Bryan Caplan  

Singapore: The Deal-Breaker

Another Very Fair Review of My... Randian Scene of the Year in <...

The world - including the U.S. - can learn a lot from Singapore. (See here and here). But would I want the U.S. to become Singapore - that is, to replace our current package of policies with theirs?

No. The government's dominant role in Singapore's housing market is pretty bad, though due to their typical policy cleverness they avoid most of the evils of HUD-style public housing. (They make sure the occupant is also the residual claimant).

The death penalty for drug-dealing is awful, though I don't know that it's too much worse than handing out twenty- or thirty-year sentences for it.

But for me, the deal-breaker is far more mundane: Singapore has conscription. Two years of mandatory military service. Or as I see it, hell on earth. It's not just state slavery. It's state slavery in an especially unpleasant line of work. Even in peacetime, my best-case scenario for military service is that it's like full-time Physical Education.

I'm happy to waste 11% of GDP on unnecessary health care expenditures, and live with another percentage point or so of unemployment, to keep myself and my sons from involuntary military service. And frankly, the purported "social benefits" of the draft - greater social cohesion, egalitarian mingling, and the fostering of patriotism - horrify me as well. Hey, I never claimed to be normal.

Maybe one day a key member of the exceptionally economically literate elite of Singapore will re-read a standard textbook critique of conscription. Or maybe he'll come across David Henderson's great article on "The Role of Economists in Ending the Draft." And then he'll suddenly say: "What were we thinking? Conscription is really inefficient." It would be nice if he'd add, "Oh, and monstrous too," but I don't ask for miracles. Until that day comes, the policies of the U.S. remain the lesser evil.

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COMMENTS (25 to date)
razib writes:

i had a singaporean roommate who justified as a way to tie together various ethnicities and classes. it might not be efficient, but psychology is not rational. singaporeans remember racial tensions from the 1960s when it was expelled from malaysia and riots across the straits. race riots are very inefficient too....

p.s. not that conscription removes class & ethnic differences.

Paul writes:

Bryan, you are ignoring a little fact called geography.

If the U.S. were the size of, say, Rhode Island, and had two unfriendly neighbors with a combined population (and area) 30 times bigger, close enough that you could see them from the top of the highest hotel -you might want to revise your conclusions about conscription.

TGGP writes:

Hmm, peace-time conscription doesn't sound so bad to me, even if it is full-time P.E. I'd say a war (with or without conscription) is worse.

burger flipper writes:

It seems odious to me that youngsters are forced into such a crappy line of work, that such a small segment have to do the killing and dieing for all of us.
But slavery sucks too (god I hated the Army as a volunteer myself, can't imagine how I'd have felt had I been shanghaied).
Just not fair to pull college dough bait and switch, going to war in the middle of an enlistment.
What is the justification for stop loss for volunteers? Shouldn't the onset of war trigger a contract renegotiation?
I'm all for a volunteer Army. Mercenaries are better than slaves. But if the mercenaries cannot opt out, what are they but slaves?
I say let's have a volunteer Army where the soldiers can quit; two weeks notice required if you want a good reference.

John Smith writes:

well, given that you have expressed your unhappiness at the amercian war against drugs, i would think that you would be pleased by our death penalty. makes the enforcement of the policy rather more efficient, given that such a policy must be enforced (which yes, i understand you disagree with).

the military service isn't that bad. the way i figure it, it pretty much amounts to a US$20000 implicit tax for the avaerage citizen in terms of lost of income and so forth, if you ignore that the military life is somewhat harsher. also, you can more or less ensure that you do not go into the harshest unit or hold the lowest rank by getting a decent education. with a decent education, the military system sorts you into the units that requires some intellect, and thus less muscle. so not so horrible. of course, tough for you if you are dumb. but hey, that is life.

besides, come on. we are surrounded by many large enemies. we need quite a bit of manpower. would be rather difficult to get that much manpower by methods other than a draft

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks for the compliment, Bryan.


Patrik writes:

You wrote "It's not just state slavery. It's state slavery in an especially unpleasant line of work."

Considering that most nice jobs offer incentives of their own, would we not expect slaves to be used for unpleasant lines of work?

