Yana guest post on Singapore

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.


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