The Lee Kuan Yew Conundrum

Washington, D.C., is fast becoming an acronym for “Dysfunctional Capital.” Singapore, in contrast, has become the poster child for “the concept of good governance,” to quote the Financial Times’s obituary for the country’s longtime leader, Lee Kuan Yew, who was laid to rest on Sunday. For Americans in particular, this contrast presents a conundrum. On the one hand, Americans hold as a self-evident truth that their democracy is the best form of government. On the other hand, they see mounting evidence daily of Washington’s gridlock, corruption, and theatrical distractions, which makes their system seem incapable of addressing the country’s real challenges.

In assessing the quality of national governance, international rankings often focus on three related baskets of indicators: first, a nation’s level of democracy and civic participation, and the degree to which citizens exercise political rights; second, the effectiveness of its government in facing issues, making policy choices, executing policy, and preventing corruption; and third, its performance in producing the results people want, including rising incomes, health, and safety.

Let’s start with performance, since it is easiest to measure. As a Russian proverb declares, it is better to be healthy, wealthy, and safe than sick, poor, and insecure. Who can disagree? On these criteria, how has Singapore performed over the course of its first five decades versus the United States; or the Philippines (which the U.S. has been tutoring in democracy-building for a century); or Zimbabwe (an African analogue that declared independence from the United Kingdom just a few years after Singapore, and where dictator Robert Mugabe has been as dominant a national force as Lee Kuan Yew has been in Singapore)?

Real GDP per Capita by Country: 1965-2013

The table uses constant 2005 U.S. dollars. (World Bank)

As the table above shows, over the past 50 years, real per-capita GDP in Singapore grew 12-fold. In current dollars, the average Singaporean’s income grew from $500 a year in 1965 to $55,000 today. Over that same period, real per-capita GDP in the United States and the Philippines doubled, and Zimbabwe’s actually dropped. When comparing the United States and Singapore, it is important to note that Singapore was essentially catching up to America. But what about economic performance in the 21st century? Over the past decade and a half, U.S. GDP has grown an average of less than 2 percent a year—while Singapore’s averaged nearly 6 percent. In the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness Index, Singapore was ranked second overall, behind only Switzerland (the United States came in third). For the past seven years, Singapore has also been ranked the best place in the world to do business by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

As for its healthcare services, Singapore’s infant-mortality rate has fallen from 27.3 deaths per 1,000 births in 1965 to only 2.2 in 2013. A child born in the United States has three times the chance of dying in infancy of one in Singapore. In the Philippines, 23 out of every 1,000 children born die in infancy. In Zimbabwe, 55. In 2012, Bloomberg Rankings judged Singapore the world’shealthiest country based on the full array of health metrics; the United States ranked 33rd, the Philippines 86th, and Zimbabwe 116th. Singapore also has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. A citizen is 24 times more likely to be murdered in the United States than in Singapore. And in 2012, less than 1 percent of Singaporeans reported that they struggled to afford food or shelter, by far the lowest percentage in the world.

The second basket in assessing governance focuses on what experts call the effectiveness of the governmental process itself. Each year, the World Bank produces Governance Indicators metrics on government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption. Singapore leads the United States by a significant margin on each of these measures and is not even on the same level with the Philippines and Zimbabwe. Singapore’s widest lead over both the United States and comparable nations comes in the prevention of corruption and graft. Singapore scores in the top 10 while the United States ranks 20 countries lower on the list, with the Philippines and Zimbabwe in the bottom third. According to the 2014 Gallup World Poll, 85 percent of Americans see “widespread” corruption in their government, while only 8 percent of Singaporeans believe their government is corrupt.

On democratic participation and personal liberties, Freedom House produces an annual report. In its 2014 ranking, the United States was among the freest countries in the world. Singapore scored in the bottom half, behind South Korea and the Philippines. It lost points mainly for Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party’s tight management of the political process. According to its report, “Singapore is not an electoral democracy. … Opposition campaigns have typically been hamstrung by a ban on political films and television programs, the threat of libel suits, strict regulations on political associations, and the PAP’s influence on the media and the courts.”

The contrast between Singapore’s ranking in the first two categories, and the third, reminds us of a fundamental question of political philosophy: What is government for? Contemporary Western Europeans and Americans tend to answer that question by emphasizing political rights. But for Lee Kuan Yew, “the ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society establish conditions that improve the standard of living for the majority of its people.” As one of his fellow Singaporeans, Calvin Cheng, wrote this past week in The Independent, “Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear that one would be burgled. Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night falls.” Lee Kuan Yew always insisted that the proof is in the pudding: rising incomes for the broad middle class, health, security, economic opportunity.

To Western ears, the claim that an autocratic state can govern more effectively than a democratic one sounds heretical. History offers few examples of benevolent dictatorships that delivered the goods—or stayed benevolent for long. But in the case of Singapore, it is hard to deny that the nation Lee built has for five decades produced more wealth per capita, more health, and more security for ordinary citizens than any of his competitors.

Thus Lee Kuan Yew leaves students and practitioners of government with a challenge. If Churchill was right in his judgment that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, what about Singapore?



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