Saturday 15 June 2024

What the West can learn from Singapore

Data shows that in key areas, Singapore is better at governing than the US and Britain.

When asked whether the US government works, most Americans say no. According to recent polling by Ipsos, more than two-thirds of adults in the United States think the country is going in the wrong direction. Gallup reports that only 26 per cent have confidence in major US institutions, such as the presidency, the Supreme Court and Congress. Nearly half of Americans aged 18 to 25 say that they believe either that democracy or dictatorship “makes no difference” or that “dictatorship could be good in certain circumstances”. As a recent Economist cover story put it: “After victory in the Cold War, the American model seemed unassailable. A generation on, Americans themselves are losing confidence in it.”

Most Singaporeans have a very different outlook on their government, a managed political system that has elections but nonetheless facilitates the dominance of one party, the People’s Action Party. According to a Pew Research Centre report, three-quarters of Singaporeans are satisfied with how democracy is working in their country. Moreover, 80 per cent think their country is heading in the right direction – the highest number in any of the 29 countries surveyed in the May Ipsos poll.

In 2024, both the United States and Singapore are facing one of the most challenging tests of any system of government: the transfer of power from one leader to the next. Textbooks on government identify this as an arena in which democratic systems have the greatest advantage over authoritarian or managed alternatives. Yet, as 2024 shows, that isn’t always the case.

In May, as then Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong passed the baton to his chosen successor, Mr Lawrence Wong, Singaporeans almost unanimously applauded the orderly, peaceful transition. In contrast, Americans’ sense of gloom is growing as they approach a presidential election in which voters will have to choose between two candidates who claim that the other’s victory would mean the end of US democracy. According to an April Reuters/Ipsos poll, ttwo-thirds of US voters believe that neither candidate should be running.

These comparisons invite the question: Is Singapore simply better at governing than other countries?

To answer this, consider the following three Report Cards, which use data from international organisations to assess Singapore alongside two countries holding major elections in 2024: the United States and Britain. Each report card grades the countries on how well they have fulfilled the requirements that Singapore’s founder and first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew – the father of Mr Lee Hsien Loong – believed were the functions of government: to “improve the standard of living for the majority of its people, plus enabling the maximum of personal freedoms compatible with the freedoms of others in society”.

The first Report Card considers citizens’ well-being, which we’ve assessed based on categories for which there is ample data, such as income, health, safety and sense of security.

The second Report Card covers what the World Bank calls “governance”, or a government’s effectiveness in facing issues, making policy choices, executing policy and preventing corruption.

The third Report Card, which considers both individual rights and citizens’ satisfaction with their government, is more difficult to interpret. It includes the judgments made both by international organisations and by polls that gauge how citizens feel about their democracy.

It’s worth reflecting on nine takeaways related to these Report Cards. First, Mr Lee Hsien Loong left to his successor a population that is now wealthier than Americans – and almost twice as wealthy as their former British colonial overlords.

When he took office in 2004, the so-called Singapore miracle had already happened: Singapore’s economy had soared since the 1960s, taking the country from poverty to having a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita that was approximately three-quarters of that of the United States, where many analysts thought it would remain. Yet 20 years later, Singapore’s GDP per capita is more than 4 per cent higher than that in the United States: $88,500 compared with $85,000.

Second, while rapid economic growth often produces greater income disparity, over the past two decades, Singapore has reduced inequality significantly – from 0.47 to 0.37 (as measured by the Gini coefficient, a measure by which 0 equals complete equality and 1 represents complete inequality) – while the United States has remained around 0.47. (For comparison, China’s Gini coefficient is 0.46, and the country with the highest level of inequality is South Africa, with 0.63.)

Third, Singaporeans are generally healthier and live longer than their counterparts in the United States and Britain. Just 20 years ago, life expectancy in all three countries was approximately the same. Today, the life expectancy in Singapore is longer (83 years) than that in the United States (76 years) and Britain (81 years). Singapore’s infant mortality has fallen from 27 deaths per 1,000 births in 1965, to 4 in 2004, to 1.8 today – considerably lower than both other countries. Furthermore, 93 per cent of Singaporeans express satisfaction with their healthcare system, in contrast to 75 per cent of Americans and 77 per cent of Britons.

Fourth, Singapore was clearly best prepared for a major public health crisis. Because the Covid-19 pandemic struck all countries around the same time, it provided a clear test of their response systems. On a per capita basis, around 10 Americans or Britons have died from Covid-19 for every one of their counterparts in Singapore.

Saturday 8 June 2024

Construction of Founders’ Memorial begins, opening slated for 2028

A memorial that honours Singapore’s founders and keeps alive their ideals in our nation-building journey
By Ng Keng Gene, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Jun 2024

Construction of the Founders’ Memorial – dedicated to Singapore’s pioneers and the values they exemplified – has officially started, and it is scheduled to open in 2028.

The memorial at Gardens by the Bay’s Bay East Garden will offer visitors an “integrated gallery and gardens experience”, said the National Heritage Board (NHB).

Within its two two-storey buildings, which will be connected by a common basement, will be a viewing gallery that overlooks Singapore’s city skyline, exhibition galleries, and multi-purpose rooms for workshops and programmes.

