WHEN MODERN SINGAPORE’S founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, died in 2015, The Atlantic’s obituary claimed that Singapore’s transition in just half a century “from third world to first”—the title of Lee’s memoir—“leaves students and practitioners of government with a challenge.”
Singapore has combined classical liberal policies such as free trade, an open port, and low taxes with an authoritarian single-party government that centrally plans large swaths of the island’s economy and infrastructure, plays the role of censor in practically every media sector, canes petty criminals, and executes drug offenders. Because of, or despite, this seemingly incongruous combination, Singapore for most of the 21st century has reported higher annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth than the U.S., as well as lower infant mortality, greater trust in government, a comparable GDP per capita, and a longer life expectancy. The island city-state, as its proudest inhabitants love to mention, is also cleaner than the U.S. and has much less crime.
Perhaps American elites should feel challenged by such a mix of liberalism and authoritarianism, but they tend to talk about Singapore as a policy buffet from which they can take what they like and skip what they don’t. In 2006, President George W. Bush, while trying to convince Congress to pass a trade deal with Vietnam, traveled to Singapore, where he praised the country for demonstrating that “open markets are capable of lifting up an entire people.” That same year, then–Sen. Barack Obama bemoaned at a campaign event that America wasn’t “providing math instruction and science instruction for our children that matches countries like Taiwan and Singapore.”
Somewhat ironically, Singapore became what it is today by treating the American system like a buffet. Lee Kuan Yew admired America’s clean-cut corporate culture and wanted U.S. companies to set up factories in Singapore. So he reflected back to American executives what they liked (golf courses, smooth roads, comfortable hotels) while erecting significant obstacles to Western individualism. As a result of this strategy, Lee in the late 1960s was able to convince a host of major American semiconductor manufacturers to build factories in Singapore without importing any other major aspect of late 1960s American culture.
While many policy enthusiasts in the U.S. have something to say about Singapore, one group has taken an interest that borders on obsession: American libertarians and fellow travelers. From an orthodox libertarian perspective, Singapore should not be thriving, yet it is; many of us want to dismiss its success, but we can’t.
The cause of Singapore’s success, and to what extent it’s replicable, is a perennial topic of debate among American market enthusiasts, going back at least to when Milton Friedman visited the island in 1981 and tried to convince an audience of academics and civil servants that the country was thriving despite its interventionist government. During the Q&A period, one person asked Friedman if he really believed that Singapore’s spending on infrastructure counted as “excessive government spending.” In a winding answer, Friedman argued that “Hong Kong is an even greater success, in the sense that it had so much more difficult a problem. And yet Hong Kong did it without government involvement of the kind that you were describing.” This led to several audience members in a row challenging the fairness of the comparison, and Friedman attempting to explain that Singapore’s success did not mean its model of government could work everywhere or anywhere else in the world. The audience would not accept this. “Have you seen the slums in Hong Kong?” one questioner asked. “Can you find a slum in Singapore?” Eventually, a harried Friedman concedes, “I would much rather live in Singapore than I would in Hong Kong. I am not questioning that.”
That tradition continues today, and no three American economic thinkers have written more about Singapore in recent years than George Mason University economists Bryan Caplan, Garett Jones, and Tyler Cowen. The latter two espouse a mostly positive view of the diminutive nation in the South China Sea, while Caplan is a Singapore skeptic.
Are there practical policies that Americans broadly and libertarians specifically can adopt from a country that combines free markets with forced collectivism? Or does a close look at Singapore teach us why that country is, and will continue to be, so immutably different from our own?
NEW YORK CITY IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
SINGAPORE IS TINY: 5.6 million people packed into roughly 280 square miles off the coast of Malaysia. If it were an American city, it would have a land area slightly smaller than Lexington, Kentucky, with a population roughly the size of Cook County, Illinois, home of Chicago. To keep it simple, think of it as New York City in Southeast Asia. And not just because it’s a small, mostly urban metropolis with lots of people.
Like New York, Singapore has what’s called a “one-party dominant” government, which means that the same political party forms the government, election cycle after cycle, and thus does not have to govern by coalition or bipartisan consensus. In Singapore, the People’s Action Party (PAP) has formed the country’s government continuously since 1959, yet its leaders chafe at the idea that the country is undemocratic. “Nobody questions whether there is a democracy in New York,” Singapore Minister of Law Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam told a gathering of American attorneys in 2009.
Shanmugam has a point. Chicago has not had a Republican mayor since William Thompson left office in 1931. Detroit has had only Democratic mayors since 1962. Washington, D.C., has elected exclusively Democratic mayors since the federal government created the office in 1973. And save for Republican Sanford Garelik’s stint as president of the New York City Council in 1970–1973, that body has been controlled by one party longer than Singapore’s parliament has been controlled by the PAP.
