retreat, while holding out the promise of ultimate victory…
The Chinese have long memories. Despite our constant denials, they still consider Singapore a “Chinese country” and may feel entitled to our support and will not quickly forget if we are regarded as insufficiently helpful in their time of need.
Some in the Trump administration also seem inclined to view the issue in racial terms. As the only ethnic Chinese-origin majority sovereign state outside greater China, we may be subject to special scrutiny.
What Singaporeans need to understand better is that, under present circumstances, there may be no sweet spot we can occupy that will keep both the Chinese and the Americans simultaneously happy. There is no silver bullet, and it is a fool’s errand to look for one.
Neither can we just lie low and hope for the best. You may not look for trouble but trouble may come looking for you. And trouble is all the more likely to seek you out if either side thinks you are, or can be, intimidated.
We must have the courage to pursue our own national interests. Sometimes our national interests may lead us to tilt one way, sometimes the other. But it must always be our national interest that guides us and nothing else.
Both the Chinese and Americans may not be too happy with us for pursuing our own interests. But Singapore does not exist to give joy to American or Chinese hearts. So long as neither side is so unhappy that it dismisses us as unredeemable, we can live with their unhappiness and manage it…
Our more complex domestic politics is a complication. I see still faint but distinct signs that some section of our population – how large, I do not know – either for transactional economic reasons, or unthinking ethnic sympathies, or sheer chauvinism, is beginning to look at the current US-China tensions through a racial lens.
As US-China competition heats up, this tendency may be accentuated. This is the greatest danger to Singapore in this new phase of US-China competition. It is still at a nascent stage and must be checked, if necessary by the prophylactic exercise of the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state, before external and internal forces act and react with each other in a vicious spiral downwards.
If we hold together, we can manage the external complications. If we do not, and the social compact which is the foundation on which modern Singapore was built is strained or broken, these internal stresses may make the external complications unmanageable.
Since this period of US-China tensions will be prolonged, this is not a challenge that lends itself to definitive solutions. Managing it requires continual vigilance and periodic decisive action. It is our own Long March.
Do read the whole thing, as I said above this is now the world we live in.
I believe it was Dan Wang who loved the Robert Tombs book The English and Their History and asked for more books of that nature. Another reader wrote in and wanted to know what was the best book about each country.
To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country. So your favorite book on the French Revolution is not eligible, for instance, nor is Allan Janik’s and Stephen Toulmin’s splendid Wittgenstein’s Vienna. I thought I would start with a list of some nominees, solicit your suggestions in the comments, and later produce a longer post with all the correct answers.
2. Germany: Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century.
3. Italy: Luigi Barzini, The Italians. Or David Gilmour, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Peoples, and their Regions.
4. Spain: John Hooper, The Spaniards.
5. France: Graham Robb: The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography.
6. Portugal: Barry Hatton, The Portuguese: A Modern History.
7. Ireland: Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History.
8. Russia: Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians. One of the very best books on this list.
9. Ukraine: Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.
11. Canada: ????. Alex?
12. Mexico; Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans. Even though it, like the Barzini book, is out of date.
13. Caribbean: Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Island People: The Caribbean and the World.
I’ll give South America further thought, Africa and the Middle East too.
14. Cambodia: Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
16. Pakistan: Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country.
17. China: ???? I find this to be a tough call.
18. Singapore and Malaysia: Jim Baker, Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore.
19. Japan: In the old days I might have suggested Karel von Wolferen, but now it is badly out of date. What else?
Joe Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region gets tossed in somewhere too.
All of those are subject to revision.
Do leave your suggestions in the comments, and at some point I’ll publish an expanded and updated version of this post, with additional countries too, or perhaps split into multiple posts by region.
Here 22 ambassadors recommend one book to read before visiting their country, mostly mediocre selections. Here is a suggested list of the most iconic book from each country. Don’t take me as endorsing those.
Andrea Matranga emails me:
“You have to drop a pin somewhere. Thereafter, at each meal time, a random person living within 30km of that pin will be selected, and you will eat an exact copy of what he is eating. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for the rest of your life, a different random person, but always within 30km of that pin. Where do you drop it?”
I go for the three s’s: Singapore, Seoul, and Sicily. You wish to avoid junk food, while also making sure that cheap food can hit some of the peaks. Seoul is especially good for vegetables, Singapore for variety, Sicily for yummy!
What is your pick?
In a previous column on India, and how it suffered under colonialism, I mentioned:
If you are looking for the upside of British colonialism, you are more likely to find it in the wealthier and better-treated Singapore or Malaysia.
Why might this have been true? Part of India’s colonial curse was its high population, which meant the British viewed it as a source of soldiers, and a captive market for goods, rather than an area whose value could be internalized through direct economic development.
