Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Singapore's Social Contract

With its famously litter-free streets and obedient, law-abiding citizenry, I was prepared to dislike Singapore. In this city where chewing gum was once illegal, I assumed it would be intolerable for a rebellious New York City bad boy like myself.

But after seeing the country first-hand, my opinions have changed. I'm not sure I could ever live there, but I've come to regard Singapore as a fascinating, complex, and multi-layered social experiment, a place where the sacrifice of individual rights for the greater good has actually produced a system with as much to commend it as to fear.

For the sheer fact of its existence, Singapore deserves respect. I can think of no other example in which a state has been expelled from a country, but this is what happened when Singapore was booted right out of the Malaysian Federation in 1965.

An island just over 700 km2 in size with no natural resources, Singapore should not have been able to make it. But from the start Singaporeans signed a social contract with their government in which they gave up multi-party democracy, labor rights, a free press, and other individual freedoms in exchange for prosperity.

And boy did the government deliver. Not yet 50 years old, tiny Singapore has not only the most successful economy in Southeast Asia, it has one of the highest standards of living in the world. One need only walk down Orchard Road, Singapore's famous shopping street where every name brand in the world from Subway to Armani is represented, to see the results of Singapore's roaring tiger economy.

Much of the credit goes to the brilliant and charismatic Lee Kuan Yew. Ruling a single-party state since independence, Lee and his People's Action Party (PAP) have, with technocratic precision, built the modern Singaporean nation. In many ways, Singapore has been the model for what Confucius said was the best of all forms of government: a benevolent dictatorship.

Take some examples. One of the PAP's first acts was to curtail the power of labor unions, by limiting the issues labor could legally bring up with management. In exchange, the government defined fair working conditions, benefits, and salary structures for all workers on the island. The result was a stable labor climate that, alongside tax incentives and duty-free ports, lured foreign investors in droves.

Believing that conflicting political viewpoints would drain talent away from the task of building independent Singapore, Lee early on limited the political actions of parties, student unions and other associations. The belief that Singapore could only afford "one voice" was further reflected in the government's monopoly on the media. Some educated Singaporeans naturally feared the PAP's growing despotism, but as the country developed and prospered, it became more difficult to argue with success.

Singapore is one of the most socially engineered states on the planet, with such things as racial quotas for housing developments (to eliminate ethnic enclaves that would weaken a sense of national identity), and a history of radical family planning programs (at one point Lee even proposed sterilizing or incentivizing women to have babies, based on their levels of education).

But while government is the ultimate Big Daddy, Singapore is no welfare state. The country offers nothing by way of unemployment benefits, and few of the social safety nets found in other developed nations. Housing, education and health care, while subsidized, are not free. In Singapore if you don't work, you can just as easily leave.

Singapore is an odd mix of autocratic and free. These contradictions are what make it such an interesting social experiment. There's plenty to do in Singapore, and Singaporeans have enough disposable income to avail themselves of the island's amenities. So long as one accepts the social order, Singapore is attractive and emminently livable.

But there may be one consequence to the air-conditioned nation that Lee Kuan Yew did not foresee. Two generations into independence, Singaporean workers are generally regarded as intelligent and technically skilled. But what you get little of, according to my friend Sudesh who, like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has grown up along with his nation, is an entrepreneurial spirit.

Comfort may lead to efficiency, but innovation, it seems, is born of hunger.


  1. Fascinating! Now, I want to visit.

  2. LOVE the way you put it- 'Sporean signs a social contract with the government'.

    I'm one of the few S'porean who don't have a problem with it though :-)

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Yay! I loved your article! You've put in much thought in it and it was an enjoyable entry to read! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Just a random comment..

    42% of Singaporeans are actually made of foreigners, like yourself!

  5. An awesome article, thank you so much for sharing. However, would like to hear more about what innovation is lacking!

  6. Thanks for the kudos. I'd love to know more as well! This was my friend Sudesh's opinion, and as a native Singaporean I'm willing to accept it as his honest view. Perhaps when I return I'll have him go into more specifics. Thanks again for commenting.