I recently returned from Singapore for the first time. Not a day has passed since, without my thinking of this special country.
Singapore has forced me to check my sense of certainty at the door and take a close and honest look at several paradigms, almost axioms, that were infused in me from a very early age.
1. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”
Singapore is not a democracy. It is controlled by a benevolent dictatorship. Although truly benevolent, it is very much a dictatorship. Much wealth is in the direct control, even ownership, of the leading family, and the power to rule is passed on from father to son (as we have recently witnessed with the passing of their great leader (and exceptional human being), Lee Kuan Yew).
Modern history has provided us with much evidence of the dangerous impact of very few having very much power. 78,000,000 murdered by Mao Zedong, 23,000,000 murdered or led to their death by Jozef Stalin, 17,000,000 million murdered or led to their death at the hands of Adolf Hitler in t, all in the past 80 years alone. As we go back through history, we see it again and again. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Then came Singapore.
For some reason, which I fear I am light years away from understanding, Singapore did not turn out to be a breeding ground for corruption in spite of it being a dictatorship and in spite of the power of its leader. In fact, it has put in place processes and policies that seem to be very effective in keeping corruption out.
Indeed, Singapore is not a country led “By the people” nor is its leadership “Of the people” — but it sure as heck seems to be “For the people” — more than any other country I currently know of.
Singapore ranks high on key measures of national social progress. It leads Asia, and ranks 9th globally, on the Human Development Index, including education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety, and housing. Although income inequality is high, 90% of citizens own their homes and the nation has one of the highest per capita incomes.
This all leads me to my second, now in question, paradigm.
2. “Government is always less efficient”
The public sector is always slower, less efficient and slightly behind the private sector — right? Free market and all…
Well, Singapore seems to be staring down this paradigm, with no sign of it blinking first any time soon.
Top of your class? You’re eligible to be a “President Scholar” and that means you have a chance at a strongly desired position in the public sector.
Yup, some of the best paying jobs are in the public sector — but you have to be worthy of them to get them. Meritocracy.
Being in Singapore, I felt like I was Alice down the rabbit hole: the nation’s core principles are meritocracy, multiculturalism and secularism. It is noted for its effective, pragmatic and incorrupt governance and civil service, which together with its rapid development policies, is widely cited as the “Singapore model”. Gallup polls show 84% of Singapore’s residents expressed confidence in the national government, one of the highest ratings in the world.
Singapore is a global commerce, financial and transportation hub. Its standings include: “Easiest place to do business” (World Bank) for nine consecutive years, world’s top international meetings city (UIA), “City with the best investment potential” (BERI), 2nd most competitive country (WEF), 3rd largest foreign exchange centre, 4th largest financial centre, 3rd largest oil refining and trading centre and one of the top two busiest container ports since the 1990s. For the past decade, it is the only Asian country with the top AAA sovereign rating from all major credit rating agencies, including S&P, Moody’s and Fitch.
Forget about being an efficient government — Singapore seems to be more efficient than some of the leading global companies in the private sector. From long term planning, to high quality execution — EVERYTHING seems to make sense. Good, solid sense.
Their priorities seem to be in order. Concepts that seem too damn obvious to us as we conduct public debates and fiery conversations on our social networks — but which we gradually grow to accept are naïve and unrealistic given how our leaders and politicians conduct themselves (in our democracies!) seem possible and come to life in Singapore.
And THIS brings me to the third and last point.
3. “Freedom is the highest ranked value”
I have seen Western democratic capitalism emerge victorious in my lifetime, after decades of competition with non-democratic countries such as the Soviet Union and even China. I have heard the testimonials of those who were unfortunate enough to live in countries that took away their basic freedoms.
The pattern that seemed to emerge, and that was consistently drilled into my mind throughout my early education, was the positive correlation between freedom and advancement and even enlightenment. Taking away freedom, or even just nibbling away at it, was like unravelling the fabric of society and starting down a slippery slope at the end of which awaits Darkness. Corruption. Tragedy.
Freedom is a basic human right. Right?
Freedom is more important than any other human need. Right?
The only times I have come across a value that is considered even more important than basic human freedom, was in conversations pertaining to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, in which National Freedom ranks above individual freedom (not by all, but certainly by many of the left wing liberals I engaged with).
Then came Singapore.
Spit in the street…that’s a fine of hundreds of dollars.
Steal… get caned or whipped.
Get caught bringing drugs into the country…. that’s the death penalty.
Speak out against the government… well, let’s just say you don’t really want to do that (it might be hard to find you the next day).
Did your district vote for the opposing party? Too bad. No tax spending on your district and a rezoning prior to the next elections.
This is all quite aggressive, isn’t it? Even horrible!
But what is gained for this price? All of the above mentioned values I listed in the previous two points and many more.
Sure — I can say pretty much whatever I want in the US and in Israel. I can protest against my government and the various self-serving and mediocre politicians in these countries. I can produce satiric videos that call them out and slam their shameless disregard for their constituencies… their shameless disregard for us!
But does it really help me? These politicians come and go, from different parties and political and ideological perspectives, and the wheel goes round and round.
And what happens in the biggest democracy in the world if I don’t have health insurance and need medical treatment?
What happens if I am not lucky enough to be born to a financially stable family or go to a top quality school? What happens if I can’t afford good enough legal representation? Just ask the millions of prisoners in US prisons today.
Ask the poor and unattended citizens.
Ask the elderly.
Ask the long list of rape victims who made the mistake of walking in “bad areas”.
Ask the countless victims of random violence in the major cities.
As the families who’s homes have been broken into or foreclosed by the banks.
Ask the many, many homeless people.
Ask them all how great their freedom is.
Sorry — I don’t really have any. Yet. I’m working on that.
Singapore has provided me with deep penetrating insights, but no actionable conclusions.
Perhaps because I know that it’s still a very young country and time needs to tell.
Perhaps because I still haven’t seen many other, darker sides of Singapore.
Perhaps because Singapore is such an outlier and I am still terrified to lower the place of freedom on my value list.
I don’t have answers yet. But good questions are good enough for me. For now.
We need to see Singapore as a country that represents possibilities that we may have long since given up on. It must serve as the outlier that reminds us what is possible and what is worth pursuing in terms of finding better ways to lead and be led and live well as human beings.