Is Singapore Worth Emulating?
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Is Singapore Worth Emulating?


Singapore has attracted admirers for its success in transforming from one of Asia’s less developed countries into an international economic powerhouse. Now, with China seeking to do the same for itself and double per capita income by 2020, could the tightly controlled but economically vibrant city-state help show Beijing’s communist leaders how to maintain their grip on power?

According to an article in China’s Study Times, published by the Communist Party’s Central Party School, China’s incoming president Xi Jinping has for several years “led a team investigating the Singapore model and how it might be applied to China”.

'[Singapore’s] People’s Action Party [PAP] has won consecutive elections and held state power for a long time, while ensuring that the party's high efficiency, incorruptibility and vitality leads Singapore in attaining an economic leap forward,'' wrote Song Xiongwei, a lecturer at the Chinese Academy of Governance.

Despite the differences between the two countries, not least including China’s 1.3 billion people, Singapore’s city-state of 5.3 million has much worth emulating.

The island nation already reportedly leads the world in GDP per capita, as well as boasting one of the most competitive international economies in global rankings.

A report released in August 2012 by Knight Frank and Citi Private Wealth estimated the country’s GDP per capita in purchasing power parity terms at U.S. $56,532 in 2010, ahead of Norway, the United States and Hong Kong. Singapore is expected to maintain its high ranking through 2050, followed by neighbors Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.

Singapore’s wealth is undoubtedly inflated by the world’s highest concentration of millionaires, with the ultra-rich including Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, part of a class which is expected to increase another 67 percent over the next four years.

The Southeast Asian trading center was rated this year as the easiest place in the world for small and medium-sized enterprises to do business, according to a World Bank and International Finance Corporation report.

Measuring such factors as the complexity of procedures needed in starting a business, enforcing contracts and registering property, Singapore came in first ahead of its neighbor Hong Kong, with the United States ranking fourth.

In addition, Singapore ranked second behind Switzerland in the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Competitiveness Index, which compared nearly 150 economies across a wide variety of criteria including infrastructure, education, innovation and efficiency.

Ruled by the PAP since attaining self-governance in 1959, the former British colony has earned plaudits from the IMF for its “prudent macroeconomic and financial policies,” including persistent fiscal surpluses and a large stock of public sector external assets, along with “political stability and an effective rule of law.”

In an email interview with The Diplomat, ANZ economist Aninda Mitra said Singapore had set a good example for other regional countries to follow.

"Singapore is often viewed as a role model for other multi-ethnic, post-colonial small or island states which have failed to live up to their full potential, such as Fiji or Sri Lanka,” Mitra said.

“It is also seen as a model for urban planning and bureaucratic efficiency by larger states across the region.”

‘Middle income trap’

However, if Beijing’s policymakers see in Singapore a future path to follow, they may have to look carefully, according to a recent World Bank report.

Named “China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative High-Income Society,” the report by the World Bank and Beijing’s Development Research Center found that just 13 of 101 economies identified in 1960 as middle income made the transition to high-income economies.

Described as the “middle income trap,” countries are said to remain stuck when the factors that contributed to strong early growth, such as low-cost labor and early technology use, reach their limits and economic momentum slows.

Among those that broke free of the trap, including Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, less governmental intervention in both the economic and political spheres has been seen as a significant factor.

China’s outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao has argued in favor of political reform, warning his Communist Party comrades that “without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost. The new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.”

The World Bank report called for structural reforms in a number of politically challenging areas, including “redefining the role of government, reforming and restructuring state enterprises and banks, developing the private sector, promoting competition, and deepening reforms in the land, labor and financial markets.”

While seemingly on track to supplant the United States as the world’s biggest economy, China faces the risk of growing old before it gets rich, with its working age population set to peak in 2015 as reported by The Diplomat.

Democracy flight?

Singapore’s exclusive residential enclaves, luxury boutiques and multi-million dollar properties along with low taxes have helped attract the super-rich.

According to the Wall Street Journal Asia, a survey of wealthy individuals ranking cities in terms of “economic activity, political power, quality of life, knowledge and influence” found Singapore was the fifth-most popular behind London, New York, Hong Kong and Paris.

Yet even respondents in Asia put Western cities ahead of Singapore and Hong Kong – “an indication that economic growth may not be the most important factor when a high-net worth individual chooses his city of residence.”

The report by Knight Frank and Citi noted that Chinese cities “performed significantly less well for freedom of expression and human rights – something that may hinder any future ascent to the top of the overall ranking”.

Singapore has efficiently addressed two of the key domestic development issues in East Asia, comprising an excellent education system to train future leaders as well as making corruption unattractive. But can it attract and retain top global talent?

According to one recent U.S. visitor, the country’s push to “convince the global elite that Singapore is the best place to live” may be a challenge.

