Bryan Caplan  

Singapore: Where Do I Start?

A Theory of Financial Panic... Notes on McArdle's Law...
If you'll forgive the allusion, I tempted to open with "I've seen the future, and it works!"  But the quote is apt: If Asia stays on course for the next three decades, China will be a massive version of Singapore - and India will be a massive version of Malaysia.  I think I'd bet on that, but give me a few days to overcome jet lag before you propose terms. :-)

I had so many bloggable experiences in Singapore that I'll try to spread out the flow over the next month or two.  For now, let me start with some observations on the people I met:

1. About 80% of the Singaporeans I met were in the Civil Service; the rest were academics and journalists.  In terms of pure IQ, all of them would have been in the top half of my Ph.D. classes.

2. Even more impressive than IQs: The ubiquity of critical and creative thinking.  Talking to Singapore's Civil Service is like giving an academic seminar where the audience actually pays attention.  Multiple people actually asked me, "What is the ideal form of government?"

3. Scoff if you must, but Singaporean bureaucrats are less afraid to criticize their government than American bureaucrats are to criticize theirs.  Neither group would be afraid of legal punishment; but the Americans would be more worried that saying the wrong thing would hurt their careers.

4. What are Singapore's intellectual taboos?  I'm still looking for one.  The customs form says "DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUGS IN SINGAPORE," but when I advocated legalization, no one blinked. 

5. Singaporeans often speak of their policies' "pragmatism."  But their version of pragmatism is very different from ours.  In the U.S., pragmatism primarily means going along with public opinion and openness to political compromise.  In Singapore, in contrast, pragmatism primarily means judging policies based on their actual consequences, not their popularity.  "Pragmatism" is virtually a synonym for "utilitarianism." 

Example: In the American sense of the term, congestion prices for roads would not be "pragmatic" because lots of people would object.  In the Singaporean sense of the term, congestion pricing for roads is "pragmatic" because it sharply reduces rush hour traffic jams.  Get it?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (15 to date)
johnleemk writes:

As a Malaysian I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say about my for Singapore, I do think there could very well be almost no intellectual taboos there. It's a state made in the image of Lee Kuan Yew, who has openly mused before on the sort of things (like a link between ethnicity/sex and intelligence, or even health/vitality) that, for instance, got Larry Summers sacked from Harvard.

Southeast Asia is sometimes described as the Balkans of Asia, though, so any intellectual taboo may very well involve race. Perhaps one possibility is the suggestion that Singapore has pursued the wrong path as far as race relations policy goes. The tenacity with which the government persecutes its political opposition - most of which is often based on human rights issues and/or more leftist economic policies - suggests to me that any sort of liberal orthodoxy might be an intellectual taboo. Like many authoritarian governments, Singapore is incredibly sensitive about accusations that it mistreats its people.

Maybe the problem is the definition of a taboo - it's quite possible Singaporeans would not openly criticize an idea to someone's face, but behind his/her back, ridicule it.

Devin Finbarr writes:

Scoff if you must, but Singaporean bureaucrats are less afraid to criticize their government than American bureaucrats are to criticize theirs.

I believe it. Tocqueville noted that American democracy had less free speech than the European monarchies, because of the overwhelming social pressure to say the right thing.

david writes:

Johnleemk: the government doesn't give a damn what you say, nowadays (ever since the bad response to 1987's ISA arrests). It cares a lot whether you take the issue to the middle class, though: so no appeals to the public, no free press, etc. You can talk about liberalism and freedom in academic conferences and private meetings with foreign thinkers - indeed, this is quietly supported, and ministers do listen to the intelligentsia - but on no account are you allowed to attempt to inflame public opinion about it. Several local thinkers have already noted this pattern.

sa writes:

Bryan has fallen for the old image vs reality mirage that is presented to western travellers like him. he's not the first one.

BT writes:

"China will be a massive version of Singapore - and India will be a massive version of Malaysia"

I strongly disagree. Having visited India in 2006, religious and political freedoms in India are comparable to 50's US. Not perfect but relatively free. In fact I visited a site of a Christian church (I'm catholic) which was established in the second century. By comparison in Malaysia, non-Muslims who marry a Muslim must convert to Islam. And Malaysian civil courts are obliged to follow the decisions of Syariah courts even in matters not relating to muslims. Malaysia is an Islamic "republic" with significant restrictions on political and religious freedoms.

mjh writes:

I don't have sufficient trust of government to even set foot in Singapore. I haven't ever used any of the drugs on the list, nor do I have any plans to. However, I would worry about being framed or an unjust trial or some other thing so much that I just couldn't step foot in Singapore at all.

