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Nov 12, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

The thing that struck me flying into Singapore was the number of ships anchored offshore. I only learn later how critical location was to global trade, and how that was a natural monopoly from which the economy could grow.

ALL shipping heading from China or Japan toward Europe viathe Suez Canal passes Singapore.

Singapore has actually the world's second busiest port.

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Exactly. Singapore's geographic location somehow illustrates that famed sentence: "Geography is destiny." Of course, it is important to underscore the extraordinary skill of Singaporean leaders to make use of that geography but still. To get informed about the rich history of this small city state, John Curtis Perry's "Singapore: Unlikely Power" is an amazing place to start.

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You missed a few hidden jewels:

1. The Central Provident Fund: basically if social welfare were run properly. There’s no question of Social Security running out of money in SG. The money is yours instead of the young subsidizing the old as in the US.

2. Nor is there one of people dying due to lack of funds to pay for healthcare. Medisave, Medishield, Medifund etc + monopsony power means that healthcare is very cheap and very good.

3. An excellent education system with proper streaming and few hangups about ethnic balance. Students can be taught at their own pace without being held back by laggards.

4. A professional police force and system of public order that means people can walk at night without fear and leave their houses unlocked. Not a vagrant in sight, smell or hearing range on the streets or in public transit. Unfortunately, many in the USA consider this fascism because they can’t get over the fact that bad things are bad and some people deserve only punishment and coercion.

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On your #4, FrigidWind, I think you're evading legitimate issues concerning behavior control. Singapore's law enforcement has achieved an outcome of generally non-coercive order primarily as a result of three components (as I understand it): an underlying cultural heritage that values and tends to inculcate norms of group conformity over individual freedom; a history of government control that systematically punished non-conforming behavior over decades; a tight network of harsh legal sanctions for behaviors that could weaken the fabric of group conformity. All this underlies the appearance of a "system of public order," rendering it much less a designed scheme than the phrase implies.

While I would never call this "fascism" I think it's easy to see why the American liberals would see problems with Singapore's orderly outcome. It is does not prioritize values fundamental to US law and founding ideology, the outcome relied on a sustained period of coercive government, and its laws are restrictive to a degree that our culture would not tolerate (on both Right and Left--think of "Second Amendment rights" if you're wondering why the Right would be unhappy). In the trade-off between "freedom" and security, Singapore has struck a fundamentally un-American balance.

Within the Singaporean consensus outcome, I think the result is indeed a widespread feeling of both freedom and security. It's certainly a very pleasant place to visit and I've encountered highly creative people there--I don't mean to knock it. I don't even know that there are a significant number of would-be "vagrants" whom the police actually need to deter or control (although that may be more a product of wealth, housing abundance, and the welfare system than of social and legal constraints). But I also believe that there has been a very large trade-off involved in reaching this outcome. While the downside of our alternative is visible in homelessness and high property crime--and a social-political reaction to them that I think sometimes comes much closer to fascism--there are positives that come from the openness of US society, though their relative absence in Singapore is more difficult to appreciate because invisibility is harder to detect.

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A few data points as a liberal-minded Singapore resident:

1) I consistently find more titles in Singapore’s National Library Board’s ebooks system and GeorgiaTech library’s version. This includes “controversial” titles. NLB carries most titles contested by right wing parents in the US, sometimes in the parenting section if they think it’ll deflect focus.

2) The police are required to account for each time they lift their guns from their holsters. There’s an inbuilt mechanism where an SMS is sent to a central DB each time an officer removes their guns, and they are required to explain. People trust the police because there’s accountability in this way, which I’m afraid isn’t something you can say for many American cities.

3) When I have a problem with a law or a policy, I just verbally, but politely, tell my local Member of Parliament, who I often meet at the local children’s playground or when she knocks on doors during a walkabout. Politicians are accessible, and often listen to us constituents’ concerns without any repercussions. Now it’s a different matter whether they’ll do anything immediately about drastic change (eg legalised same-sex marriage, letting same-sex couples buy houses from the government etc) but many politicians are open to ideas as long as they don’t change the system _too much_ . So they’ll build new childcare centres a pronto, but not make it easier for domestic help to complain against their employers.

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> 2) The police are required to account for each time they lift their guns from their holsters. There’s an inbuilt mechanism where an SMS is sent to a central DB each time an officer removes their guns, and they are required to explain. People trust the police because there’s accountability in this way, which I’m afraid isn’t something you can say for many American cities.

Most British policemen don't even carry guns (and so if call for backup with guns, that will leave an audit trail), but I'm not sure whether people trust them more or less than in other countries.

