What Singapore can teach us
The Washington Post, May 2, 2012
If you've spent much time enduring the hassles, filth and indignities of LAX, Dulles and JFK, Singapore's Changi airport is a revelation. As former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew decreed, you get from the gate to a taxi in 15 minutes. The men's room is sleek and immaculate, and even asks you to rate your experience (and thus the attendant) via a handy touchscreen ranking as you leave.
As close readers of this column will have noticed, I've been a gushing fan of Singapore's public policy achievements since I began looking at them a few years back. Singapore spends 4 percent of gross domestic product on health care vs. America's 17 percent, yet it delivers equal or better health outcomes. It's at the top of global school rankings because (unlike us) it routinely recruits exemplary students into the teaching profession. Yes, I know, Singapore still denies press and assembly freedoms we take for granted, and has awful anti-gay laws on the books (which I'm told go unenforced). But a few days spent talking with officials, businesspeople, students and government critics in the city-state that now boasts one of the world's highest per capita incomes have deepened my admiration for Singapore's accomplishments. I also came away convinced that last year's watershed elections—in which the ruling People's Action Party won just 60 percent of the popular vote and lost a group constituency (and three cabinet ministers) for the first time since independence in 1965—mean a more democratic political era is unfolding.
Start with what Singapore has delivered for its 5 million people. The place is a policy wonk's paradise. Thanks to what may be a historically unique blend of dedicated, highly educated technocrats and the "luxury" of decades of one-party rule, the government has always taken the long view. Pragmatic problem-solving is its creed. Benevolent dictatorship never looked so good.
Beyond world-beating health care and education systems, some highlights:
What's more, the fiscal strength it has given the government to address emerging challenges is arguably unique at a time when Western democracies groan under the weight of trillions in unfunded entitlement liabilities. Singapore, if you've followed how this works, has exactly zero unfunded liabilities. Since the forced savings accounts are done by the individual for the individual and are not legislated entitlements, there's no redistribution involved. While critics and reformers tell me the years ahead will almost certainly see Singapore redistribute more amply to elderly and poor citizens at risk of falling through the cracks, no government is in a stronger fiscal position to update its social compact to cope with the age wave. In part that's also due to conservative budget rules and endowment-ethic investment practices that have left Singapore with more surpluses and reserves than virtually any other nation.
Singapore is hardly perfect. Critics make a good case that the long rule of the People's Action Party has left it complacent and out of touch. In some ways the government's decades of exceptional performance have also created expectations that are impossible to sustain. What's more, the great fruit of government's success, Singapore's educated middle class, naturally seeks a greater voice now in politics (and is ushering in a fascinating new era I'll discuss next week).
But the big thing to take away from the Singapore story thus far is this: While Americans fight endlessly about "big government" vs. "small government" yet do nothing to meet our biggest challenges, Singapore has ignored ideological claptrap and focused relentlessly on what works. Its low-tax, business-friendly environment is matched with major government activism in education, health care, infrastructure and housing.
Singapore thus stands as the leading modern example of how government as pragmatic problem-solver can dramatically improve people's lives. This ethos has virtually disappeared from U.S. governance at the national level. Liberals are wrong to ignore Singapore's progressive achievements because of its (rightly criticized) shortcomings on civil liberties. Conservatives are wrong to miss the lessons of Singapore's activist, hyper-competent government.
It was roll-up-your-sleeves pragmatism that catapulted Singapore from third world to first in a few scant decades, and it is pragmatism, not ideological power games, that will be needed for American renewal. When it comes to effective governance, to paraphrase that famous scene in "When Harry Met Sally," we could do a lot worse than to have some of what Singapore's been having.