De la démocratie en Singapore
January 19, 2009 1:38 PM   Subscribe

Economist Bryan Caplan is author of the best contemporary critique of democracy and democraticness (previously), and therefore the person I'd most like to visit Singapore and share his thoughts. He recently took a trip to this quasi-democracy lauded for both its pro-growth policies and its strong, competent government (and criticized for its repression and its draconian penal code). The trip to what is in some ways an economist's utopia allowed Caplan to think about the implications of his own writings, and the validity of Churchill's dictum on democracy. Here's what he had to say: posted by grobstein (19 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
But for me, the deal-breaker is far more mundane: Singapore has conscription. Two years of mandatory military service. Or as I see it, hell on earth.

yeay go glibertarians.
posted by troy at 1:55 PM on January 19, 2009

Libertarians are the best.
posted by stbalbach at 1:58 PM on January 19, 2009

Le Kuan Yew's From Third World to First gives an interesting perspective on how the change in Singapore took place. This book was suggested as future reading for Barack Obama as he begins his new job in the first comment to today's NYTimes article on the books that have influenced Obama so far. Singapore is in the air.
posted by tidecat at 2:06 PM on January 19, 2009

These are all so analysis-free. Singapore spends little on health. Do they spend little considering education and wealth levels? Are they consuming preventative care and acting more rationally than we expect? It'd be nice to know more.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 2:06 PM on January 19, 2009

Disneyland with the Death Penalty ...from 1993. Jesus I'm old.
posted by Artw at 2:17 PM on January 19, 2009

I'm deeply sceptical of his view that Singaporean democracy is just the UK Parliament with a really successful governing party. Maybe former colonies start from a different place than longer-established democracies, in which parties tended to grow up around class or ethnic differences (Labour v Tory v Whig) rather than nationalist movements. Even so, 82/84 seats is something very unusual and is either a deeply cultural phenomenon (cf. the Social Democrats' long control of Sweden and the LDP's of Japan) or a lot of dodgy dealing or - as I guess it probably is - a bit of both.

My suspicion is that the one-party system will come under strain if Singapore starts to decline even relatively - then we'll see how the government machinery reacts to the pressures that brings.
posted by athenian at 2:33 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I lived in Singapore for 3 years growing up. As a 10 year old kid, it was an ideal place. I can't imagine any other city, much less a foreign country, where my parents would have felt so care free about me wandering around by myself.

As an adult, I can't imagine spending any significant time back there. I'd be too aware of the political and legal issues around me, even when they didn't impact my own life, to feel half as safe, as I did when a kid.

I will always remember the beginning of the broadcast day songs though,

Chan Mali Chan
Sing Your Way Home (at the close of the day)
posted by nomisxid at 2:44 PM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I too grew up in Singapore in the mid-80s, and it was ideal for a kid. That said, there's no way I'd want to live there now, no way no how.
posted by the dief at 3:29 PM on January 19, 2009

I listened to Bryan Caplan speak at this seminar I went to over the summer. He's an awesome guy and extremely interesting. He's probably one of my favorite modern economists.
posted by champthom at 3:46 PM on January 19, 2009

I'm all for importing Singapore's hawker/food culture. Best food ever.
posted by TetrisKid at 4:00 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

So that was pretty glib - he spent most of his time talking to civil servants and unsurprisingly came away with the impression that government works really well in Singapore.

I love it when people blow in from the West, spend a day in ANY_ASIAN_COUNTRY and achieve instant understanding and insight. From reading his little posts you'd think that Singapore was the kind of place where the Government is in power mainly because they do such a good job and no-one cares enough to want anything different.

But actually there is a very real cost to opposing the government: Bankruptcy.
posted by awfurby at 5:24 PM on January 19, 2009

It's a generational thing; most _new_ civil servants (of the kind who graduated with me in 2004) are open to ideas/ Facebook/ twitter etc. Speech has generally become freer lately; when I came to Singapore eight years back, even mild works such as Air-conditioned Nation were considered subversive. Now... well, let's just say I attended a poetry-slam session conducted by a local LGBT group that had an MP as a chief guest and had pieces done by out-of-the-closet serving civil-servants. This in a country where homosexuality is still illegal by law. It's an unstated agreement; as long as the LGBT community is underground and doesn't, say, 'threaten' order, the government promotes 'tolerance'.

And not just social "subversion", but also political; I also recently attended a meeting graced by the Prime Minister that featured an acapella song lampooning Singapore's pursuit of a few rocks between Malaysia and Singapore. (Singapore won the case)

That said, "true" subversion is, of course, not kosher; when opposition starts becoming threatening to those in power, they will strike down hard. Fact of life in any nation, just that the deck is stacked more in favour of The Man in Singapore than in most liberal democracies.
Scoff if you must, but Singaporean bureaucrats are less afraid to criticize their government than American bureaucrats are to criticize theirs. Neither group would be afraid of legal punishment; but the Americans would be more worried that saying the wrong thing would hurt their careers.
Selection bias once again. I suspect low-level civil servants wouldn't mind speaking "their mind" to a foreign pundit, but take it from me: _impossible_ for a low-level grunt to speak freely with their superiors. Not for dogma, but for impressions; you don't cross-talk to your superiors / elders, someone voicing too much opinion is seen as a loud-mouth. I work very closely with government-agencies in my day-job, and often find it useful to have seperate meetings with lower-level and higher-level staff; you want to build relationships with individual people (lower to lower, higher to higher) and not to the organization as a whole. This may not be the 90's, but this is still Asia (I personally don't think there's a pan-Asian set of values, but that there's a dont-talk-over-your-superiors work-ethic in most enterprises in the Asian-Rim is sadly true).

