Bryan Caplan  

How I See Singapore

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Scott Sumner returns from Singapore with many fascinating observations, including:
My guide told me that when western academics come to Singapore, the leftists tend to love the place and the libertarians often go home in disgust.
I'm as libertarian as they come, and "disgust" certainly wasn't my reaction after a one-week visit.  If Singapore abolished conscription, I'd seriously entertain the idea that Singapore has the best overall policies in the world.  If Singapore had an open border with Malaysia to create lots of convenient suburban housing, I'd seriously entertain the idea that Singapore is the best place in the world to live.  (Yes, Singapore would be a "better place to live" if it were more convenient to live just outside of Singapore).

Strangely, Scott overlooks one of the greatest amenities Singapore has to offer: its intellectual elite.  During my trip, I talked to a wide range of civil servants, professors, and engaged laymen.  I was amazed by the quality of their thinking.  So logical, so empirical, so curious, so unguarded.  I felt right at home.  Government officials in Singapore publicly quote me.  A room full of Singaporean civil servants actually asked me a series of earnest questions about anarcho-capitalism.  Can you imagine U.S. bureaucrats doing the same?

Unlike most observers, I guess, I barely noticed Singaporeans' material egalitarianism.  What struck me was their intellectual elitism.  Many Americans would be horrified, but I was delighted.  Singapore's elites are (almost) as good as they think they are, so their self-confidence serves them well - and creates a shockingly high supply of intelligent conversation.

P.S. I have a full article answering Garett's question ("How Do You Sustain the Second Freest Economy in the World?")


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Mike W writes:

It appears that all academics, even libertarians, think they should be the ruling elite...no messy democracy questioning their learned wisdom...and therein would seem to be the appeal of Singapore.

david writes:

The Singaporean system openly ideologically embraces technocratic power, and the openness of bureaucrats toward discussion is itself part of that. Liberal discussion in controlled fora is how the state justifies limiting discussion aimed at mobilizing popular dissent, with the specter of ethnic dispute being the most hated form of this dissent.

Garth Zietsman writes:

Singapore has the highest mean IQ of any country in the world - 110. That might be a partial explanation for how bright their elites seem.

Singapore is a bit paternalistic and dense for my taste. However since it is virtually also a city I figure some Western cities may have a similar mean IQ (and impressive elite). Are there any US cities that might qualify? I'm thinking maybe Boston or Washington DC.

Ann S writes:

Singapore has a lot of great aspects, but if you lived there, I think that eventually you'd become disillusioned with their social engineering. Yes, there's a rational basis for government campaigns to get the 'right' women (well educated, successful) to have more children while discouraging the 'wrong' women (poor, poorly educated) from having any children at all, but does a libertarian really enjoy the thought that the government is actively trying to make that decision?

While living in Hong Kong in the 1990s, I remember seeing a documentary on public housing in Singapore. What struck me most was that they had urine sensors in the elevators. If the sensor went off, the elevator would stop and guards would be mobilized to come get the guilty party, whose picture and name would later appear in the newpaper. Reportedly people with babies in diapers were afraid to ride the elevator, even though the policy wasn't aimed at them. Even just spending a week there, you probably noticed the signs in the airport restrooms warning you that it's illegal to fail to flush a public toilet after using it.

And if you were living there, you'd also read about various foolish 19 or 20 year olds being put to death because they were stupid enough to agree to try to smuggle drugs through Singapore. Yes, they should have known better, but .....

Regarding the political system, Singapore has a private ballot, but the ruling party lets it be known that neighborhoods that don't vote the right way will be low down in priority for infrastructure, etc., relative to the districts with 'good' voting records. The courts also impose large financial penalties on dissenters. There was a case where members of the ruling party called a political opponent an 'anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist'. He responded by saying that this was a lie, and they sued him for defamation (because he said that they had lied) and got a very large monetary settlement. As I recall, he fled to Australia.

Another memory I have from living in Asia in the 1990s was the 'who's banned now?' updates, as one Western publication after another was banned for saying something bad about the Singapore government. In one case (I think it was the Economist), an article said something about 'some Asian governments'. The Singapore authorities argued that 1) the article clearly was referring to Singapore, presumably because the description fit; yet 2) the description wasn't accurate and didn't fit, so they were lying, so they're banned.