Singapore has combined free market policies with a single-party government that centrally plans large swaths of the economy and executes drug offenders.
COVID ON THE ISLAND
TO UNDERSTAND WHY Singapore is not New York City, let’s start by looking at a policy area with which many Americans are now intimately if reluctantly familiar: the government response to COVID-19.
Singapore was prepared, partly because it had been woefully unprepared for the 2003 SARS-CoV outbreak. The country recorded 238 cases and 33 deaths from that virus, the fifth-worst SARS-CoV outbreak in the world.
While those numbers seem inconsequential compared to the global impact of COVID-19, SARS-CoV catalyzed a major change in how Singapore prepared for pandemics. “The government did not just lay in wait because SARS-CoV was over,” wrote medical researchers Oppah Kuguyo, Andre Pascal Kengne, and Collet Dandara in an August 2020 article for OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology. “Instead, they went on to establish 900 rapid response public health preparedness clinics (PHPCs) across the country, ear-marked for improved response to pandemics and outbreaks.” When COVID-19 arrived in Singapore from Wuhan this year, those clinics—of which there are now roughly 1,000— served as a geographically dispersed sorting system.
After Singapore recorded its first COVID-19 case on January 23, 2020, the country relied on temperature checks and contact tracing to control the spread. Initially, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government echoed the World Health Organization (WHO) by telling people to wear masks only if they were sick. But on April 3, Singapore’s government switched to encouraging universal masking. That same day, Lee announced a “circuit breaker” stay-home policy for nonessential workers for one month beginning on April 7. On April 14, Singapore made wearing a mask outside one’s home mandatory. “The minute you leave your house, you have to wear a mask when you go out,” Education Minister Lawrence Wong told the media.
On May 2, Singapore announced that all businesses in the country would need to use the SafeEntry contact tracing system to participate in phased reopening. SafeEntry requires visitors, students, patients, and employees to check in on a mobile app any time they enter a business, store, school, or hospital— almost like punching an epidemiological timecard.
Despite these measures (and a high rate of compliance), Singapore had recorded 57,951 infections and 28 COVID-19 deaths at press time. Not a particularly impressive record on infection control compared to fellow “Asian Miracle” countries Taiwan (population 23.78 million), which recorded only 548 total infections and seven deaths as of the same date, and Hong Kong (population 7.45 million), which had recorded 5,285 cases and 105 deaths.
There’s actually a simple explanation for why Singapore has seen the worst outbreak, as a fraction of its overall population, in Asia. As of August, 94.6 percent of Singapore’s COVID-19 infections had occurred in company dormitories housing some 300,000 migrant workers.
Singapore needs low-skilled laborers from foreign countries, but it grants them fewer protections compared to high-skilled permanent residents. They are required to live in crowded dormitories where their movement is closely tracked, and COVID-19 has further limited their mobility. Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations that advocate for immigrant laborers claim many employers have for years quietly repatriated laborers injured on the job in order to avoid paying for their care. In other words, Singapore’s centrally planned public health infrastructure didn’t fail; its centrally planned immigration system did.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF HEALTH CARE SYSTEM
EVEN WITH MASSIVE COVID-19 clusters breaking out in its worker dorms, Singapore’s case fatality rate (CFR)—the percentage of people who die of COVID-19 out of all the cases identified—is just 0.04 percent. That’s lower than Hong Kong’s, and much lower than America’s, which stands at 2 percent nationally as of this writing.
It is tough to fully explain Singapore’s low CFR. One obvious factor is a world-class health care system that, at its core, reflects the disdain with which Lee Kuan Yew regarded both “free” government-provided health care and what he saw as grossly inefficient private models.
“It was quite obvious it didn’t work,” Lee said of Britain’s National Health Service in a 2001 interview with PBS. “These are scarce resources. You’ve only got a limited number of top-class surgeons or doctors, and if you promise everybody that they are entitled to the same treatment, it’s just not practical. So the system malfunctions, [but] they can’t dismantle it now because it’s too popular; it’s gone into the national psyche.”
When one of his ministers returned from a tour of several Beijing hospitals in the 1970s and insisted that Singapore go the fully public route, Lee Kuan Yew called bull. “I said I did not believe they had such medical standards for everyone in Beijing, let alone for all in China,” he wrote in From Third World to First. But he also didn’t think highly of American health care, writing that “American-style medical insurance schemes are expensive, with high premiums because of wasteful and extravagant diagnostic tests paid for out of insurance.”
Lee wanted Singapore to chart a course that would keep the country healthy without overburdening the public fisc, so he and the PAP developed a multipronged approach that required nearly all Singaporeans to pay some portion of their own medical bills while using the threat of social censure and a network of competitive public hospitals to keep provider costs down.
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