Complaints Choir of Singapore

They sing complaints about their city-state, here is one excerpt:

Stray cats get into noisy affairs

At night my neighbor makes weird animal sounds

People put on fake accents to sound posh

And queue up 3 hours for donuts

Will I ever live till eighty five to collect my CPF?

It sounds like a terrible place:

Old National Library was replaced by an ugly tunnel

Singaporean men can’t take independent women

People blow their nose into the swimming pool

And fall asleep on my shoulder in the train

Full lyrics and explanation are here.  Yet it is now legally banned for foreigners to sing the complaints.  Here is a video of the Choir, definitely recommended, best video I’ve seen this year and do watch it through to the end.

For the pointer I thank Chug Roberts.


Libertarians hate Singapore because it is highly functional, somewhat authoritarian state. Rather the directly attacking Singapore's highly functional and productive system, they mock the trivial excesses of the government. Direct attacks are burdened by Singapore evident success... Hence the emphasis on alleged absurdities.

At some level Singapore is an embarrassment to both the left and right in the U.S. Singapore's regulatory regime is intrusive in ways that the economic libertarians of the right find appalling. Singapore's social policies are a nightmare for the social libertarians of the left.

A few examples. According to Wikipedia, the government owns stocks in firms that account for 60% of GDP. The statistic may not be precise. However, the point should be clear. Singapore deports guest workers if they get pregnant (and they check regularly). In some years, Singapore has executed more criminals than the U.S. (with a population of 5 million).

The point here is not that all authoritarian systems make the trains run on time. Many fail abysmally. The failures (think Burma) can be safely ignored because no one will ever use them as role models. By contrast, the Singapore Model is a challenge to the liberal model because it works and has inspired emulation. Indeed, if you can believe Lee Kuan Yew's biography, Singapore helped to catalyze the transformation of China from a failed communist system to what we see today.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, the current U.S. model is combination of right-wing economics and left-wing social policies. Our approach isn't exactly thriving of late. Singapore is somewhat the reverse. Hence the attacks.

Peter's comment is very good.

I have heard, from a friend who works all over East and South-East Asia, that Singapore is the only(?) country that is not corrupt. Is this the root of its success?

It used to be very corrupt, so that rather begs the question.

Also: Hong Kong, although that may stretch the definition of "country". Both certainly used British aid in suppressing corruption. Hard to bribe London from five thousand km away, but those British soldiers can still turn up at your country.

Perhaps Singapore was corrupt while the British still ran it. However, the People's Action Party has been resolutely opposed to corruption since the PAP took over in 1959.

In the early years, the PAP required its candidates to dress in white to emphasize that they were free of corruption. No one laughed, partially because libel laws are used for political intimidation in Singapore. However, it was also clear that the PAP had earned its colors.

As for the British, they may have inspired an anti-corruption mindset in Singapore. However, Hong Kong has never had a clean reputation and it was run by the Brits for decades after Singapore obtained its Independence.

The PAP used British military assistance to detain political opposition without trial during Operation Coldstore and after. The use of libel laws instead of detention is a much more recent phenomenon.

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You appreciate the irony of detention without trial in Singapore by the PAP. Apparently, the Brits were so scared of Lee Kuan Yew and his wife, Kwa Geok Choo that they considered interning them when they returned to Singapore after WWII. They were considered to be (and were) dangerous radicals who might turn Singapore into a communist country. Lee Kuan Yew and his wife were never communists, but did work with the communists to end colonial rule. Thereafter, the PAP struggled for decades to contain the communists (their former allies).

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Paul Romer discusses how Hong Kong moved out of a high corruption equilibrium here.

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Singapore is far less corrupt than its neighbors and ranks higher than the U.S. See for a source and for an overall ranking of Singapore that includes corruption data (from Transparency International).

Singapore's lack of corruption has almost certainly helped its economy. However, there are several other very successful states in Asia. For example, Hong kong is quite successful, but ranks lower according to Transparency International.

Perhaps the real significance of Singapore's anti-corruption policies has been to enhance the political legitimacy of the government. Note that widespread corruption in China has materially impaired the credibility of the state in China.

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Singapore is left-wing economics "somewhat"? While the government does control large chunks of the economy indirectly, the economy is largely market driven with low tariffs, low taxes, easy entry/exit, and reasonable-levels of competition.The word that always comes up when describing Singapore's policies is pragmatism. Singapore also shows that the left vs right debate that is so widespread in US is simplistic and pushes people into narrow (and shallow) thought processes.

And state planning. There is pragmatism but there is also a state actor who is in a position to be pragmatic, right up to and including your right to private property.

Which sometimes loudly and prominently fails - the government probably caused Singapore's first ever post-independence recession through a planning error, by trying to force industrial substitution through a wages policy - but it has certainly worked better than in many other countries. Recall that during the period of its fastest catch-up growth, Singapore was not a largely market-driven economy, given that it had not yet privatized many of the SOEs that are nominally-public, privately-operated today. Singapore today is not Singapore of the mid-70s, with state-run monopolies Singapore Telecom, Singapore Cable Vision, Singapore Bus Service, etc.