“In Singapore and in other parts of Asia, I heard several anecdotes of people expressing frustration with Singapore’s tightly controlled society. For how long can elites put up with partial freedom?

“I heard several people saying that the best and brightest in Asia prefer to move to freer societies with the U.S. as the top destination, then Europe, and then Australia,” said Devin T. Stewart, Senior Fellow at Carnegie Council.

According to Peter Hartcher, the Sydney Morning Herald’s international editor, the political, media and housing controls implemented by Singapore have shown China “a potential halfway house between authoritarianism and liberal democracy”.

Economic challenges

Meanwhile, Singapore’s push to restructure itself toward a productivity-based economy less reliant on foreign workers is seen affecting its growth prospects.

Growing income inequality, rising living costs and house prices were prominent issues in the May 2011 general elections which saw the PAP secure its lowest ever share of the popular vote.

Non-resident foreign workers make up around a third of Singapore’s labor force – one of the highest proportions in the world, with the exception of some countries in the Middle East. The high number has been blamed for low productivity growth and strains on public infrastructure, fueling anti-foreigner sentiment.

“Singapore has taken on a tough task in trying to restructure itself toward a more innovation-driven model,” said ANZ’s Mitra.

“This will likely result in greater economic integration with its neighbours, and shifts in economic activity toward higher value-added sectors. But it also implies slower growth than in the past, with stronger efforts to enabling and equalizing opportunities for all its residents.”

While forecasting 4.5 percent GDP growth in 2013, ANZ’s economists note “growing downside risks” including weak labor productivity coupled with tight monetary policy, producing a “tough growth-inflation trade-off”.

Singapore narrowly avoided recession this year through a revision of its second-quarter GDP figures to growth of 0.2 percent. Its third-quarter GDP shrank an annualized 1.5 percent from the previous quarter, worse than economists’ forecasts of a 1 percent decline.

With trade amounting to four times its GDP, Singapore remains susceptible to any further weakening in global demand. Yet for China’s leaders, its success in escaping the middle income trap while maintaining political control is the real lesson to be studied.

July 13, 2013 at 11:48

Singapore was worth emulating maybe 2-3 decades ago when they had good , responsible and inovative government , today this is not the case , and any country without any natural resources , especially water and food is no example to follow .

The true Singapore culture has almost disappeared , being replaced by the money culture .

Kah Wai
December 15, 2012 at 01:12

Singapore’s success is not just about the government, but also of its people, our continued efforts and ingenuity, and our heritage as migrant society, as an ex-British colony and our blessings in geography.

My siblings and I are the first generation of Singapore born and bred true – my parents came from various parts of Malaysia, and my forefathers came from southern China.

Having lived in various states of the US and in Panama for 9 years and worked and visited many countries from South America, Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa, I have experienced different cultures, and different systems of society and have made have made comparisons of each.

My conclusion is that Singapore has succeeded despite very difficult odds compared to other more naturally well-endowed countries that I have seen.

I am saddened that the rhetoric of many posts, especially from Singaporeans, is that of negativity that does not add any constructive value to the discussion.

For sure, there are national issues that need to be addressed and aspects of Singapore that can be improved, just as there is no perfect country that I have seen, but only relative merits and weaknesses. But I believe to build better lives, and a better future, we would need the diverse opinions of stakeholders, alas in a positive and constructive manner that engages and involves everyone, and coming to a consensus that creates the right momentum moving forward.

I see myself as middle class – my family and I are definitely not the rich nor the ultra rich. I was not born with a silver spoon in my lap.

But we have worked hard for what we have now, from scratch, and we have worked at the opportunities that have been given to us, and have also made scarifices in the process.

To the negative Singaporeans out there, I think we should be proud of what we have achieved but at the same time, look for constructive ways for making
our future even better than today. We need to recognise what we are and what we have achieved, before we can decide where we need to be going, and what needs to be improved.

Singapore is a migrant society today and in the past, just as our forefathers were immigrants from all over the world. If we have made a success of our ourselves in a small piece of land where even water is imported, then we should have the confidence to shape and face the future in the face of changes and competition….wherever our collective future may lead us. Salud.

November 16, 2012 at 11:59

"I do not recommend Singapore model for China. China needs to lessen, not widen its gap."
Singapore is an extremely poor model for China to emulate since the PAP government there suppresses chinese culture and the majority dialect chinese. I hope PRC won't be moronic enough as to follow Singapore.
"For goodness sake, Lee Kuan Yew practically filled the entire cabinet with inbred Peranakans. For the last few decades in Singapore, the top positions in civil service, statutory boards, armed forces, GLCs have all along been going disproportionately to the Peranakans.
That is one reason why Singapore has been run to the ground. Lee Kuan Yew worked with the Japanese Kempeitai and later the British colonizers to suppress the non-Peranakan Chinese. That's why he has always been wary of non-Peranakan Chinese and could only entrust power to his own family members and his other Peranakan cronies."