Maybe I'm just too skittish.

Liz McKay writes:

My son and his family have lived in Singapore for years and I've been there several times. Your entry is interesting to me, but I'm surprised you didn't mention the prejudice against Fillipinos. There are thousands working in Singapore and they're the target of strong strictures, similar to the treatment of African-Americans in the 19th century.

Robbie writes:

"If Asia stays on course for the next three decades"

sounds a bit familiar...

twasher writes:

Singaporean bureaucrats are less afraid to criticize their government than American bureaucrats are to criticize theirs

They might feel safe mentioning criticisms in front of you, or within a group of elites, but anyone who dares to criticise the government in a public medium (say, on national TV) would be quickly sued for defamation. More than anything else, the government is paranoid about losing the support of the hoi polloi. The elites are generally too financially invested in the system to destroy it, even if they complain about it all the time.

Sima Qian writes:

"anyone who dares to criticise the government in a public medium (say, on national TV) would be quickly sued for defamation."

Nonsense. Make spurious claims that defame people, and you will be sued for defamation. That's what defamation means. It doesn't mean that any and all criticism in a public medium is actionable under libel law. That would be absurd. Under the common law of defamation, truth is a defence to a defamation suit (bar narrow exceptions like innuendo). So prove what you say in a court of law. If you can't, then you have no business libeling people in the first place.

The only difference between my country and yours is that you have a First Amendment standard that substantially raises the hurdle for public figures, who have to prove actual malice in a defamation action. We on the other hand have struck a different balance -- we have no chilling effects doctrine, we are rather more plaintiff-friendly, etc. The upshot of this is that people can't be nearly as cavalier with the facts as they are in the United States. This is good thing, from our perspective.

Criticism of the government in abstract terms, or even of government figures, is in no way foreclosed as long as you stick to provable facts. I'm not saying that no defamation case was ever incorrectly decided by our courts -- I think at least one such case was wrongly decided -- but the view that "anyone" who criticizes would be sued is more than a little hyperbole. So get a grip.

Sima Qian writes:

Inflammatory comments on race and religion are certainly taboo here. So yes: racist, racialist, and religiously provocative comments are generally frowned upon and possible offenses under the Sedition Act. The state is touchy like that, because religious and racial harmony is paramount in a small city that could easily turn into a tinderbox of ethnic or religious antagonism. It's not pretty, and possibly fatal for a country as small and as dependent upon foreign trade and investment as ours.

Elia Diodati writes:

What's are Singapore's intellectual taboos? I'm still looking for one.

It's difficult to probe deeply in the course of a few days, but having lived there for a long time, the laundry list starts with racism, religion, abolition of national service (conscription), GLBT rights and direct criticism of top civil servants and PAP party leaders...

Sima Qian writes:

Except the discussion of GLBT rights is not taboo and has been discussed in parliament and across the pages of newspapers. Have you been living under a rock? Factually provable direct criticism is not taboo either. If what you want is an unchecked right to slander or libel, well then, tough.

Agagooga writes:

Make spurious claims that defame people, and you will be sued for defamation

In Singapore, even the truth is, and has been ruled to be, defamatory.

CS Lim writes:

An example of how reporting facts is defamatory in Singapore:

Editor 'defamed' Singapore leader

"The case was about an article in FEER in 2006, based on an interview with Singapore politician Chee Soon Juan...

The article which had aroused the Lees' anger was entitled Singapore's 'Martyr,' Chee Soon Juan. It described the Singapore Democratic Party secretary general's battle against the ruling People's Action Party and its leaders.

FEER had argued that the article was based on facts and fair comment, concerned matters of public interest and was a neutral report...

He said there was no doubt the defamatory words in the article referred to the two Singapore leaders... [which] amounted to "defamation by implication"."

This is the doctrine of implication: they read all sorts of defamatory meaning into your words. So basically anything you can say about them, they can read negative implications into.

A prime example: what happened to Chris Lingle in the early 90s, who didn't even mention any identifying details about the Asian country he was criticising

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