Singapore at 50 Years

As former colonies achieved independence following World War II, Singapore became part of Malaysia. That was in 1963, but just two years later, Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian federation over ideological differences. With few natural resources and less than 1% land arable in its 265 square miles, this inauspicious beginning and turbulence in its early years gave way to success that places Singapore among the world’s top ten countries in GDP per capita.


Singapore is a mixture of Chinese, Malay, and Indian ethnicities, and Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist, Christian, and Hindu religions. But rather than being sources of divisiveness, multiculturalism and secularism are core principles of this cosmopolitan population of 5.5 million people. Most important to its success is Singapore’s commitment to meritocracy. Its parliamentary form of government is noted for its pragmatism and lack of corruption. Voting is open to everyone 21 of age and over, and is mandatory; failure to vote, without a valid excuse, is cause for a small fine and removal from voter rolls.


The People’s Action Party, led by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, has controlled Parliament from the beginning. Lee achieved rapid economic growth and supported business entrepreneurship, but enforced limitations on internal democracy. So while Singapore is rated as one of the freest economies and least corrupt countries in the world, it is not considered a proper electoral democracy by Freedom House, an independent organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.


Not surprisingly, critics accuse Singapore of achieving economic prosperity at the expense of individual freedoms. Yet Prime Minister Lee, who held the position for 30 years, was so beloved of his people that tens of thousands gathered to pay their respects when he died at the age of 91 in March 2015. As one Singaporean told the New York Times, “As long as you are economically well off, with housing and food, who cares about the politics? I would much rather live in a country like this than a place where you have every freedom in the world but you are hungry.” Furthermore, Singapore attracts some of the most highly educated people in science and medicine in the world.


Does Singapore’s example provide a competitive form of government compared to a democracy with more freedom? Could other newly-free countries have achieved more success had they adopted similar policies? More to the point, can any other examples combining meritocracy, pragmatism, and honesty be cited? China, in defense of its own authoritarian style of government, compares itself to Singapore. The Chinese Communist Party boasts of three decades of unprecedented economic success to attest to the success of its meritocracy. Unlike China, however, Singapore’s elections give voters the opportunity to remove officials from office. Indeed, Singapore and its success are unique.

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