Me in Singapore

Small in size, but mighty in the region. That’s probably one of the best ways to encapsulate Singapore. I recently realized I have not posted anything about Singapore. (Or Malaysia. Or the Philippines.) Not wanting to appear biased to certain SEA nations (I am not!) I am going to address this head on– starting with Singapore, or as all the cool kids say, SG.

I actually have this love-hate relationship with SG. I love you Singapore because you achieved unparalleled economic success in about three decades. I hate you Singapore because you are so stable. So controlled. And when I went to visit, I felt like I was in some artificial environment the entire timeIt’s complicated. 

NSC Pre-Brief. Meeting with the Minister Mentor of Singapore. Oval.I have done a lot of research on the country in the past. One of my major research topics towards the end of my college career dealt with SG’s economic development, starting from independence after WWII (paper as WordDoc). And yes, once upon a time I was very taken with Singapore. At least economically speaking. I was enthralled that a small country–city-state, in fact–could advance so rapidly. To me, as well as many others, Singapore was (and still is) this unique and exceptional circumstance: no other country could effectively administer policy and achieve progress in a similar way.

I also have an obsession with the first SG Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. It’s a fact that elderly Asian men are the cutest. And this dude has a bite. Case in point:

“I make no apologies that the PAP is the Government and the Government is the PAP.”
– Lee Kuan Yew, Petir, 1982

PAP, or People’s Action Party, is basically Lee Kuan Yew’s political party. Still going strong today. Also, scroll through the list of his quotes through the decades. He is so feisty.

It’s not that I am no longer interested in SG. Well, sort of. But they have already “made it.” No other Southeast Asian country is even close to the economic and human development of Singapore.  Doing Business (2012) ranks them as the number one country to conduct business in the world. Unfortunately the Economist Intelligence Unit is trying to make me pay for their livability report, so unable to give information on that front.

But taking another look at the UN HDI report, out of 186 countries surveyed Singapore is at 18. (To see the full list, you can jump to page 22 in the UNDP Human Development Report 2013.) Like always, I spend way too much time playing around with data for ASEAN nations. Look at this though. HDI is on the y-axis while research and development x-axis. Look at how much of an outlier Singapore is.

(Graph not showing up? Follow this link for UNDP data.)

This graph is so telling because it shows the emphasis the PAP puts on education. One of the key ways SG developed so rapidly is by having a very advanced and skilled workforce. R&D goes right along with high knowledge levels.

Even more enlightening in terms of education is how SG is actually above 100 percent for gross enrollment (school) for both sexes. The figure is at 102.8 percent. Like, is that even possible? Brunei the closest behind with 83 percent. So not even that close.

(Graph not loading? Look here, thanks to UNDP and Google!)

Their high level of education really sheds some light onto SG’s economy. In some other indicators they may not stand out so so much. But without question they did something right. This fact sparked my interest initially.

Singapore embraces a unique state-led approach to development. It is very protected in some ways, like controlling citizens. Punishments are harsh. Alcohol is expensive. You can’t chew gum. But at the same time they are very open to things like FDI. Yet only FDI that will better lives of Singaporeans.

I know, I know. I am not addressing the current news flash around the smog covering Singapore (as well as Malaysia) from the Indonesia fires that is the center of the news right now. My apologies. I don’t know enough on the story to make an educated comment. 

In any case, I do not give much attention to Singapore anymore. Why? Because to me it is uninteresting. Again, they have “made it.” The government runs basically everything: schools, housing, media, etc. And when I went to visit I felt the high levels of control. There was no chaos. There was no poverty. It was like this artificial environment. And it was too perfect for me.


Image Credit (1) – Me in Singapore, early 2012. Photo taken on my iPhone (RIP).

Image Credit (2) – Lee Kuan Yew meets Bush, by Eric Draper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons