Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew and The Fourth Revolution

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew

If you love Singapore, you may want to read The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State. The book says Singapore is providing inspiration for countries seeking an alternative to the Western model. The authors, John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of The Economist, and his colleague, Adrian Wooldridge, cover Singapore extensively. Here is what they have to say about Singapore and its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in the chapter, The Asian Alternative:

Excerpt from the book

One pilgrimage is obligatory for anyone who wants to look at the future of government – visiting one of the world’s smallest countries to see an elderly Asian man who supposedly retired from politics many years ago… His words are listened to. When one of us went to see him in 2011, the meeting was delayed because Xi Jinping, who had just been anointed as China’s next leader, wanted to jump the queue to meet “the senior who has our respect”.  Westerners too have waited in line. Margaret Thatcher declared that “he was never wrong”. Henry Kissinger has said that none of the world’s leaders he has met over the years has taught him more than Lee Kuan Yew.

It is easy to make fun of his [Lee Kuan Yew’s] creation. Singapore is Disneyland with the death penalty, paradise as designed by McKinsey, a supersized shopping mall where chewing gum is banned…

Yet the simple fact is that the rise of Singapore is one of the miracles of the past seventy years: A country that was once an impoverished swamp is now a whirring hub of the global economy. Singaporeans enjoy higher living standards and better schools and hospitals than their former colonial masters in the United Kingdom – and all with a state that chews up a tiny proportion of GDP: 17 percent in 2012. Singapore is a model not just for China but for all the emerging Asian powers that are now building their welfare states…

Lee and his acolytes have advanced the notion that Asia is somehow culturally different: more focused on the family, more devoted to education, more willing to put faith in a mandarin elite.

The Singapore state is something of a Mary Poppins – not just a wonderful nanny but a very bossy, perhaps slightly sinister one. “We decide what is right,” Lee once observed. “Never mind what the people think.”

Lee has always made it clear that Singapore is open for business: There are few places where it is easier for a multinational to set up shop, where tariff barriers are lower, and where taxes are more manageable. But at the same time the state guides the economy… It also owns shares in the island’s biggest companies, such as Singapore Airlines and Singapore Telecommunications.

Lee’s bossiness is even more noticeable in politics. To begin with, his authoritarianism was rather unsubtle: Suspected communists were locked up… Now the control is subtler: There are curbs on the press, but all within the legal framework of parliamentary democracy. In 2011 the PAP [the ruling People’s Action Party] put in its worst performance in a general election: just 60 percent of the vote and 93 percent of the seats! The Singaporean establishment argues that it has produced the perfect compromise between accountability and efficiency. Its politicians are regularly tested in elections and have to make themselves available to their constituents; but since the government knows it is going to win, it can take a long view. “Our strength is that we can think strategically and look ahead,” the current prime minister, Lee’s son, told us. “If the government changed every five years it would be harder.”

Obviously this strength suits the Lees. But the old man’s conviction that unfettered democracy does not work in developing countries plainly runs deeper than self-interest. “I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development,” Lee rather impertinently told his hosts in the recently democratized Philippines in 1992. “The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions.”… Having seen other countries in the neighbourhood torn apart by ethnic strife, he has no qualms about forcing people to live in mixed neighbourhoods in order to prevent ethnic polarization (more than 80 percent of Singaporeans still live in public housing.)

Good government in turn relies on an educated elite of “good people” running the country. To westerners, Singapore looks rather like Plato’s Republic, with its caste of “wise guardians” presiding over men of “silver” and “bronze”.  But the more direct influence is China’s mandarin tradition, which selected the brightest people for government. No country works harder at perfecting its civil servants than Singapore, nor follows such an unabashedly elitist model: It spots talented youngsters early, luring them with scholarships, and then spends a fortune training them. Those who reach the top are richly rewarded, with pay packages of as much as $2 million a year, while those who falter along the way are thrown overboard…

Singapore is producing a new type of elite – very different from either the capitalist elite of the West or the bureaucratic elite of the old state-dominated economies. The members of this elite are au fait with the latest management thinking and comfortable with importing private-sector methods into the public sector. But they are also happy devoting their talents to the state. Indeed they spend their lives shuffling between the public sector and the private sector. Sitting around a table with a group of young Singaporean mandarins is more like meeting junior partners at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey than the cast of Veep or The Thick of It. The person on your left is on secondment at a big oil company; on your right is a woman who between spells at the finance and defence ministries has picked up degrees from the London School of Economics, Cambridge and Stanford…

Micromanager though he is, Lee, more than any other modern ruler, has concentrated on keeping the state small and on making people responsible for their own welfare. Singapore’s world-class education system consumes only 3.3 percent of GDP. But the biggest savings come from restricting social transfers and refusing to indulge the middle class. Lee thinks the West’s mistake has been to set up all-you-can-eat welfare states: Because everything at the buffet is free, everybody stuffs their faces. Singapore’s approach, by contrast, is for the government to provide people with a good start in life – and then encourage them to cook for themselves.

In the West the welfare state is based on social assistance: Payments are based on your circumstances, so they increase the worse off you are. Singapore has a social insurance model: 90 percent of what you get from the Central Provident Fund is tied to what you put in, so hard work is rewarded. There is a small safety net to cover the very poor and the very sick. But people are expected to look after their parents and pay – or at least copay – for government services. Lee loathes free universal benefits. Once you have given a subsidy, he says, it is always hard to withdraw it.  If you want to give people a helping hand, he argues, it is better to give them cash than to provide a service, whose value nobody understands…

With 5.2 million inhabitants, Singapore is very small by modern standards… In different circumstances Lee might have been just another aged autocrat, grumbling about Western democracy and its degenerate ways, a neo-Victorian sideshow. But now his message carries further…

Asia’s newly competing states suddenly need a model, their craving fed not not only by resurgent nationalism but also by demography. Across the continent countries are rushing to build welfare states…

Singapore is an obvious model for all this frantic building: The system works extremely well and chimes with many Asian countries’ traditions of self-reliance…

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Connect

Leave a Reply