I spent the last week in Singapore. A few observations from my trip there:
1. Singapore has a pervasive STEM culture. #
From a young age, students are pushed to study STEM.
Historically Singapore was a very poor country without any natural resources and so heavily encouraged its people Science / Engineering / Business as opposed to the liberal arts. As a result, most Singaporeans have no interest in or understanding of creative arts. For example, there are hardly any pieces of art in the city and I did not see a single festival while I was there. I spoke with an artist while I was there and learned that most Singaporeans did not know who Leonardo Da Vinci was.
The government is run primarily by technocrats as opposed to traditional “politicians”.
I met a few people from the government and was impressed by their total lack of charisma. Rather than being masters of rhetoric, these people had multiple advanced Science / Engineering doctorates. This makes sense to me, given that the government is Singapore is basically autocratic. The don’t need to persuade to do their job. They just need to do it well enough that the population is satisfied with how things are being run.
Civil service is seen a high-class profession.
Singaporean government officials can as much as a million USD per year and are some of the highest paid in the world. From what I learned, working in the government is considered to be a top job, especially as a government scholar. In that program, top students can earn scholarships from the Singapore government that fully pay for overseas tuition, after which they spend several years working in the Government.
2. The Government is heavily involved in everything. #
One example of this is vehicle ownership.
The country has exorbitant taxes on vehicles.
To purchase a car, you need to purchase a certificate of entitlement, which is itself five figures. After that, the government lobbies taxes on cars that can increase the cost of a car by as much as 200%. Some cars all-in can cost as much as $1 million. And after you buy the car, the city is chock full of automated toll booths that charge $1-6 as you drive through certain roads.
There are relatively few cars on the road.
You can take a car pretty much anywhere in the city - even in rush hour - and there will barely be any traffic at all. This is because most of the population is taking the highly efficient metro.
Driving is considered a privilege that can be revoked.
There are cameras everywhere that automatically track traffic / parking violations and will add “points” to your record for violations. If you accumulate too many points, you not only get fined but also lose your right to drive for 1-3 years.
Another example of this is that the government is heavily involved in housing.
Virtually all housing is permanently owned by the government.
If a private citizen wants to buy property, they lease it for 99 years from the government instead of purchasing it outright. This is important because most residents rent rather than own. 85 percent of the population lives in public housing provided at cost by the government.
The government controls who can own houses and where they are owned.
You need to be a Singapore citizen who is living in the house to buy most places. Foreign investors are excluded from most kinds of property.
The government forces diversity within neighborhoods. That is, each neighborhood is designed specifically to have people of all different races / religions / wealth levels.
The government is heavily involved in the financial system in Singapore.
Each elected government has very clear rules on what they are allowed to spend.
In particular, each President can only spend revenue that was generated during their term in office. This enforces a constant budget surplus.
The government works closely with the private sector to develop companies.
The government funded Grab to the tune of $400M and owns a majority stake in the company. As the company has continued to grow and is facing competition against new rivals such as GoJack, the government continues to fund the company and to protect its market in Singapore.
Regulators work closely with the private sector to attract investments.
The government will give large handouts to entrepreneurs or investors looking to expand into Singapore. These handouts typically come in the form of individual or corporate tax breaks for entrepreneurs and builders that do not apply to the general public.
3. Singapore is a very global city. #
Singaporeans see themselves as global citizens.
Most of the Singaporeans that I met knew far more about global news (even news within the US) than I did. Some of the people I met were able to recount American news that I had never read in the NYTimes and would not have been able to understand even if I had due to my limited scope on American issues.
Singaporeans speak many languages.
I was surprised to see a young Caucasian girl who spoke Mandarin, Malay, English, and French. Most students growing up in Singapore are at least bilingual, learning both English & Mandarin.
Singapore advertises itself as a financial hub for the global economy.
With it’s 0% capital gains tax, the country has encouraged many high net-worth individuals to open investment offices and companies there. This has created a place with many ex-patriates investor types, especially those who are looking to tap into the growing Southeast Asian economy.
Overall, I was very impressed by how Singapore has been able to legislate away a lot of issues that exist in the United States. Compared to Singapore, the USA is obviously very libertarian. I would say that vs. the USA, Singapore values harmony significantly more. The government puts much more work into putting in a social safety net for the lower class and putting some limits on abuse of power by the elite class.
So at the end of the day, is life in Singapore “better” than life in the USA? I am not so sure. If anything, visiting Singapore has made me realize how much my life has been enriched by a rich cultural history and my own freedom of speech. Incidentally, it’s exactly this freedom of speech that’s prompted me to write this blog post. Being able to “speak” is a gift that many in the world do not have.
For example, I learned that the Prime Minister’s own nephew was put into jail for a private email that he sent to some friends expressing resentment about the Singaporean government. Unfortunately, the email was leaked publicly and the young man was summarily brought back home for trial and sentenced. I cannot imagine this happening in America.
My only hope is that American can start executing better as a political system because countries like Singapore and China are out executing the USA handily. Their governments have so far been much better at lifting up the bottom 50 percent. Freedom doesn’t sound quite as good if it means that the bottom 50 percent of your population are living in poverty. We can and should be doing much better.