Randy writes:

We still have conscription too, Bryan. Registration is still required, and our nation's "leaders" could reimplement an actual draft in short order if they so desired. Think it would be too unpopular? The draft has been unpopular every time it has been used - it was used anyway. The powers that be can be expected to protect their interests regardless of the cost to ordinary people.

Independent George writes:

Paul beat me to it, except he understated the case. By a lot.

Singapore: 683 square miles, 4.5M population
Malaysia: 329,750 square miles, 24.8 M population
Indonesia: 1,826,440 square miles, 234,694 population

By my count, Singapores neighbors have over 52,000 times the population, and 3,100 times the land area. So, you basically have a tiny nation that once belonged to one of her neighbors. Those two neighbors which, in turn, have gone to battle over territories on numerous occasions. Add to this the fact that (1) Singapore is significantly wealthier than both Malaysia and Indonesia, (2) Singapore is 70% Chinese, and (3) Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia are generally regarded as greedy exploiters who steal wealth from the nation.

Singpore is basically Israel minus the religion. If there's a situation where compulsory military service might be justified, this is it.

As a couple of others have posted, Singapore's situation is much different than ours. We don't need even 1% of our 300 million people to adequately defend ourselves.

The comparison to Israel is apt. As well as Switzerland, which also has universal military service for its males.

Panu Poutvaara writes:

I was glad to notice this discussion on an important problem. The costs of draft appear to be still sizable. A simple computational analysis, titled Dynamic Costs of the Draft, that two colleagues and I published in the German Economic Review in 2004 suggests that having everyone serve for one year can easily result in a GDP loss of 1-2 percent, when one takes into account the effect that draft postpones human capital formation. As a comparison, we assumed that the government hires the same amount of labor services from the market. And suggests that among OECD countries, the use of draft is associated with worse growth performance, in average. If anyone wishes more papers on draft, I'd be glad to email some.

Stan writes:

Paul and Independent George,
I'm not sure if Singapore's smaller relative size to its neighbors is an arguement for conscriptions. Even if every single man, woman, and child in Singapore were to be conscripted, Indonesia and/or Malaysia would still be able to invade, or at least bomb the city into rubble. Is there any evidence that small countries with large neighbors gain any benefit from conscription? Perhaps it has something to do with ratios?
Maybe, instead of wasting people's time and money, Singapore's government could abolish the draft and let those young guys enjoy their lives. Or invest in nuclear weapons.

david writes:


"By the 1990s, Singapore's Armed Forces (SAF) quantative and qualitative strength over the Malaysia Armed Forces (MAF) became well-entrenched.

In 2000, the potential mobilised strength of the SAF stood at 350,000 personnel.
By comparison, the MAF totalled only about 145,000 personnel, although 105,000 of these were regulars.


The Singapore Army operates some 120 upgraded Centurion main battle tanks and some 350 AMX-13SMI light tanks. Its air force has more combat aircraft than Malaysia and Indonesia combined."

Malaysia will have major racial issues to deal with, should things come to that: the capital of Malaysia is primarily Chinese.

dearieme writes:

Just 4.5 million, eh? Right boys, here's the deal. Leave that rather dangerous spot of yours and all come to Britain. You can "make room" in our tight little islands by paying large numbers of rather unwelcome immigrants to bugger off. You will find that whatever their faults, the British are exceedingly unlikely to murder you all. And we certainly need lessons in high educational standards, an economically literate elite and a bit more civility in society.

ketsugi writes:
greater social cohesion, egalitarian mingling, and the fostering of patriotism

Having been through NS myself in Singapore, I will say that none of these were true for me. If anything my time spent in military service made social division stronger and made me dislike my government even more. However, I do see the necessity for NS in Singapore and would absolutely continue to support its continued existence.

Ian Timothy writes:

@Stan I'm sure you are joking about nuclear weapons. The last thing Singapore would want to do is introduce nuclear weapons into the region.

About how even with conscription Malaysia or Indonesia can still whack the shit out of us, the thing is Singapore's strategy is not to be able to prevent the shit being whacked out of us once it starts although we would definitely hope to minimize the amount of hurt done.

Conscription is to have a large enough force to make people think twice about even wanting to start the whacking. Why? Because our strategy is a poisoned crab strategy. If you want to eat us, sure you probably can, but we will make sure that you suffer a bad case of indigestion.