When it comes the British history in India, I think of “letting the interior fester” as a big part of the core problem. Most of India was and still is interior. You might look at the coastal regions, but given that British policy forced India to accept free trade for British goods, without receiving the same privileges in return, the coastal regions became rent-seeking imperial clusters more than possible rivals to Hong Kong or for that matter Manchester.
Singapore, in contrast, was built around its port, and the British encouraged further developments in that direction, even as early as Raffles in the 1820s. The city didn’t/doesn’t have much of an interior or for that matter much population (about 1,000 when the British took over). Keeping the people servile didn’t seem worth the trouble, because they could neither fight nor buy in great numbers. Instead, you can think of British policy as trying, selfishly, to maximize the value of Singaporean land to the British. But that wasn’t such a nasty process, as the British Navy made Singapore more focal as a trade center, with a later boost from the opening of the Suez Canal. Note that as late as the mid-1960s, just before independence, about 20 percent of Singaporean gdp was British defense spending.
Singapore as port and entrepot developed “the entire nation,” all the more as the induced spirit of enterprise later spread to manufacturing. This in turn gave the territory the possibility of a relatively inclusive and egalitarian future. Unlike with India, the British rulers never imagined a future where Singapore might threaten them economically, or politically, and so they could just let matters rip. The British felt, more or less correctly (until the Japanese invasion), that improvements in the value of Singapore would be captured by them.
So it was “keeping an option on captive buyers and fighters” (India) vs. “maximizing the value of the land for Empire” (Singapore). Both were selfish strategies, but the latter did better for the colony in question. Hong Kong seems to fit comfortably into this framework, though other cases might be considered (Barbados vs. Guyana? Ghana vs. Uganda?).
Singapore also benefited from having most of its relevant colonization come later, whereas India had a damaging East India Company period in the 17th and 18th centuries, when imperialism often was more brutal and less sophisticated.
Non-Singaporean Malaya/Malaysia would require a post of its own. In that case, and also with Singapore more narrowly, an evaluation of British rule cannot be separated from major changes in the exports and also corresponding changes in the ethnic composition of the territory. The Singaporean national anthem is still a song written in Malay, and by law it must be sung as such.
Two different people have asked me this question this week, so I thought I would write out my answer. My approach is slightly unorthodox, but here goes:
1. Go to the top of Marina Bay Sands hotel and get a view of the skyline, the harbor, and the Straits. Watch the ships queuing. This is one of my favorite views in the whole world. Most of all I am struck by the contrast between what Singapore has achieved so quickly and also its continuing ultimate vulnerability; the view captures both of those. If you can afford it, stay in the hotel and swim in the Infinity Pool. That alone justifies dragging your body all the way to Singapore.
2. Organize the rest of your trip around food. For Malay food, visit the hawker centre at Geylang Serai Night Market. For Indian food, go to the hawker centre at the entrance to Little India, and walk around the adjacent shopping bazaar as well. For Singaporean food, there are many good choices, depending on your location. The optimal time to arrive is by 10:30, before most of the queues start. Ask cabbies for the best chili and pepper crab.
3. Eat at David Thompson’s Thai restaurant, in the mall next to Marina Bay Sands.
4. Once it is dark, and edging toward 9 p.m., walk around the Merlion area and the bridge, where the city comes to life.
5. Spend the rest of your time seeking out “retro Singapore” as much as possible. Haw Par Villa is one place to start, but there are multiple substitutes, including the hawker centres away from downtown and their special dishes.
6. The Asian Civilizations Museum is by far the best museum in town. The zoo and the bird park are first-rate.
7. Much as Singapore calls itself a “city-state” I think of it as a “suburb-state,” unlike Hong Kong which is a true city. I consider this high praise, but Singaporeans often are slightly insulted when I put it this way. Your mileage may vary, but I say enjoy it as you would a suburb.
8. Talk to as many Singaporean civil servants as you can.
9. Take a day trip by cab or bus into Johor Bahru, in neighboring Malaysia, a thirty minute trip if there are no delays. The food there is even better and you will learn some political science. Read this book for background on both countries. Read Lee Kuan Yew.
Here is my earlier post “Why Singapore is special.” In a nutshell, it’s one of the world’s greatest trips, safe and easy to deal with too.
I thought it was a stellar year for fiction, even though most of the widely anticipated books by famous authors disappointed me. These were my favorites, more or less in the order I read them, not in order of preference:
Michel Houellebecq, Soumission/Submission. The correct reading is always a level deeper than the one you are currently at.
Larry Kramer, The American People. Epic, reviewed a lot but then oddly overlooked in a crowded year.
The Seventh Day, by Yu Hua. Perhaps my favorite of all the contemporary Chinese novels I have read: “Lacking the money for a burial plot, he must roam the afterworld aimlessly, without rest.”
Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz, New World, “An innovative story of love, decapitation, cryogenics, and memory by two of our most creative literary minds.”