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UK and Singapore are alike in many ways for obvious reasons. I honestly don’t know how many Singaporean cops carry guns, versus those who don’t. Quite certain there are many who aren’t required to carry guns. Also, fair to say I used to see more cops and hear more sirens when I used to live near King’s Cross than I ever have in Singapore.

My point though is about accountability. Cops have a reasonably strict code of conduct, would argue that they perhaps have rules often exceeding those in US, at least in terms of gun discharge.

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I only remembered five places in the world where police don't routinely carry guns: Great Britain (not Northern Ireland, where all officers are armed as a legacy of the Troubles), the Republic of Ireland, Iceland, Norway and New Zealand.

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Police are rarely armed in Japan. They are so strict about gun and ammunition control that they require defense force trainees to use a basket to catch ejected shells to prevent them falling into hands of someone who might reload them for reuse. Even “armored” car cash transport workers are only armed with small collapsible batons.

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You put the matter delicately - and IMO, correctly. I lived in Singapore for a few years, and would characterise it as 'soulless;' individualism is marginalised and the family and consumer pleasures are emphasised. There is no free press and any criticism of the government is dealt with harshly.

Singapore operates under a velvet glove paradigm - you only see the fist when there is stress - such as during Covid. The test of liberty is not how a government behaves during good times, but how it behaves during stressful times. Given that criteria, I would definitely characterise Singapore government as a variant of fascism; they treated people who didn't want to get vaccinated inhumanely, tolerated neighbours ratting out neighbours, and demonstrated zero tolerance for any protest.

Not fascist? I beg to differ....

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Thanks, GPB. You have far more relevant experience than I.

I prefer to reserve the term "fascist" for states that more holistically accrue the constellation of features that distinguished countries that adopted fascism as a positive ideology in the mid-20th century (chiefly the Axis Powers and satellites), and define the term historically. Those states were highly repressive, but they were also hyper-nationalistic, militaristic, explicitly anti-communist, and corporatist in structure (for-profit businesses directly coordinated by government; population groups organized by government or party into brigades or leagues that strengthened and enforced social norms). And, of course, the two dominant fascist powers, Germany and Japan, were virulently racist.

Orban's Hungary seems to be accruing an array of these elements, and a fair number of them were characteristic of Park Chung-hee's period of rule in South Korea--which became a principal economic model for the "Asian Tiger" economies like Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong (not to mention Deng's PRC). But Singapore and Hong Kong (no longer relevant) did not adopt the strict corporatism or hyper-nationalism of Park's regime, and the level of repression they exerted was on a far lesser scale (Taiwan actually relinquished elements associated with fascism while adapting Park's model). Trumpism is alarming because of the number of points where its aspirational program seems to resemble actual fascism, and not just authoritarianism.

If we use the term loosely enough to label Singapore "fascist" because it responds to challenges with repressive measures, I think the function of the term will drain away. There are and have been many highly or moderately repressive states that poorly fit the label of fascism--including a good number that were communist.

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Singapore has lots of repressive government policies that you can use as legitimate examples but people who bring up the Covid vaccine as their go-to example for "fascism" just makes me think they live a very privileged life

But perhaps, its cultural. And its just easier to sell Covid restrictions to East Asians. Notice that Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Malaysia etc... all adopted pretty restrictive Covid measures in different forms with relatively compliant populace even though government systems are different. Until China kinda took it too far later on, I suppose.

I can imagine the impossibility of trying to sell these type of restrictions to the populace as an American politician.

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It was easier to sell harsh Covid restrictions to East Asians because they'd been traumatised by their experience with the far deadlier SARS (or MERS in South Korea's case).

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During Covid, people who didn’t want to take a vaccine (which was provided free to all, even people on tourist visas), could simply not take one. I know of friends who until today aren’t vaccinated. They could continue going to the office as long as they took a weekly rapid test (not PCR). Of course this did not apply if you worked in the medical sector. Yes, there were restrictions to where you could go if you were non vaxxed, yet since there are plenty of stores not in shopping malls, it was certainly possible though inconvenient. Non MRNA vaccines were also provided and treated as valid though most would consider sinovac to be ineffective.

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> they treated people who didn't want to get vaccinated inhumanely, tolerated neighbours ratting out neighbours, and demonstrated zero tolerance for any protest.

So like most other countries then? What specifically did they do more harshly than, say, the UK?

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Governments should 100% forcibly vaccinate every straggler without a really good (ie medical) reason to not be vaccinated. Our policies in the US allowed religious nuts to bring back polio to New York!

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There’s the cultural aspect, but it’s not overriding. Sweden has lower crime than the USA and tends to have even higher self-expression values than the US in the World Values survey. It’s possible to enforce your way to lower crime.

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You have two points in there, FrigidWind: social order does not always correlate to surveys concerning the value of self-expression, and that the state can reduce crime by strict law enforcement. I think both of these are true, but I see no relation between them or a coherent idea behind linking them.

