The Sovereign Enterprise

 

Despite a marked lack of natural resources and a relatively short 40-year old history, the sovereign island city-state Singapore is a thriving and pronouncedly unique country. It’s an international business hub, one of the four “Asian Tiger” economies, and a world leader in urban engineering. Many also know the country for its multiculturalism and its harsh penalization of littering, drugs, and the even the possession of gum.

Some refer to Singapore as “the Switzerland of Asia,” and having now briefly lived in both, I certainly understand the comparison. Like in Switzerland, Singapore has exceptional public infrastructure– its airport is one of the nicest in the world and an exceptional network of high-quality subway, light train, & bus lines can transport one virtually anywhere in the city,  encouraging distributed income desegregation.

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.08.56 PM It’s also an Asian hub for many large multinational corporations, particularly in the finance and banking sectors, which attracts foreign workers to the country in droves. In fact, a combination of Singapore’s convenient location, low taxes, skilled workforce, modern infrastructure, and marked intolerance for corruption have brought over 9,000 foreign corporations from the U.S., China, India, Japan, and Europe into the country, causing foreigners to contribute 44% of the country’s total workforce. These attractive policies have, among other things, made Singapore the third largest financial center in the world.  Zürich, Switzerland’s largest city and financial hub, holds the fourth highest spot.

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The similarities end, however, when viewing the two from the perspective of governance, an area in which they fundamentally diverge. While Swiss citizens enjoy one of the most direct democracies in the world, Singapore seems to be run far more like a business than the traditional republic it describes itself as. Though the system of government is parliamentary and elections are clean, founder Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party has controlled nearly every seat in parliament since the country was founded and exerts considerable influence over the media, which is controlled by government-linked companies. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, is now the party’s head and the country’s new prime minister.  While Singapore has recently ranked among the top in the world for “order and security” and “absence of corruption” it performs far worse in categories like “freedom of speech.”  Furthermore, trials are held without a jury, protests may only legally be held in one designated area, and certain social practices like homosexuality are outlawed.

 

While such statistics may Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.09.34 PMmake the country appear decidedly despotic, they more truthfully represent the government’s prioritization of the country’s national interest above individual liberty or other populist sentiments. Average workers may have little say in the decisions of executives (i.e., legislature and government), but have certainly enjoyed the benefits of Singapore’s explosive growth in productivity and prosperity. And indeed, the government’s policies and foresight have been the driving force behind this growth by making the country one of the most wholly attractive and easy places to do business in the world. Low taxes, loose financial regulations, harsh punishment of crime, the ease of requiring a visa or citizenship as a highly-skilled foreigner, and the pristine state of the city all helped to attract multinational corporations that the country in turn profited from. With duties targeting the more affluent, like the prohibitively expensive S$90,000 ownership license fee that one must pay before buying a car, Singapore has accumulated one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds that it devotes in part to the welfare of all citizens.  

 

Despite the government’s obsession with attracting foreign capital into the city, it does much to mitigate the ill effects associated with gentrification and income inequality through public investment in areas like public transport systems and nearly all the country’s schools. Perhaps most notable is the country’s subsidized public housing buildings, named HBDs after the Housing Development Board that manages them.Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.09.51 PM

The government uses HBDs to protect non-landowning locals from ballooning real estate costs & to promote harmony among Singapore’s many ethnic groups, a task it achieves by establishing a demographic breakdown in each apartment complex that mirrors the country’s as a whole– about 74% Chinese descent, 13% Malay descent, 9% Indian descent, and 3% of other descent.

Though Singapore receives understandable accusations of being a dictatorship in disguise, I find it difficult not to view the country as a phenomenal success of pragmatic opportunism and perhaps one of the best cases against direct democracy in the world. Without the government’s shrewd rule, defined by Lee Kuan Yew’s commitment to the country’s long-term interests over individual input, I doubt the country would have ever established the same beneficial policies that have led to its success as a thriving business hub. This process has resulted in first-rate living standards and access to opportunities for all Singaporeans, as well as an impressively active role of the country in global affairs. And while some may protest leadership, most Singaporeans seem satisfied with the status quo–  85% of citizens expressed faith in the government and judicial system according to a recent Gallup poll.

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