Vendela Vida, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. Fun without being trivial.
The Widower, by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed. My favorite novel from Singapore.
The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. I’ll teach it this coming year in Law and Literature.
Nnedi Okorafor, Binti. Okorafor is American but born to two Nigerian parents, this science fiction novella is creative and fun to read. Ursula K. Le Guin likes her too.
Of those, Houllebecq and Ferrante are the must-reads, the others are all strong entries, with New World being perhaps the indulgence pick but indulgences are good, right?
And here are three other new books/editions/translations which I haven’t had any chance to spend time with, but come as self-recommending:
Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Dennis Washburn.
Homer’s Iliad, translated by Peter Green. Also gets rave reviews.
Singapore as an independent nation will be fifty years old this August 9. In the comments, a number of you have asked me why I find Singapore so special.
I would cite three features of the country above all else:
1. It is a place where large numbers of people are obsessed with both food and economics.
2. The citizens and leadership of Singapore have an unparalleled knowledge and understanding of economics, engineering, and public policy. In this regard the polity is distinguished in world-historic terms, and anyone who visits is enjoying a remarkable privilege to see this in action. In my admittedly idiosyncratic view, this is one of the best and most important sights of the contemporary world, more interesting than most natural wonders.
3. Singapore has created what is possibly the highest quality bureaucracy the world has seen, ever. Imagine a country where you can have a serious debate as to whether there is a brain drain into the government rather than out of it!
Singapore of course, like all places, has various problems and imperfections, but I believe its significance does not receive enough recognition from outside commentators.
Here is a good article about how Singapore is seeking to export its own expertise.
I found this to be a diffuse year in movies, one where old-style mainline releases lost their grip on a lot of multiplexes and opened up the market for more quality and diversity than we have seen for a long time. My cinematic self came away from the year quite happy, yet without a clear favorite or a definite sense of which movies will last the ages. Here are the ones I very much enjoyed or otherwise found stimulating:
The Invisible Woman, the secret love life of Charles Dickens.
Particle Fever, reviewed by me here.
Le Weekend, brutal tale of a vacation and a marriage collapsing.
Under the Skin, Scarlet Johansson in Scotland, to say more would be spoilers.
The Lunchbox, resembles an old-style Hollywood movie about a correspondence romance, yet set among the Indian middle to lower middle class.
Viola, an Argentinean take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, condensed into 65 minutes.
A Touch of Sin, Chinese, brutal, it did not see mainstream release in most cities, I saw it in London.
Godzilla, Straussian review by me here.
Transformers 4, reviewed by me here.
Obvious Child (under the Straussian reading only)
Ilo, Ilo, a movie from Singapore about a Filipina immigrant. And I had the best dark chocolate gelato I’ve had in America, right after watching it at the Angelika pop-up.
The One I Love, an excellent movie about mind games, love, and commitment. This was perhaps the most clever movie of the year and also the most underrated.
Lucy, the energy and style overcame the absurdity. That gives Scarlett Johansson two for the year.
Fury, an old-style WWII movie with Brad Pitt, there is a good David Denby review here.
Of that whole list, for favorites I would pick Fury as #1, along with Touch of Sin. Both of them need to be seen on a large screen.
For TV, the Modern Orthodox Jewish dating show Srugim was a clear first, this year I didn’t watch many movies on video but thought Terence Malick’s 2012 To the Wonder had been underrated.
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.
There were more strong candidates this year than usual. The order here is more or less the order I read them in, not the order of preference:
Jeremy Adelman, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschmann.
Daniel Brook, A History of Future Cities.
Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.
M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath.
Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.
William Haseltine, Affordable Excellence: The Singapore Health System.
Clare Jacobson, New Museums in China. Good text but mostly a picture book, stunning architecture, no art, full of lessons.
Mark Lawrence Schrad, Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State.
Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia gets rave reviews, although I have not yet read my copy. From the UK I’ve ordered the new Holland translation of Herodotus and Richard Overy’s The Bombing War and have high expectations for both.
If I had to offer my very top picks for the year, they would all be books I didn’t expect to like nearly as much as I did:
Mark Lewisohn, Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, volume I.
Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.
Apologies to those I left out or forgot, I am sure there were more.
This is oversimplifying of course, but you can think of the Singaporean system as “2/3 private money, 4/5 public provision,” with private hospitals on the side.
You can think of the UK system as “public money, public provision.” Again with some private supply on the side.
The US system is “lots of public money, lots of private money, mostly private provision.”
Many other systems are “public money, private provision.” In all cases there are various complexities piled on top.
Singapore now is making some changes, outlined in brief here. For the most part, Singapore is adding on some public money, but in targeted fashion (one of the changes is for people over 90 years old, another is for people over 60).
