Why am I devoting two columns to Singapore in The Post? As I noted last week, I’ve been fascinated by Singapore’s remarkable achievements in rising from Third World to First via a series of savvy policies implemented by unusually talented government officials in recent decades. The era now unfolding in Singapore is a test of whether a tradition of sound governance under one-party rule can adapt to the stresses of globalization even as a now-educated and more vocal middle class forces a transition toward fuller democracy.
If Singapore can renew its economy, open up political life and better meet its citizens’ needs and aspirations in the decade ahead, there will be important lessons for the world. If it falters under these challenges, different conclusions will be drawn. A lot is riding on the outcome, and not just for Singaporeans. China, many of whose leaders view Singapore’s achievements under “soft authoritarianism” as a model, will be watching closely. So should the United States.
Public frustration in Singapore today has a number of causes. For starters, for all its growth, Singapore has become one of the world’s most unequal societies. While its per capita income is among the world’s highest, per capita consumption and wages as a share of gross domestic product — both better reflections of the ordinary citizen’s lot — rank much lower. A massive influx of low-wage foreign workers in recent years — which has helped swell the population from 4 million to 5 million in just a decade (imagine adding 75 million people to America’s 300 million and you get a feel for the disruption) — has put downward pressure on middle- and lower-income Singaporeans’ wages. It’s also created a sense in some quarters that Singapore may be heaven for the multinational elites who set up shop here but hellish for too many of the natives who serve the food or sweep the streets.
Even Singapore’s ambassador-at-large, Tommy Koh, a soft-spoken senior statesman with whom I spent an hour recently, calls Singapore’s widening gap between the rich and the poor “socially unconscionable.”
Compounding the problem is growing frustration that the government, long fabled for its competence, can’t seem to make the trains run on time anymore. Literally. The shiny subway system has seen an unusual number of breakdowns and delays in the last year, likely driven by the surge in population and usage — but also, critics claim, because the system was privatized and milked for profit at the expense of maintenance. A series of floods in shopping and residential areas have likewise exposed inadequate planning.