Without NS, people would be able to whack us without any consequences. Now, at least the consequences are factored into any decision.

Chris writes:

A friend who is Singaporean told me that the real reason for conscription in Singapore was to allow the Singapore government a day or so once an invasion commenced. They would use that time to call Washington and ask for help.

One reason that the "brain drain" of youngish Singaporean men to other countries worries the government there is that every time these men leave the country they are not available for the military callup that would be needed in case of invasion.

Another injustice that conscription produces is in the case of young boys who are taken abroad by their parents and are then naturalised in their new country. Unless certain very specific procedures are followed, these boys (who may have been infants at the time of emigration) remain liable for conscription and are subject to arrest and service if they should ever have to transit through Singapore on a plane or wish to visit aging or dying grandparents.

Alvinology writes:

Hi Bryan,

Conscription in Singapore is not just 2 years.

After finishing the "2-years sentence", Singapore men still have to go back for regular training of no more than 40 days every year till they are 40 years old. During the period, there will be forced physical fitness tests yearly - if you fail, there will be up to two months of twice to thrice a week remedial physical training.

It's a pretty bad deal indeed. :(

Especially for non-exercise buffs like me. Staying healthy is one thing... but staying militarily fit till 40... sigh.

8 writes:


I think you just explained the secret of Singapore's healthcare system.

John Smith writes:

To Chris,
seems fair enough to me. the citizens are very well-informed of the laws informed. if you should choose to remain a citizen, naturally you are required to comply and serve. if not, then surrender your citizenship in a timely fashion. pick one.

To Alvinology,
yah. that really sucks. the annual fitness tests. luckily i still exempted until college education. dun think it is fun. though i do think it is necessary

Kevin writes:

Nope, conscription in Singapore does not removes class & ethnic differences. It may even enhances it to a certain extend.

Sons of politicians, high level civil servants and the rich were grouped in what we call "whitehorse platoons" and given very easy duty in air-conditioned offices. Those who preformed well academically were grouped under "Scholars Platoons" and receives special treatments. There are most classes & division of people in the military than in the society itself.

As for ethnic, some units do not have a single human being of certain minority race & religion. For example, there was no malay or muslim in my military unit for strategic reason, so they claimed. Social cohesion???!!

John Smith writes:

for the "scholars", if they really can perform, why not? i suspect that they are not superior in their performance, but in theory i dun obect to the idea. it is just that in reality, i dun think the system works.
as for the powerful, well, what can we do?
but i do support the barring of minorities from the high security units.

C writes:

If there's anything that seems to be lacking in this analysis it's the consideration of the reason for having an army in the first place. Fostering cohesion, patriotism, nationalist spirit and everything else is secondary - and occasionally can be seen as just PR bullshit. We have conscription because we need enough people to form an army. We need an army to defend and to deter. That's a problem the US doesn't face, albeit a problem I'd rather have on Singapore's hands than the slew of problems much bigger nations have on theirs.

Stan writes:

To david,
Thanks for the info, I had no idea that Singapore actually has a larger army than Malaysia and the air force stat is kind of mind boggling. My questions is, where do they keep all this stuff?

To Ian Timothy,
Yes, I was joking about nuclear weapons.

Seriously, though, do you think that Singapore would be unable to maintain a large enough Army if it has to maintain an all-volunteer force? If the price is too high in terms of army pay, then isn't conscription just a shift of the burden from all the taxpayers to the conscripts?

John Smith writes:

To Stan
having an draft addresses 2 problems. that of having an trained efficient force, and that of having access to an trained efficient force.

to address the first issue by offering money would be fairly easily. many would step forth to accept the training for high pay. then after 2 years, you can discharge them. (since we have no intention of actually maintaining 300k troops on standing status, would bankrupt us).

it is the 2nd issue that is the barrier. few people in my view would be willing to sign over theemselves to be used as front-line troops in case of war no matter the sum. thus, a draft create a postive sum of sorts. the citizens may be unwilling to accept money for danger, but if you were to accept them how much are they willing to pay to get out of danger, the sum might be less. and since a draft would be targeted at the trained troops, nobody would then be willing to be trained even for vast wealth given that it is understood that you would be drafted. thus, a draft acorss the board resolve this

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