Globalization: Should Every Country be Like Singapore?

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New America Foundation | June 26, 2014

Interview with Elizabeth Weingarten

This is part of a Weekly Wonk series, Globalization’s Canary: Singapore at 50. In the half-century since its independence, the strategically located city-state has leveraged its access to the global economy, and a number of innovative policies on issues ranging from housing to savings and social cohesion, to become one of the world’s most affluent societies. As they prepare to celebrate their milestone, Singaporeans are in a reflective mood, taking stock of what’s been accomplished, while also expressing some unease about the sustainability of their current model going forward.

The question, says New America Fellow Parag Khanna, is not why he and his family moved to Singapore nearly two years ago, but “why didn’t we come sooner?” There’s much to admire about Singapore – its innovative housing and asset-building policies make Scandinavian countries salivate. It’s situated in a geostrategic hotspot. And the food is, indisputably, delicious. But Khanna, who has lived, worked and traveled in over 100 countries, is well positioned to talk both about Singapore’s greatest strengths – and to level on its weaknesses. We posed five questions to the New America Senior Fellow after our recent trip to the city-state about Singapore’s greatest challenges, and opportunities as a canary in globalization’s coal mine.

1. One of the ideas that came up again and again during our conversations was that Singapore’s success in harnessing the winds of globalization have made it a model for other Asian countries – like China. Should it be a regional model?

It seems apocryphal in retrospect that today’s Chinese superpower would ever have looked up to Singapore, but in fact it is no accident that Deng Xiaoping’s famous reforms and modernization program of the 1980s began after his visit to Singapore. To this day, if you understand China as an increasingly devolved federation of mega-city clusters, you can see the impact of Singapore across the country. There are at least ten major special economic zones (SEZs) and industrial parks that have been developed by Singapore, and these are nothing less than China’s most important high-tech and sustainable innovation showcases. Other Asian states are far behind in terms of willful and far-sighted modernization strategies, so of course Singapore is a de facto role model for them too. In Asia (and elsewhere) today, success is demonstrated by the viability of your economic master plan in the context of a complex global economy, not by the degree of democracy.

Related: Singapore has become the masters at globalization

2. Fascinating stuff, but the question remains – should Singapore be a model? Another theme that emerged from the trip was the sense that the Singaporean consensus and the meritocratic system is beginning to unravel – that citizens are starting to challenge government policies and perspectives that they argue have stifled pluralism and exacerbated inequality. There seems to be a growing recognition that the current system of governance must evolve.

My answer goes back to the marketplace of ideas, which is to say, it doesn’t matter if it should or shouldn’t it, since it just is. Every place has flaws, makes mistakes, and is caught off guard by unintended consequences. That is certainly the case in Singapore too. The question is the ability to self-correct. The fact that there is more intense debate and dissent among the meritocratic elite (and ideas percolating from the citizenry at large through processes like “Our Singapore Conversation”) is not a sign that meritocracy is unraveling. Meritocracy is not supposed to foster group-think or automatic consensus but the best ideas.

It is a sign that meritocracy is working that the best ideas (or corrective ideas) are asserting themselves. More broadly, the system is certainly evolving. Elections are clearly competitive, with surprising outcomes, as witnessed in 2011, and there is far more effort to consult the population more frequently across the board. Historically, though, when we say “evolve” we mean “come to look like Western/American-style democracy.” I really hope that doesn’t happen!

3. I want to come back to that last point, but first: According to Freedom House, Singapore’s press freedom rating is 149 out of 179 countries. That’s partly a consequence of media ownership laws that channel the most powerful shares of a company to the Ministry of Information, which appoints the directors of the board. The consensus among the Singaporean journalists we spoke to was that Singapore doesn’t deserve such a low rating, but the reporting environment could be better. How can a country foster a marketplace of ideas without a free press? And how does the Singaporean government reconcile its strategy to consult its citizens more often if that citizenry may not be sufficiently informed?

It is indeed unfortunate that press freedom rankings put Singapore down near Mexico and Iraq. Yet your interlocutors are certainly right that such a harsh ranking is undeserved. It’s an indication though of a rigid system, not an oppressive one. There is a general setting of parameters through the management regulations you describe. This is one of those areas where inertia has taken precedence over evolution and innovation. Policies continue because they have, not because they have to. A country as successful as Singapore with a government as accomplished can afford to “lighten up” and allow more open criticism and dissent without any risk to stability. The quality of policy discourse is extremely sophisticated with a variety of views. The fear now is that opening up too much would dilute the quality of the political conversation. But again that is a view that reflects inertia rather than sufficient trust in the citizenry.

Related: Should we save like the Singaporeans do?

4. Ah, yes, diluted political conversation. Probably like what happens in a Western-style democracy. Speaking of which – what’s so bad about a Western-style democracy? You say, in your second answer, that you hope Singapore doesn’t evolve into one.

If we are looking for an ideal type of government for the 21st century of constant complexity, it is less the model of Western democracy and more what I call an “info-state”, a place where data matters as much as democracy for governance. Data isn’t just statistics around citizen behavior, but shorthand for constant observation of global economic and political dynamics, building scenarios around likely trends and futures, and steering the economy and workforce in successful directions. Much of this is technocratic in nature, but it is informed through citizen feedback via surveys and elections. So the info-state is a technocracy with feedback loops.

If we want governance to evolve in a direction that delivers welfare, stability and prosperity to its people in the 21st century, it should probably look more like an “info-state” than a traditional Western-style democracy. That’s the direction in which Singapore is headed, even though it is also democratizing. I would not sacrifice the former for the latter.

5. That notion – that we should not be striving for more Western-style democracy – may seem counterintuitive to some Westerners. What else have you learned from living in Singapore that has challenged conventional Western wisdom about the future of governance?

One example is the city scale and locus of governance. In a world of large powers, it doesn’t seem that a small city could be relevant and influential. But as we gradually view the world more as 600 key cities rather than 200 countries (many rather unimportant), Singapore’s governance and management insights become highlight relevant. Also there’s the approach to innovation. The discourse on innovation has been dominated by people who view it as something purely accidental and emerging only from eco-systems like Silicon Valley. But in Singapore you can see how “managed innovation” is essential for success and creates more opportunities than the serendipity school of thought.

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