I also heard, from academics at two Singapore Universities, about how easily an academic can be banned from getting government research funding (their equivalent of NSF grants). Singapore pays their bureaucrats well, arguing that they have to pay well to get the best. One economist argued against not the overall pay level but the structure, claiming that the lower level bureaucrats were actually paid less than they would have gotten in other jobs, while the upper levels were paid more. That was enough to get him cut off from funding for life.

Expats from Singapore (yes, the ones who left, so there's a selection bias) told me that they had always had to be careful what they said in restaurants in Singapore, because someone might overhear and their government didn't like it when people complained.

It's pretty easy for academics such as yourself to visit someplace for a year. I've had several offers from Singapore universities. Instead of a week, try a year or two, and pay attention, and I'd be surprised if your view doesn't shift a bit. Just be careful about asking people to speak out in public places where they might be overheard.

GIC writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment and comment privileges. We'd be happy to publish your comment. A valid email address is nevertheless required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

John Smith writes:

Too Ann S:

Censorship is indeed a serious issue with the government, and one that I too wish the government would change.

However, with regards to the execution of the 18 years old for drug smuggling, seems to me that that is a merit good, no? Somewhat similar to classical opera as seen by the left in US. Cleansing the gene pool is certainly a worthwhile venture.

[Do note that the airline explicitly broadcasts warnings over the PA system that the penalty for drug smuggling is execution. This is not kept secret]

John Smith writes:

To Bryan Caplan:

I am a great admirer of your work. But although you have championed against conscription many times, I don't think I have ever heard you explain how national defence would work in Singapore's context *WITHOUT* conscription?

Would we rely on a very small professional army? Estimates of the maximum sustainable size achieveable would be on the order of 100 000, or thereabouts from my understanding. This would seem too few. Do keep in mind that Singapore's forward defence policy would be to pre-emptively invade, which would require large numbers of troops to pacify the enemy cities.

johnleemk writes:

Ann S:

I'm from neighbouring Malaysia and this is the first I've heard of urine sensors in Singaporean lifts (and I lived there for a few years, and have plenty of friends currently living there) -- when I've been to public housing in Singapore, there are signs warning that urinating in the lifts is illegal, but nothing about sensors. Likewise this is the first I've heard of people being afraid to openly criticise Singapore in a casual environment (public gatherings are a whole other story).

I agree that Singaporean social engineering is probably the most disturbing thing about its society. I think however that most of Singapore's social engineering policies could feasibly be discarded, and if they were, it would likely be a quite attractive place to live (over and above as it is now).

When in Singapore I also have this feeling of artificiality and sterility about its society. I'm not sure how far this is peculiarly Singaporean, versus how far it might be the result of specific Singaporean public policies.

Jim Rose writes:
Singapore has a private ballot, but the ruling party lets it be known that neighborhoods that don't vote the right way will be low down in priority for infrastructure, etc., relative to the districts with 'good' voting records

a number of political parties neglect the interests of opposition strongholds when providing public services.

as long as the votes are added up honestly, there can be change. vote for any but the ruling party.

Ann S writes:

To johnleemk -

Thanks for telling me your experiences. On the urine sensors, I saw it on a documentary-type show, so perhaps it was something new they were trying and they gave it up because it was too much trouble (too many false alarms from families with babies in diapers?).

As I said regarding Singaporeans that claimed to not want to criticize the government when in a restaurant, they were people that grew up there and then left, supposedly in part because of this. They may have been paranoid or overly dramatic. Again, that's why I'm glad to hear what you thought.

In many ways I felt more comfortable in Singapore than in, say, Manila, and most Singaporeans seem to live well. The government has 'delivered' in many respects. I just couldn't help thinking that there were aspects that would particularly bother a libertarian.


To John Smith -

There's no question that the 18 year olds smuggling drugs were stupid, and they knew exactly what they were risking. As I recall, the little papers one fills out to enter Singapore (giving name, passport number, length of stay, etc.) say right on the bottom that the penalty for drug smuggling is death. The very reason drug dealers route their carriers through Singapore is because then it's reportedly easier to get them into Europe or the US - given how strong Singapore's laws are, it's assumed that flights from there are 'clean'.

But the cases we used to hear about (often kids from Hong Kong, so they'd get local press coverage while waiting for execution) weren't drug dealers. They were stupid kids attracted because it seemed like an easy, quick way to make money. There's no doubt that they screwed up, but one can still argue that death is a bit harsh. The issue came to my mind in this case because many libertarians don't think that drugs should be illegal to begin with.


