By Donella Meadows
–May 5, 1988–
Singapore has achieved the American dream, but not in the American way. It is a prosperous, clean city, with imposing skyscrapers and glittering shopping centers. The multinational corporations of the world are welcome here; you can buy any brand name you’ve ever heard of. The highways are lined with tropical flowers and crowded with BMWs. And at the head of this thriving free-market state is a clever, socialist dictator.
Just forty years ago Singapore was a war-battered British port on an island off the southern tip of Malaysia. It had a rapidly growing, poor, uneducated population living mostly in slums and houseboats. Singapore struggled along until 1965, when it became an independent nation with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in firm control.
In the next twenty years Singapore’s economy grew eightfold. Average income per capita rose more than fourfold. The percentage of families living in poverty dropped to 0.3% (in the U.S. it is near 20%). Singaporeans’ average life expectancy is now 71 years. No one is homeless. Population has stabilized. Virtually everyone has a job. The place runs like a Swiss watch.
Lee Kuan Yew would appreciate that analogy. Switzerland is his model. Singapore Airlines aims to outdo Swissair. Singapore likes to list its statistics alongside Switzerland’s (its divorce rate is one-third that of Switzerland, its per capita calorie supply is equal, its movie attendance rate is six times higher). Lee’s chief economic goal is to reach the per capita GNP of Switzerland, which will happen in one more economic doubling — about 10 years, if past growth rates continue.
To produce his economic miracle, Lee Kuan Yew has interfered with every aspect of Singaporean life. To control population growth he set up free family planning clinics. Then he mounted education campaigns (“Plan your family small”) and decreed that women having third-or-more babies would get shorter maternity leave, higher hospital charges, and less income tax relief. There is a $5000 reward for mothers who agree to be sterilized after their second child. Sterilized parents get top priority for public housing, and their children get into desirable schools.
Singaporeans now accept that two is the right number of children. When I asked one woman how she felt about that, she told me she’d like to have three or four. “But,” she said brightly, “I understand why I shouldn’t have that many. We are a small, crowded island.” In fact the birth rate has fallen so low among highly-educated women, that Lee now offers incentives to “educated mothers” to have three children or more.
Singapore requires all workers to save 25% of their salaries. Their employers match that amount (after the recession of 1985, the employers’ share was cut to 10%). The workers can claim the money only after the age of 55. This enormous forced savings rate is one of the secrets of Singapore’s incredible economic growth. The money goes into a Central Provident Fund, with which the government builds roads, schools, hospitals, and especially housing.
All over the city identical 16-story housing blocks rise, each with its recreation center, swimming pool, shopping center, community center, and school. The apartments are well-built and spacious. Now that there are enough of them, the government lets people tap their savings before age 55 to buy their own flats. At present 74% of families own their homes; the goal is 100%.
Anti-social behavior is not permitted in Singapore. The fine for littering is $250. Jaywalking, spitting, and smoking in government offices are also fined $250. Gambling, except for the state lottery, is illegal. The punishment for drug trafficking is death.
Recently Lee Kuan Yew declared war on smoking. During a recent Smoke-Free Week there were signs everywhere, “Stub it Out, Singapore!” In the shopping centers electronic billboards grimly toted up the city’s smoking deaths, about 10 per day. Smiling teenagers roamed the streets with baskets of apples and collared anyone with a cigarette, offering to trade an apple for a pack. The percentage of smokers in the population has gone down from 23% to 13%.
I tried to find Singaporeans who are unhappy with their paternalistic government. In a week of searching, I found none. People think the regulations make sense. No one seems to fear the government; most feel they can bring complaints to it. One economics professor thought the 25% forced savings policy was too high. I asked him if he intended to write the newspapers or make a speech about it. He was shocked. He would never disrupt the social harmony, he said. He was assembling the facts he needed; then he would go make a reasoned argument directly to the ministry.
Singapore just doesn’t fit the world’s categories. It’s a dictatorship with free speech, no fear, and no corruption. It’s an economy that uses capitalist means to attain socialist ends. Singapore University scholars call it a “meritocratic, elitist, Confucianist, bureaucratic state”.
Whatever you call it, by all appearances and measures it works astoundingly well — so far, anyway. Everyone wonders, of course, what will happen after Lee Kuan Yew. Some Singaporeans are nervous about their dependence on the rest of the world for water, food, and energy. Perhaps a greater worry, though no one in Singapore seems to be thinking about it, is what will motivate the nation, what kinds of goal will there be, what challenges will Singapore put its well-organized energy to, after everyone becomes as rich as the Swiss.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988