NHB said multiple paths will extend from the memorial into the larger Bay East Garden, with the memorial itself designed to depict a path – a symbol of the nation-building journey that Singapore’s founding generation and its leaders undertook.

The ground-breaking ceremony was held at Bay East Garden on June 5, and officiated by Senior Minister Lee Hsien Loong. It was on June 5, 1959, that the first Cabinet of self-governing Singapore was sworn into office.

At a reception held at Gardens by the Bay’s Flower Field Hall after the ceremony, SM Lee said the memorial will tell of how the nation’s founding leaders “overcame the odds to build a strong, united, and independent Singapore”. Stories will capture “how they led the people of Singapore through successive battles”, he said.

“First against colonialism, then communism, and finally communalism; and how they then built a nation based on the values and ideals embodied in the pledge, launching us on the journey that has led to the Singapore that we see today.”

He was joined at the ceremony by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee and Founders’ Memorial Committee co-chairs Lee Tzu Yang and Tan Tai Yong, as well as community representatives including students, memorial volunteers and donors.

Those who participated in the ground-breaking planted saplings that were grafted from trees planted by Singapore’s leaders during the early years of the nation’s greening journey.

Species planted included the yellow flame (Peltophorum pterocarpum), a native species that was planted by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1971 at Tanjong Pagar Community Club; a sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera), planted by Dr Goh Keng Swee in 1975 at Labrador Park; and a sea apple (Syzygium grande), which Mr S. Rajaratnam planted in 1980 at Block 12 North Bridge Road.

The saplings planted on June 5 will be featured in the Founders’ Memorial’s landscaping in the future, said NHB.

The memorial – mooted in 2015 following Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death – was previously slated to be completed in 2027, but its construction timeline was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Its design by Japanese architecture firm Kengo Kuma & Associates, working in collaboration with Singapore firm K2LD Architects, was announced in March 2020 following an international competition launched in January 2019.

NHB said the memorial “aims to inspire Singaporeans to commit themselves towards a better future, as it will serve as a space to capture the spirit of our nation and unify Singaporeans”.

Between June and December in 2024, a mural titled Our Memorial, Our Singapore by local illustration studio 8EyedSpud will be displayed at Bay South Garden, near the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome.

By scanning a QR code that accompanies the mural, people can select activities they are most keen to engage in at the memorial and Bay East Garden – “a continuation of the memorial’s public engagement journey”, said NHB.

They may also leave well-wishes, which may be part of future hoardings for the memorial during its construction.

Mr Lee Tzu Yang said the committee will continue to engage Singaporeans “because the Founders’ Memorial is envisioned as a space owned by every generation, including future generations of Singaporeans”.

Public workshops and a pilot exhibition – titled Semangat Yang Baru: Forging A New Singapore Spirit – have been held to gather feedback for the upcoming memorial.

More than 900 stories and artefacts have been received for the memorial thus far following a public call, and over 140,000 people attended the exhibition, Mr Lee Tzu Yang said.

A Project Citizens campaign will be launched as part of the engagement to invite Singaporeans to contribute stories about the country’s founding history.

Commemorating the nation-building journey

SM Lee said that besides focusing on key leaders in Singapore’s first two decades of nation-building, the memorial’s project team is curating an installation specially to commemorate the founding generation.

“Through their words and deeds, the memorial will bring alive the values and ideals these pioneers exemplified, championed, and inculcated into Singaporeans,” he added.

Citing the backdrop to Singapore’s independence in August 1965 – the race riots of 1964 and Indonesia’s Konfrontasi – SM Lee said that unlike the independence of other post-colonial nations, the mood in the Republic was sombre.

The founding leaders rallied the population, and Singaporeans, whatever their previous political allegiances, united behind them, said SM Lee, adding that they witnessed various milestones, such as the withdrawal of British forces and the development of the Singapore Armed Forces, as well as housing and educating the people.

Even more importantly, they established fundamental values and ideals that set the country’s long-term direction: democracy, justice and equality, meritocracy and a drive for excellence, an unwavering commitment to honest, clean government and, above all, a multiracial society, SM Lee said.

He added that while the founding leaders did not get everything right, they made the right choices on the most important issues and Singapore succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Singapore’s origin story is unique, he said, noting that in the post-war era, many former colonies became independent countries like the Republic.

“But not many successfully shifted from the independence struggle to nation-building, from rousing revolutionary mobilisation to the patient slog of improving people’s lives. Singapore did,” he said.

He added that while Singapore has several memorials that mark significant events in its modern history – the Civilian War Memorial and Kranji War Memorial, for instance – “we do not yet have a memorial to commemorate our nation-building journey”.

“Now, almost 60 years after Separation, and 80 years after the Second World War, the time has come for us to build one,” said SM Lee.

He added: “I hope this Founders’ Memorial will become a space where Singaporeans reflect on our ongoing nation-building journey; appreciate our precious inheritance from the founding generation; and resolve to continue building a harmonious and successful Singapore, based on our foundational values and ideals, for generations to come.”