A Singapore lesson for US politics

Dear Mr Friedman,

I refer to the 31 Jan 2011 Straits Times reprint of your New York Times article.

You were reportedly struck by the linkage between the direction to which our science teacher is pushing her students and the direction to which our government is pushing the country. But our government hasn’t always pushed in the right direction. In the early part of the last decade, they were still pushing for the electronics industry when it was already withdrawing en masse to China causing much hardship and a mad scramble to find the replacement biomedical industry. The danger of over-relying on central planning and central direction is thus shown evidently.

It is ironic that you should view with disdain the Republican preference to not cut the US defence budget while holding Singapore up as a model lesson for the US when Singapore too has always withheld from defence budget cuts.

Singapore is by no means the only high income nation with little or no natural resources. Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland are examples of other high income nations with little or no natural resources.

While Singapore’s per capita income is only just below US levels, it is way below those of New York’s. When compared to other first world cities, our per capita income becomes less impressive. Being a small city in an era of US maintained global peace is a blessing as the majority of prosperous nations tend to have smaller populations.

Our country’s 14.7% growth last year is the result of mass labour import over the last three years. The Global Financial Crisis prevented the additional labour from contributing to growth then but once the crisis was lifted, the effects of the addtional labour was registered immediately. This growth which comes from the piling on of more people does not mean that we are doing things better or producing more individually but from the simple fact that there are more hands on deck. In the context of space constrained Singapore, this mass labour import cannot continue indefinitely and has certainly led to the aggravation of over-crowdedness and sharp property price increases.

If America does not take governing seriously, how did it manage to respond so swiftly and so decisively to lift the entire world from the Global Financial Crisis?

Home ownership subsidy in Singapore is a myth. Resale housing prices shot up by more than $150,000 on average over the last four years. The so-called $40,000 subsidy hardly makes up for this sharp price increase over the last four years.

There is no reason why politicians should be paid top dollar to achieve high quality and low corruption. Hong Kong, which matches Singapore very closely in almost any global ranking, does not pay top dollar to achieve high quality and low corruption. So do many other first world nations like Switzerland and Finland.

America’s problems are not due to politicians not taking governing seriously. America simply has more problems to cope with than Singapore. Its population is more aged than ours which necessitates higher healthcare and social security spending. It is carrying the burden of global security on its shoulders. All these are problems we in Singapore either don’t face or has yet to face. Given the disparity in problems faced, it is understandable if conditions in the US aren’t as rosy as those in Singapore. To view that as not taking governing seriously would be too simplistic and unfair.


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