Here’s from The Straits Times (gated, I write from the paper copy) from Saturday:
The first [priority] is to keep government subsidies targeted at those who most need them, rather than commit to benefits for all. Universal benefits are “wasteful and inequitable”, and hard to take away once given, he [the Finance Minister] said.
That’s exactly the liberaltarian line and sometimes the conservative line as well. It is a principle I strongly agree with.
I am grateful to have had a lengthy dinner with several of the civil servants who run the Singaporean health care system (I don’t need to tell you about the food). I had the liberty to “ask away” for several hours and I learned a lot.
Yes, the system really is a marvel, and no it is not laissez-faire. The mix of “private money, public provision” has some marvelous properties for economizing on costs, not the least of which is that private hospitals and doctors and medical device salesmen do not become too strong a lobby. And the level of conscientiousness in Singapore is high enough that the public hospitals work fine, though they don’t in general have the luxuries of the private hospitals. Furthermore those public hospitals have to compete against each other for patient loyalty and thus revenue, and so the reliance on private money helps discipline public hospitals.
Whether those public hospitals would work fine everywhere in the world is a debatable proposition. It’s easier to monitor quality in a small, Confucian city-state with high levels of expected discipline. (Oddly, Krugman, who thinks the VA model in the U.S. could be generalized to a national scale, should be especially sympathetic toward a Singapore-like system. An alternative is that the public hospitals are run at city, county, and state levels.)
In any case let’s start by admitting, and keeping on the table, the notion that the current version of the Singapore system is indeed a poster child of some sort. And it is not being modified because somehow it has started spewing out unacceptable health care outcomes. It is being modified because, for better or worse, Singaporean politics is changing.
Now enter Aaron Carroll, who tries to argue Singapore is moving in an ACA-like direction. His post has been cited numerous times, but it is not insightful nor does it show much curiosity about the new changes in Singapore. It is mostly a polemic against Republicans. In any case the new Singaporean emphasis on taking care of the elderly isn’t well understood by a comparison with ACA.
For an additional and important point, here is a good comment by Chris Conover on just how limited Singaporean coverage can be. This ain’t your grandfather’s ACA, though with some luck it may be your grandson’s. Even if the Singapore model is not fully generalizable to larger, more chaotic countries, it shows that government health care coverage and finance, no matter what exact form they take, should and indeed can be quite limited and you still can end up with excellent outcomes, including better cost control.
I also should add that quite a few intelligent, non-ideological Singaporean economists and civil servants believe the new changes to be bad ones, driven primarily by the demands of citizens for goodies rather than by the quest for the best technocratic policy. The alternative view is that Singapore is now a wealthy place and it can afford to spend extra on these health care services and indeed should do so to limit inequality and also for reasons of political popularity and stability.
The Singaporean health care system is not done changing.
I heard that President Obama’s speech today cited this study of the world’s top airports. Singapore and Incheon (South Korea) take numbers one and two respectively, and the U.S. does not show up until Cincinnati [sic] appears at #30. I can vouch that Singapore indeed has an awesome airport.
Nonetheless, might I submit that the entire method here is fallacious, at least for purposes of public policy? An economist would rank airports on the basis of combined consumer plus producer surplus. In that approach, busy airports which attract a lot of customers will tend to fare much better, even if those airports experience more glitches. Because America is a large country, with a paucity of passenger rail service, we should expect its airports bear a relatively high burden and indeed they do.
Of course busyness of airport does not map directly into surplus, because price and service quality matter too. Still, you can take volume as a very rough proxy for benefits experienced, noting that a truly terrible airport actually will lose some business. Here is a list of the world’s busiest airports, the U.S. does quite well, and indeed #1 is Atlanta. Singapore is suddenly #15 and Incheon falls to #29.
You still might think that American airports require lots of upgrades, and maybe so. But also keep in mind that air travel in this country has declined since 9/11, some regional airports are being shuttered or are losing flights, so it is not obvious that quality or size of airport is the relevant binding constraint in every instance.
The survey methodology for the study is here, consumer surplus is not mentioned.
Coffee shops around the world have employed loyalty card schemes for many years, but now we’ve come across an interesting twist on the idea. In Singapore, a collaborate scheme aims to benefit eight of the city’s best independent cafés with the Be Disloyal disloyalty card.
The Be Disloyal disloyalty card — created by digital creative agency Antics, blogger Cortadito.sg and eight of Singapore’s independent coffee shops — was designed to encourage consumers to discover different coffee venues while bringing businesses together to grow as a vertical. From September until the end of this month customers can pick up a disloyalty card from one of the eight participating cafés. The card is stamped each time they purchase a coffee from one of the other seven cafés and, once the card is full, they return to the original café to receive their free coffee.
Competing with large chain brands can be difficult for small businesses, but teaming up with similar smaller companies can create stronger competition. Inspiration here for independent businesses in any industry!