Singapore's Policy Secret: Economic Literacy, Deference, or Resignation?
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s a question that got a big laugh around a Singaporean lunch table: “So, do most people here support Electronic Road Pricing?” Not on your life! If you want to see how S’poreans really feel about ERP, check out this hilarious Youtube video. Like people all around the world, they want to drive free of charge. And like people all over the world, they ignore the connection between unpriced roads and congestion. Never mind that over the border on the unmetered streets of Kuala Lumpur, people can easily sit in traffic for an hour.
This ERP question inspired a deeper discussion – and one of the highlights of my trip. I spoke before an audience of about fifteen young S’porean civil servants. During the Q&A, my host, Donald Low, turned the tables on the audience. He quoted this post:
My biggest (and potentially most sensitive) question: Do Singaporeans
actually support their uniquely efficient policies? An earlier study
found that Hong Kongers are statist at heart;
are Singaporeans any different? My suspicion is that the source of
Singapore’s success is not the public’s unusually high economic
literacy, but its unusual deference to economically literate elites.
Will experience confirm my suspicions?
Donald then asked each attendant to answer my question. To be more precise, he asked them to choose between three explanations:
a. Unusually high economic literacy.
b. Deference to elites – the belief that S’porean elites know what they’re doing and deserve support.
c. Resignation – the belief that regular S’poreans can’t affect policy, so there’s no use trying.
When I was planning my trip to S’pore, several people told me that S’poreans wouldn’t want to discuss this issue. They were dead wrong. Every attendant answered the question – and none of the answers were sugarcoated. Most attendants said “A mix of deference and resignation,” with slightly more emphasis on deference. Only one or two people said that the public’s economic literacy mattered – and even they put it last in importance.
Admittedly, this informal survey suffers from potentially severe selection bias. Perhaps civil servants exaggerate the incompetence of the public to make themselves feel important. But I suspect that if selection bias plays a role, it goes in the opposite direction: Civil servants are more likely to exaggerate the popularity of their policies to make themselves feel well-liked. The fact that “resignation” remains a popular answer is telling: The architects of policies like ERP might like to fantasize that the public loves their work, but daily experience gets in the way.