November 16, 2012 at 10:55

Yet you choose not to follow basic internet and forum etiquette.
You should be spacing out your responses as is customary on forums, I mean come on even 4chan and reddit follow this simple custom. 
It is a blog based site with submitted articles that are, hopfully, reviewed and edited. I'm not sure how you define professional. The Diplomat while a frequent read for me, is not a 100 percent perfessional source. 
You have neither responded acedemically (sourced) or proffesionally (followed basic forum conduct). 
But maybe, just maybe you should allow people to express themselves. As long as they are not hateful, destructive or just plain trolling, you are in the wrong to point the finger at other for making this a circus.

November 15, 2012 at 17:36

This is a professional website, yet we are seeing Singaporeans turning this forum into a circus. Nonetheless, we need to reply academically or at least professionally to this article and the author's proposed hypothesis.
Singapore has many outstanding achievements, and often touted around as an example for the rest to follow. However, it is because of 2 things that is inherently Singapore and could not be duplicated elsewhere. They are the colonial history, and her geographical properties.
Colonial background of Singapore as the crown jewel of British until 1960s, allows Singapore to receive both hardwares and softwares from the British empire. In the form of hardwares, we received port facilities, government buildings, fundings and most importantly, people from other parts of the empires, like Australia and India. In the form of software, Singapore inherited the British rule of law and trading skills. Finally, as the last saving grace, Singapore receives British troops until 1971.
There are two parts on the geographical properties. The first one is on location, Singapore is located on the st raits of Malacca, which is a prime trading route between the Asia and Europe. This has ensure that Singapore regardless of resources is able to profit from the trades. The second one is on the land mass, as the country is only close to 700 sq km, it is relatively easy place to plan and control.
In conclusion, we ought to look at Singapore's success from 1819, instead of 1965, it was a long march towards success. The magazines and governments would want us to think that our success is a modern history, but we have been successful all these while, we were left with a lot of assets upon independence. People such as our beloved emeritus lee, and his first cabinets all received excellent british education, and well versed in their political structures.

Inspector Fu
November 15, 2012 at 15:39

Appreciate the people who made it possible for you to live like this: the industriousness and wisdom of other Singaporeans. Governments don't create prosperity, but they can protect its institutions.

November 15, 2012 at 10:43

The past 15 years in Singapore has been a big gap between the have & the have-nots for Singapore. This results in great opinion divergence on PAP. The PAP, after Lee Kuan Yew has gone to the political background in 1990, is openly pro-elitist to the point of feudalistic.
I do not recommend Singapore model for China. China needs to lessen, not widen its gap.

November 15, 2012 at 06:42

Its not suprising actually as ethicity and culture are not the same thing.
Being Ethnically Chinese does not mean that you must be culturally Chinese. You may be Singaporean, Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian or Martian.
The culture is determinative not the ethnicity. Ethnicity is used more as a form of racist thought than as a distinctive social and cultural need.

November 15, 2012 at 02:13

Very interesting.
I was surprised to find out that most of my Singaporean friends spoke English at home and didn't even know what 'type' of Chinese they were such as "hokkien" or "teochew". Interesting how a uniquely Singaporean identiy has formed from the indigenous Chinese population.
Same with many Malay Chinese, many grow up speaking solely English at home and many are attempting to learn Chinese in their adult life.

November 15, 2012 at 00:07

Come on, crowded public transport is a problem of many developed countries, so stop complaining. And how are the "second-class citizens" made to "suffer and toil"? Are you being forced to work in fields and plant crops? I wonder how you can actually "suffer" in SIngapore. Do enlighten me.

Another Singaporean
November 14, 2012 at 23:36

It seems that some people have a misconception about the views of Singaporeans, and presume to speak for all of them. 
I'm a Singaporean too, "born and bred" in Singapore. 
I'm proud to say I'm a supporter of the PAP, I appreciate what they have done in building this country, and I trust their judgment and decisions in running the country.
I live here because I chose to, and I could at any time leave this country for another one. 
I enjoy the numerous conveniences and privileges that I have access to, which people in other countries may not, including: 
An efficient public transportation system;
A chance for a comprehensive, holistic education;
A house to live in with extremely reliable electricity and water supplies
A government that is, for the most part, corruption-free, and one of the least corrupt ones in the whole world, that operates on a system of democracy and meritocracy;
A clean environment to live in, with clean air and greenery everywhere;
Readily accessible amenities such as community hospitals, polyclinics, community centres, shppping centres, markets, parks and many more located everywhere in Singapore;
Subsidies for the lower-income group to help meet the cost of living;
And most of all, I appreciate the people who made it possible for me to live like this. The Singapore Government.
This is my own opinion, and isn't directed at anybody. I just felt compelled to shed some light on the other side of the Singapore story. 
An old Chinese phrase goes, "生在福中不知福", which means "To live in prosperity but not recognising it". I hope I never become like that, and continue to appreciate Singapore for what it is – my home. 