Which brings me to my main criticism: Caplan missed the most central bit in the Singaporean model, namely that the government owns _everything_. We have three competing mobile companies here, for instance, but the government owns shares in all three firms. The same for media, banks, public transport firms, land-management firms... everything. There's a superficial liberalization in that, say, Singapore Press Holdings' my Paper competes with Mediacorp's Today, but when push comes to shove, the government can and will step in. As I remember, close to 70% of Singapore's GDP is controlled by government-linked companies; before sovereign-wealth funds started buying stock in Barclays and Merril and such, they first bought over their local economies. Most commentators miss that, for all its economic freedom ratings, Singapore is actually one of the most socialist nations in the world.

Now, that in itself isn't a bad thing; except for the appalling lack of media options and a crazy healthcare system, it's mostly worked out for Singapore so far. The main criticism of this over-reaching control though, and this is a point made in that excellent book, Air-Conditioned Nation that I was talking about, is that the system doesn't really account for the future. While the social contract (the "elite" is super-smart and does policy, the "plebians" work hard at their individual jobs, trusting the elite to do their thing) worked for the previous generation, there is no guarantee it will work for the future. The scary bit for Singapore is that there is no recourse if it doesn't; this is not a fail-safe system with internal checks and balances if one of the cogs in the wheel stops working. That is the problem with a lack of operational independence for the media, or for the legislature to work disconnected from the executive.

And oh, there are some sacred cows you don't want to touch with a totem-pole; try getting a civil servant to talk about removing the fines on littering, or the ban on sale of gum, or indeed, lifting those damned laws banning homosexual acts and legalizing gay marriage. :-)
posted by the cydonian at 7:50 PM on January 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

I read Caplan's book (Myth of the Rational Voter) last year, and it blew me away. In our culture, we are indoctrinated from birth to believe in democracy: while we may disagree on interpretation, every American is convinced that government should always be formed by the will of the people. Caplan asks whether democracy really leads to better policy outcomes in the long run. The question is so shocking that the obvious riposte -- even democracy isn't scientifically optimal, is it better than the alternative? -- mostly went unasked in reviews.

I do not think Caplan's opinion on democracy should be taken at face value. In the same way a clever plaintiff asks for enormous damages when filing a suit, in hope that a merely favorable outcome seems reasonable by comparison, Caplan doggedly overstates the case for benevolent tyranny while understating the case for the electorate.

It's hard to empirically compare the fascist state and the democratic one. A benevolent tyranny can give you free education, free health care, and beautiful cities using the revenue from an economy run by its policy experts, but it can't give you a transparent judiciary or a citizen's sense of empowerment. Caplan knows this. But in order to guide his reader to the belief that experts should have a greater voice in governance, he publicly advocates the extreme point of view that experts are necessary and voters aren't.

Read the book, it's very short!
posted by miyabo at 9:33 PM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

All I remember about Singapore is that they have the most jaw-droppingly beautiful women that I have ever seen. I mean, not like on television or in advertisements. I'm talking about regular, walking-around people. Just incredible.

I think Singapore must have mandatory euthanasia for the old or ugly.

Le Kuan Yew's From Third World to First gives an interesting perspective on how the change in Singapore took place.

Funny story about Sing's first PM: when Le Kuan Yew was asked what he thought the greatest invention of the 20th century was, his response was "the air conditioner." If you've ever walked outside near the equator for any trivial period of time, you know he's right. You simply cannot do anything in that kind of heat.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:54 AM on January 20, 2009

when Le Kuan Yew was asked what he thought the greatest invention of the 20th century was, his response was "the air conditioner."
"I date the end of the old republic and the birth of the empire to the invention, in the late thirties, of air conditioning. Before air conditioning, Washington was deserted from mid-June to September.. But after air conditioning and the Second World War arrived, more or less at the same time, Congress sits and sits while the presidents - or at least their staffs - never stop making mischief."

Gore Vidal, 1987
posted by me & my monkey at 8:58 AM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've been there many times on Visa runs from Jakarta and my ex-wife grew up there.
It's like living with your mother...forever. One of my favorite T-shirts said 'No Sex, Please, We're From Singapore'.
I applaud their scrappy independence and ability to live together in relative peace- but it's a house of cards. I'd love to raise kids there- one of the safest places on Earth!- but is it really a nation or a city-state of financiers?
posted by flowerofhighrank at 10:07 AM on January 20, 2009

"I love it when people blow in from the West, spend a day in ANY_ASIAN_COUNTRY and achieve instant understanding and insight."

Then you'll love the Thomas Friedman books my girlfriend's aunt sends me every year for Christmas.
posted by klangklangston at 5:34 PM on January 20, 2009

Then you'll love the Thomas Friedman books my girlfriend's aunt sends me every year for Christmas.

Whoah - what did you say to her to piss her off so bad?
posted by awfurby at 6:32 PM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Update: "Kidney selling coming to Singapore!" Huzzah!
posted by grobstein at 9:59 AM on January 22, 2009

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