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.

Fifth, while approximately one-third of Singaporeans, Americans and Britons graduate from university, students in Singapore tend to be academically ahead of their peers in the other two countries. In 2022, 41 per cent of Singaporean high schoolers scored as “top performers” on mathematics tests among the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, compared with just 7 per cent of Americans and 11 per cent of Britons. In 2009, Singapore ranked second in international mathematics scores, behind China; today, Singapore is first, far ahead of China and every other country, while the United States is 34th, and the United Kingdom is 14th.

Sixth, Singapore surpasses both the United States and United Kingdom when it comes to ensuring rule of law and control of corruption, according to the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators. This aligns with OECD data, which shows that Singapore ranks first among OECD countries in citizens’ confidence in their judicial system (89 per cent) and in overall satisfaction with their government (93 per cent).

Seventh, Singapore is one of the most stable countries in the world: the World Bank ranks it in the 97th percentile of countries for “political stability and absence of violence/terrorism”, up from the 85th percentile two decades ago. The United States, by comparison, is only in the 45th percentile, and the United Kingdom is in the 62nd.

Eighth, multinational corporations generally consider Singapore’s political and legal environment to be the best in the world for doing business. On the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, Singapore has moved up from No. 5 in 2004 to No. 1 today, having passed the United States in 2019. In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual ranking of countries in which to do business, Singapore has held the No. 1 spot for the past 16 years; the United States typically ranks third, while the United Kingdom is not even among the top 10.

Finally – and this complicates the picture – Singaporeans have much less freedom to exercise their political rights. According to Human Rights Watch, Singapore’s “political environment remains overwhelmingly repressive”. Freedom House classifies Singapore as only “partly free”, with a score of 48 out of 100, while the World Bank places Singapore in only the 44th percentile of all the world’s countries for voice and accountability, which “captures perceptions of the extent to which a country’s citizens are able to participate in selecting their government, as well as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and a free media”. These figures are significantly higher – sometimes twice as high – in the United States and Britain.

Despite this, polls find that most Singaporeans are satisfied with their version of democracy. Yet even Singaporeans who disagree with international critics of their regime recognise the need to create more space for domestic debate. As Mr Wong, the new Prime Minister, put it recently: A majority would “like to see more opposition voices in Parliament. So the opposition presence in Parliament is here to stay”.

The contrast between Singapore’s ranking on the first two Report Cards and the third takes us back to the question: What is government for? From a Western perspective, the possibility that a more autocratic state could govern more effectively than a more open democracy seems almost unthinkable. History offers few examples of benevolent dictatorships that delivered the goods – or stayed benevolent for long.

But in the case of Singapore, brute facts are hard to ignore.

Americans and Britons cherish freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the related basket of liberal rights. But if given a choice, would they accept limits on some of these rights to enjoy the high standards of governance that their Singaporean counterparts are accustomed to? Do they care more about the freedom to speak their minds and support an opposition party, or what Singaporean businessman Calvin Cheng has described as the freedom to walk safely “in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear being burgled” and “knowing our children can go to school without fear of drugs, or being mowed down by some insane person with a gun”?

To put it more provocatively, consider an extreme hypothetical. Imagine that instead of choosing between US presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump or the Conservative and Labour parties, citizens in the United States and Britain were offered the chance to vote for an alternative.

This alternative would be to subcontract their country’s governance for the next four years to Singapore’s ruling party. In 2028, citizens would have a chance to vote again between giving that party four more years in power or returning to their current systems, in which they choose between the candidates presented by the two parties.

It’s a radical and obviously unrealistic possibility. But reflecting on the question and the possible benefits of such an arrangement should help us think more clearly about what’s required to make government work.

Graham Allison is Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on June 5, 2024.

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