Rachel Berry
November 14, 2012 at 21:51

Obviously the so-called Singaporean commenting has not been living in Singapore. What majority lives in messed up lives?  If indeed there is, it might just be a minority.

Manuel C. Diaz
November 14, 2012 at 15:05

Singapore just scrapped the 7% transaction tax on GOLD and SILVER while the Philippines Idiot government  are planning to tax the Mining Industry to death. 

Michael Rebaczonok-Padulo
November 14, 2012 at 11:18

To those who would berate the People's Action Party for its governance of Singapore, I would pose one fundamental question:  Why is it that the PAP has remained in power ever since it gained control of the government back in 1959?  Surely this has not been done through repressive means, since elections are held regularly, with multiple parties participating (and increasingly so with each election cycle).  Opposition rallies (which I have attended myself) draw huge crowds of people in many instances, election after election.  And yet the PAP is overwhelmingly returned to power through free and fair elections.
I might also register some surprise in the alleged 'rigid control' mentioned in the article.  This does not comport with my own experiences; for example, in my national education (civics) classes at the polytechnic level, we have very open discussions about a whole host of current socio-political matters of import, in which all are allowed their say without prejudice.  The Internet abounds with myriad critical comments about the government and its policies, and the press publishes numerous letters to the editor replete with critiques on a whole host of matters. 
Indeed, based on my own experiences, the only repression I have ever experienced is that emanating from the fiercest government critics themselves, some of whom bitterly resent that there are those of us who support the government and the ruling party on a broad variety of issues!

November 13, 2012 at 04:23

The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence in Southeast Asia
Michael Barr explores the complex and covert networks of power at work in one of the world's most prosperous countries – the city-state of Singapore. He argues that the contemporary networks of power are a deliberate project initiated and managed by Lee Kuan Yew – former prime minister and Singapore's "founding father" – designed to empower himself and his family.
Barr identifies the crucial institutions of power – including the country's sovereign wealth funds, and the government-linked companies – together with five critical features that form the key to understanding the nature of the networks. He provides an assessment of possible shifts of power within the elite in the wake of Lee Kuan Yew's son, Lee Hsien Loong, assuming power, and considers the possibility of a more fundamental democratic shift in Singapore's political system….

What makes Singapore different? The majority of Singapore's population is ethnically Chinese, but Singapore is largely free of corruption, has sound institutions and the rule of law dominates. It's nothing like China. The answer lies in a historical division in Singapore's Chinese community between the babas and the sinkeh. The sinkeh, comprising the majority of the city-state's population, were the recent immigrants from China, or whose parents were born in China. They spoke Chinese, lived like Chinese and considered themselves overseas Chinese. In Indonesia, such Chinese were called the totok…
It was the babas who were the framers of Singapore's rules and institutions. Many of Singapore's most prominent Chinese have had baba backgrounds. Lee Kuan Yew, who became prime minister of Singapore aged just 35, is the most obvious example. He claims a Hakka heritage, although his upbringing was that of a baba: at home, he spoke English with his parents and baba Malay to his grandparents. "Mandarin was totally alien to me and unconnected with my life," Lee said of his childhood.
For Lee, Chineseness was an acquired skill and later a political necessity. He was not brought up as a Chinese with a focus on China, but as a baba who looked to England. He followed the conventional career path of a baba and went to London to study law. And so Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore became Harry Lee of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. His father had given him and two of his brothers English, as well as Chinese, names. Did Lee run Singapore as a piece of Asia mired in Chinese ways? No. He ran it in a manner to which a British colonial administrator would have aspired.
That other great framer of Singapore's institutions, Goh Keng Swee, who rose to become finance minister and deputy prime minister, is the epitome of the baba elite. Goh was born in 1918 in Malacca, the epicentre of baba culture, into a baba family. His parents were English-oriented Chinese Methodists…


November 13, 2012 at 02:47

Singapore is not worth emulating unless you want a country where the top 10% (mainly foreign expats) are treated as first class citizens by the PAP and the majoirity (the real Singaporeans, born and bred) are made to suffer and toil. The PAP's concern for Singaporeans (2nd class citizens in their own country) is minimal and a shame. Thankfully the younger genereations cannot wait to vote them out of power.
Also the plan to have a population of 6 million (half foreigners) is ridiculous in a country so small but it brings in the $$$ for PAP who do not deal with the most crowded, stuffed trains and residential areas so they do not care.
That is Singapore. Just welcome to those already rich and successful while majority live messed up lives.
Foreingers like you need to understand it's "democracy".

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