There are probably sharply diminishing returns to state intervention and Singapore permits itself to act, but subjects itself to enough trade discipline to not act too much.

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A theory of Singapore:

Creative destruction often creates a lot of uncompensated losers. It is simply too costly, transaction-wise, for these losers to be compensated by the winners. If the state is the winner via some state-led initiative, a democratic mandate legitimizes forcing these losers to eat their losses. Otherwise, these losers will resist the change, generating real costs that may remove the incentive toward innovation.

A social acceptance competition legitimizes creative destruction but whilst people often accept competition in one industry, accepting factor-price equalization is a lot harder. Nobody is visibly doing anything 'wrong'.

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"Singapore also shows that the left vs right debate that is so widespread in US is simplistic and pushes people into narrow (and shallow) thought processes."

Very true. Singapore's low tariffs, free trade, easy labor laws, etc. are all classically liberal (conservative in American terms). So are Singapore's low taxes. However, it is perhaps more instructive to look at the differences between Singapore and the U.S. Stated differently, Singapore has emphatically rejected the central tenets of supply-side / Republican economics.

1. Singapore enjoys recurrent fiscal surpluses, not deficits. No U.S. style "deficits don't matter nonsense".
2. Singapore enjoys huge trade surpluses, unlike say the U.S.
3. Singapore has a very large Current Account surplus, unlike the U.S.
4. Singapore limits spending in accordance with revenues. That's unthinkable in the U.S.

The U.S. political economic model amounts to bread and circuses sustained by an every more crushing burden of debt. It far from coincidence, that the 4-letter president (name began with 'B') pushed for massive tax cuts, welfare spending programs, and wars without even pretending to find a way to pay for any of it. That makes the U.S. the anti-Singapore.

Immigration provides another example. Net immigration to Singapore is somewhat higher than the U.S. (according to the CIA World Factbook). However, Singapore's policies could not be more different. Highly skilled immigrants are welcomed. Unskilled immigrants are not. Illegals are routinely canned and deported. A few years ago, the government deliberately reduced the availability of foreign workers in the construction sector to raise productivity. See "Singapore Takes Steps To Improve Construction Productivity" ( Quote

"While the foreign workers have helped to keep our construction cost competitive, we cannot afford to continue expanding our pool of construction foreign workers, due to the need for housing and recreational space, and the growing social costs that are associated with them"

"We will be cutting the Man-Year Entitlement (or MYE) quota gradually over three years. This would encourage firms to adopt greater mechanisation and improve their processes"

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I thought that most libertarians like Singapore.

Agree. For the health care if nothing else!


Some Libertarians love the results of Singapore's medical system, i.e. low costs, superb outcomes, etc. Presumably the approve of the fact that it's a single-payer system and works better than all of the single-payer models. They might also like that fact that roughly half of all health care spending in Singapore is paid for directly (out of pocket) by consumers.

Conversely, health care in Singapore is authoritarian. Health Care Savings accounts are mandatory and large. Health care is tightly regulated in some respects. Public hospitals account for 80% of all beds. Various public health care programs exist for the poor and the seriously ill.

Bryan Caplan appears to like Singapore's health care system (see However, he has no illusions about it. Quote

"Singapore is no libertarian health care paradise, but it does self-consciously try to maintain good incentives by narrowly tailoring its departures from laissez-faire"

BC's comments are generally good, however his summary is not fully supported by the details he provides.

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Over at this topic is discussed. Bryan Caplan asks for opinions and gets 24 of them. A rough summary might be that libertarians have a love / hate relationship with Singapore.

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Beehives also have an extremely efficient economic organizational model. No crime, no unemployment. But I wouldn't trade my life for a bee's.

Well put.

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Singapore is a "reactionary" state in a sea of liberalism.

Yes, and as such it's subjected to constant hostile soft power from the Western liberal consensus.

8, LA,

Thanks for stating this more clearly.

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I wasn't prepared for the rap section.

I don't think enough of you are watching the video.

I tried but it is incredibly boring.

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I had heard of this when it was current. I didn't realize how tame it actually was, just some mundane singaporeana, many of which have analogs in about any other place. Probably they tried to make it as mild as possible so it wouldn't be considered political... Didn't work, obviously.

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I've been to Singapore many times. They speak English, mostly. Plus you can drink the water.

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For those of you who propose the Singapore model for the US, yes you might end up with a Lee Kuan Yew in charge, but you also might end up with Mao Zedong. What authoritarianism gives you is a much wider range of outcomes than democracy. I personally don't want to hand over decision making authority on my life to someone else, even if they might be better than me at making decisions.

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I was surprised that I could understand the Sinaporean singing, both the accent and the word choice. I, an American, didn't even notice any British usages. The word choice may have been an affectation, since there were some sections designated for Singlish.

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Papers by libertarians credit Singapore's success to the market-oriented policies. Papers by critics of free market policies credit the very same success to state intervention. Perhaps the Singapore leaders were pragmatic, using whatever policies were most appropriate, without being a prisoner of a fundamentalist free market or anti-market ideology?

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