Singapore: Where Do I Start?
By Bryan Caplan
If you’ll forgive the allusion, I tempted to open with “I’ve seen the future, and it works!” But the quote is apt: If Asia stays on course for the next three decades, China will be a massive version of Singapore – and India will be a massive version of Malaysia. I think I’d bet on that, but give me a few days to overcome jet lag before you propose terms. 🙂
I had so many bloggable experiences in Singapore that I’ll try to spread out the flow over the next month or two. For now, let me start with some observations on the people I met:
1. About 80% of the Singaporeans I met were in the Civil Service; the rest were academics and journalists. In terms of pure IQ, all of them would have been in the top half of my Ph.D. classes.
2. Even more impressive than IQs: The ubiquity of critical and creative thinking. Talking to Singapore’s Civil Service is like giving an academic seminar where the audience actually pays attention. Multiple people actually asked me, “What is the ideal form of government?”
3. 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.
4. What are Singapore’s intellectual taboos? I’m still looking for one. The customs form says “DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUGS IN SINGAPORE,” but when I advocated legalization, no one blinked.
5. Singaporeans often speak of their policies’ “pragmatism.” But their version of pragmatism is very different from ours. In the U.S., pragmatism primarily means going along with public opinion and openness to political compromise. In Singapore, in contrast, pragmatism primarily means judging policies based on their actual consequences, not their popularity. “Pragmatism” is virtually a synonym for “utilitarianism.”
Example: In the American sense of the term, congestion prices for roads would not be “pragmatic” because lots of people would object. In the Singaporean sense of the term, congestion pricing for roads is “pragmatic” because it sharply reduces rush hour traffic jams. Get it?