Singapore has always been a public policy wonk’s delight, a place where the implications of policy analysis and thinking outside the box can be put in place and tried out. It’s famous for the (now-repealed) prohibition on sale of chewing gum and caning criminals, for suppressing The Economist, and for the ruling party’s habit of controlling dissent by ruinous libel lawsuits, but the overall impression this sort of story gives is quite misleading. It’s certainly a highly regulated environment, where order and economic growth count more relative to individual freedoms than they do in, say, the US. But a look around the neighborhood at Myanmar, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and at the early post-war history of Malaysia, makes most Singaporeans quite appreciative of the navigation that has brought them from being a pestilential tropical slum in 1965 to first-world-city conditions.
The economic policy from the start was to bet everything on: education; an open (though cartelized) economy; the ruthless, almost religious, elimination of corruption; targeted subsidies for things like books; and aggressive recruitment of foreign investment coupled with exposure of local enterprise to the entire force of international competition. The Singaporeans carefully collected the phone numbers of import-substitution-orthodoxy consultants to be sure they didn’t call them by accident, offered land and a literate, educated work force to hi-tech manufacturing with guaranteed repatriation of profits from investment — on the condition that investors share their technology — and poured money into uniiversities.
Some of the more important policy choices are illustrative. My favorite is the language system. Singapore was thrown out of Malaysia because it was so predominantly Chinese (about 80%), with the rest Malay and south Indians. The dominance of the minority overseas Chinese, mostly from Fujian and Hokkien, over trade and business in southeast Asia is a constant irritant leading to a variety of affirmative action and discriminatory legislation in countries with a Malay or other majority, so the question of language was quite a risky one. Note that as Singapore was uninhabited when Raffles built a fort on it in 1816, there is no “native” ethnicity.
The decision was to make English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil official languages with equal formal status (some signs, like “Danger, Keep Out” are in all four languages but most are just in English), so the state didn’t pick favorites. The language of instruction in the schools is…English, a decision that again doesn’t pick favorites and also sets Singapore up, in a generation, to do business all over the world and import know-how without translation expenses. Indeed, the Chinese taught in school as a foreign language is…Mandarin, again not choosing favorites within the Chinese population but equipping Singapore to do business everywhere in China.
Another scheme much beloved of wonks was the rationing of automobile traffic. Every year the government auctions the number of new license plates analysts think the existing roads will handle; when I was there twelve years ago the price about doubled the cost of a medium-sized Toyota. As a result, while (for example) in Bangkok anyone could buy a car but no-one could actually drive it, in Singapore only the wealthy could have cars but every car can actually be driven and parked at one’s destination. This was coupled with a large, dense network of public transit, and lots of very cheap taxis (that don’t take up parking space, and reduce the incentive to own a car), plus a charge to drive into the central business district that anticipated London’s by more than a decade. You can even get a cheap license plate only valid evenings and weekends.
The oppression, such as it is, is remarkably hard to see. Nightlife is pretty boring and the English newspaper seems to be a reliable megaphone for the government, but I don’t think I saw a policeman on the street in two weeks. My former student the police commissioner had me over for lunch with some of his senior guys, and I learned that 40% of arrests are either executed by or occasioned by citizens dropping a dime or actually surrounding miscreants and holding them. This indicates basic trust in public authority.
Ten years ago when I asked a functionary in the Ministry of Information, Communication and Arts about arts policy, I was told about a world-class performing arts center that would allow Singapore to offer (for example) Barbara Streisand to an audience that would fly in for the evening, a classic strategy of making everyone’s products an export good for Singapore. I asked about programs for local artists and he terminated the interview on the spot, I infer because at that time artists were viewed as risky and provocative. In the interim, Singaporeans have become wealthy enough to travel, and begun to ask if there isn’t something more to life than buying the latest electronic gadgets and jewelry in the endless shopping malls. The performance supermarket turned into something much more modest, marketing more to the locals, and MICA has come up with a whole hatful of local arts promotion programs despite the political risks.
A couple of clouds are looming, in my view. First, it was disappointing to discover that the automobile has finally overcome humane planning. Apparently the government oversold permits in the last couple of years, so there are traffic jams in the morning and evening, and it has become a really pedestrian-unfriendly place (not as bad as Mexico City), with no way to get across busy streets without walking for blocks in really serious heat to climb up over a bridge, disappearing sidewalks, and no driver inclination to yield the right of way. In large parts of downtown, circulation effectively runs through incomprehensible tangles of shopping centers, walkways with no signs or navigation aids, and hotel lobbies. This system is at least airconditioned, but one has no idea where one is at any time, and the overall effect is quite disorienting, especially because everything you can see or touch is so new. Think the cityscape of Lost in Translation.
Second, Singapore is building a casino. I cannot for the life of me figure out why any sane person who lives in Singapore would take the tiniest chance of winding up in Macao, but of course the government is full of assurances about protecting locals from the risks it poses, controlling the sort of criminal enterprise that swarms to and around gambling (are people really going to want to go to a gambling resort without prostitution or drugs?). I have my doubts; my plan is to ship Mark over there for a visit and look-around and see what he thinks.
And there’s some work still under way: it’s not by any means the multicultural soup of equality official policy contemplates; everyone working outside (building, repairing, etc.) seems to be a south Indian, wretchedly clothed and hollow-eyed, and local gossip repeatedly floats up anecdotes indicating informal preferences and privileges for Chinese. No American, or anyone, should be quick to throw stones in this context, of course.
In the spirit of selling ideas when you have no natural resources — an excellent strategy in my view — and of taking policy analysis seriously,the National University of Singapore set up the first public policy analysis program in Asia, drawing its students from all the surrounding countries, which occasioned my first visit more than a decade ago to teach the public management class. This has evolved into an independent school, named after Lee Kuan Yew. In Singapore, Lee has the historical role, approximately, of all the founding fathers and their sister Sue, Betsy Ross, and maybe Henry Ford rolled into one, and this name indicates a solid future, certainly ample resources. LKYSPP has big expansion plans on a new campus, but more interestingly a very engaging flavor of experimentation and institutionalized innovation in curriculum, from a young intercontinental faculty and a dean who is not an academic but rather a former diplomat.
What’s constantly fascinating about Singapore is the national habit (for which Lee can take a lot of credit) of turning a challenge into strategic advantage. No hinterland? Can’t grow any food? Actually it’s probably easier if farm policy can simply be a matter of buying stuff in a market; “Singapore’s farmers” take their troubles to the governments of Indonesia, Australia, and Malaysia. Population so highly educated that it can’t afford to be making electronic doodads any more? China and India finally punching their weight and threatening the Singapore recipe of the ’80s? They’ll figure out a way to turn these developments into opportunities; I can’t wait to see what they come up with.