Again, Singapore has a lot of great qualities; but it has earned its reputation as a nanny state. A libertarian might not fully appreciate that after just a one week visit.

John Smith writes:

To Ann S:

I am glad that we agree that the Singapore government has loudly broadcast its policy of death penalty far and wide.

Well, if they knew what they were signing up for, then there is certainly no just cause for complain now, is there?

Not at all. Even if you feel that drugs should be legal, a position that I agree with somewhat within the context of western societies, their stupidity alone qualifies them for death in my view. I wasn’t being coy when I stated that cleansing the gene pool is a merit good.

Their stupidity alone in challenging the Singapore national government in my view deserves death. If you do stupid stuff, you bear the consequences of it. I understand that this seems cruel and unfeeling to westerns, but this is the way of the world. You don’t get a freebie because you claim to be young and stupid. Doesn’t work in real life.

[edited with permission of commenter--Econlib Ed.]

TimTimoTam writes:

I am a Singaporean myself and have been living here all my life and did my two years as a conscript soldier, just like any Singaporean male. I am currently a university student. I chanced upon this site and thought I might give my 2 cents worth as a local.

Just thought that I might clarify this too, I have never heard of those urine sensors before, so I think the documentary may have gotten their facts wrong.In addition, I dont think there is a law against not flushing the toilet, at least I have yet to come across it in my studies. It was rather amusing as a Singaporean to read stuff like that.

With regard to what Ann S has said, I believe that she is referring to the case of Vui Kong, who was caught smuggling drugs at 18. There are some who do feel that it might be overly harsh, ( I do for one), but nonetheless, there is a rationale behind it.
Singapore is a country where lots of people come and go daily,and is arguably much more susceptible to drug trafficking, hence the harsh sentence of execution. Furthermore, we are surrounded by countries that have seen a surge in the number of drug syndicates. As such, it will not be an exaggeration to say that our tough laws might very well be the main bulwark against a flourishing drug trade in Singapore.

Heading back to the issue of smugglers who are either young or may be compelled to smuggling drugs (eg Nagaenthran a/l K Dharmalingam v
 Public Prosecutor) where they need money for their parent's operation, etc, yes perhaps this people do deserve a second chance. Nonetheless, looking at it from a totally objective and utilitarian point of view, if we were show leniency in such cases, there is a high probability that the drug kingpins will start sourcing for people who fit such a bill, knowing that they will be able to plead leniency. That's what I will do exactly if I am a drug lord. This then begs the question as to the potency of the criminal law to protect the security of its citizens, which is arguably one of the main rationales for criminal law.

Perhaps a quick update on the issue of mandatory death penalty will be apposite at this point. Slightly less than a month back, the Parliament debated on the issue of advocating discretionary death penalty to be passed for drugs and certain cases for homicide. No one argued against the loosening of the rigid law in this area, but there was some debate as whether the extent is enough and more can be done. As it has passed the Second Reading, it can be safely assumed that this will be the law and it's only a matter of time before it becomes official.

As to what changes this will bring is as such. Previously, so long as a drug trafficker was found by the Court to have trafficked an amount that surpassed the stipulated amount, it was mandatory that the death penalty be passed.

With this amendment, the judge will have the discretion as to whether to pass the death sentence or to incarcerate him instead. 2 requirements that have to be fulfilled before the judge is able to exercise the discretion will be i) that the accused is only a courier and not some drug lord or kingpin ii) the accused has substantially helped the authorities in their investigation.

This is definitely a loosening up of the harsh law. Nonetheless, there are queries made by the legal fraternity and other members of the concerned public as to what is meant by the word substantial. ie what's the threshold that the accused must meet, considering that the couriers are usually at the lower echelons of such syndicates, etc.

In conclusion, it is all a balancing act between the purely utilitarian approach and a more merciful approach. Singapore happens to be far more inclined to the former end of the spectrum, but there are signs of loosening up.

John Smith writes:

To TimTimoTam:

I disagree. While it is true that the fundamental reason behind the death penalty is to enforce state law, to me on a personal basis, the execution of those who behave so foolishly is a merit good in itself. That is to say, their death is an objective as well, not merely the means to an end.

Their deaths brightens the world and makes it a better place (for both Singaporeans and foreigners, for both drug consumers and non-consumers).

The government is wrong and weak to bow to the nonsense liberal fad that has swept our society in recent times. While discretion is not necessarily wrong, the loosening trend seems unpromising.

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