By Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, January 29, 2100
Singapore is tiny and by no means a U.S.-style democracy. Yet, like America, it has a multiethnic population — Chinese, Indian and Malay — with a big working class. It has no natural resources and even has to import sand for building. But today its per capita income is just below U.S. levels, built with high-end manufacturing, services and exports. The country’s economy grew last year at 14.7 percent, led by biomedical exports. How?
If Singapore has one thing to teach America, it is about taking governing seriously, relentlessly asking: What world are we living in and how do we adapt to thrive. “We’re like someone living in a hut without any insulation,” explained Tan Kong Yam, an economist. “We feel every change in the wind or the temperature and have to adapt. You Americans are still living in a brick house with central heating and don’t have to be so responsive.” And we have not been.
Singapore probably has the freest market in the world; it doesn’t believe in import tariffs, minimum wages or unemployment insurance. But it believes regulators need to make sure markets work properly — because they can’t on their own — and it subsidizes homeownership and education to give everyone a foundation to become self-reliant. Singapore copied the German model that strives to put everyone who graduates from high school on a track for higher education, but only about 40 percent go to universities. Others are tracked to polytechnics or vocational institutes, so the vast majority graduate with the skills to get a job, whether it be as a plumber or a scientist.
Explained Ravi Menon, the Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry: “The two ‘isms’ that perhaps best describe Singapore’s approach are: pragmatism — an emphasis on what works in practice rather than abstract theory; and eclecticism — a willingness to adapt to the local context best practices from around the world.”
It is a sophisticated mix of radical free-market and nanny state that requires sophisticated policy makers to implement, which is why politics here is not treated as sports or entertainment. Top bureaucrats and cabinet ministers have their pay linked to top private sector wages, so most make well over $1 million a year, and their bonuses are tied to the country’s annual G.D.P. growth rate. It means the government can attract high-quality professionals and corruption is low.
America never would or should copy Singapore’s less-than-free politics. But Singapore has something to teach us about “attitude” — about taking governing seriously and thinking strategically. We used to do that and must again because our little brick house with central heating is not going to be resistant to the storms much longer.
“There is real puzzlement here about America today,” said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, “because we learned all about what it takes to build a well-functioning society from you. Many of our top officials are graduates of the Kennedy School at Harvard. They just came back home and applied its lessons vigorously.”
Imagine, a country where politics is not treated as sports or entertainment, but taken seriously, with little corruption and a focus on attracting high-quality professionals, while regulating the ravages of the free market!
Maybe there is more than a little that Singapore can teach North America about the seriousness of trying to govern successfully in a very complex and fast-changing world. Start with a reality that we are not so insulated from the winds that are blowing around the globe, and that our house is a little less secure than we once thought it was. That would inject a little humility into our public discourse and our public attitudes to both issues and politicians seeking our support.