Of course you can enforce your way to lower crime. Totalitarian states have sometimes managed that pretty well (if you exclude corruption as a relevant crime). So far as I know, Sweden's low crime rate is not the product of strict law enforcement; it has relied on high social cohesion and low poverty, which can be consistent with high valuation of free expression. (TJ's comment suggests that some loss of social cohesion--perhaps with an externally derived infusion of poverty--has led to higher crime and lower valuation of free self-expression.)

I don't see any way that the US could retain its particular form of high valuation of free self-expression and due process, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and simultaneously enforce its way to social order on a par with Singapore (particularly with 3-400m guns in circulation). Perhaps our Founders are at fault for not having outlined our national framework as, "bad things are bad and some people deserve only punishment and coercion."

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Right – and Swedish police are considerably less aggressive and Scandinavia in general is known for its rehabilitative, rather than “tough-on-crime” criminal justice model. But this is Noah Smith’s blog, so obviously all the commentators only draw right-wing conclusions.

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That’s simply untrue. The overall crime rate has been stable since the early 90s, when immigration really took off; the homicide rate was even higher in the early 80s than today, notwithstanding all the scaremongering in the media around gangland shootings.

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Nov 12, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

“The money is yours instead of the young subsidizing the old as in the US.”

If there aren’t any young people you won’t have any useful money in either case. The APPL stock that’s in your IRA will only have value if 20 somethings not yet born are working at Apple while others are buying phones and those profits are being funneled to you.

APPL stock and SS are both claims on people not yet born.

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https://www.realclearpolicy.com/articles/2023/04/03/jim_crows_welfare_state_891434.html

The CPF avoids this sort of regressive transfer, and is quite progressive with all the government top ups. There’s no question of raising the “income cap” in SG.

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Nov 13, 2023·edited Nov 13, 2023

Oh, but Social Security in the US is a claim on unborn Americans. Apple stock, in your framework, is a claim on unborn people everywhere Apple sells products.

The same applies to Singapore: the Central Providence Fund isn't necessarily invested locally. So even if Singaporeans stopped all reproduction and immigration tomorrow, their pensions would still be safe as long as the rest of the world keeps having kids.

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Isn't the "Social Security trust fund" in the US a temporary expedient to enable the Baby Boomers to retire (and that will become obsolete when that generation dies out) rather than a core part of the system?

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Yes. When the "excess" payroll taxes that accumulated in the Trust Fund are paid about (@2033), then the SS funding is simply paygo with prior year payroll taxes dictating what the benefits will be in the following year (expected to be @78% of current promised benefits given current demographic and economic predictions).

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Idk that it is 'temporary', but yes it serves the purpose of storing excess payroll taxes that pile up when we have more working people than 'usual'.

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Nov 12, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Are any of those benefits open to the 30% of “non-resident” guest working residents?

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All of them.

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Incorrect: you need to be a citizen or permanent resident ("PR") to access CPF.

You need to be either a citizen or a PR to live in an HDB (and I'm not sure PRs can get access).

Most foreign workers have permission to work via an "Employment Pass" or EP. EP's have no access to these services.

You can, of course, "benefit" from the police state regardless of immigration status.

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Many people on an Employment Pass earn too much to get most of the HDB subsidies anyway.

If you want to complain about foreigners being excluded, forgot the people on the Employment Pass. That's the visa for the well-off white collar workers.

You should look into the plight of the people on the lower tiers of visa. The constructions workers here are not an EPs.

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The benefits absolutely aren't available to the 30%

Medisave - Medifund - Medishield are exclusively for Singaporean citizens and permanent residents.

A foreign worker has to hope that their employer provides insurance.

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I’d be curious what Singapore does with those so mentally ill they can’t care for themselves. I assume they have some form

of mandatory care both outpatient and long term locked inpatient care.

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Institutionalization.

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Which always raises the issue of "who decides" to institutionalize? I had several perfectly sane friends in my high school years who were "institutionalized" by their parents because they were slightly rebellious teenagers...

Sorry, I realize this is off the Singapore track, but since it was answered and liked.....

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I don’t know the exact procedure as I am not a SG shrink, but my sense is that more is better than less, judging by the number of vagrants on the streets of the US. Crack the eggs to make the omelette.

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Those eggs that you're cracking happen to be human beings. Maybe you will be one of them one day.

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Yeah, I’ll pick more institutionalization over the Tenderloin any day. Concentrated benefits (vagrants getting to exercise their “rights” to enshittify a city” and diffuse costs (upon normal people) is bad actually. Crack the eggs, make the omelette. Defund their nonprofits too.

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There are fewer street vagrants mainly because there is a low non widespread drug issue. The strict stand on drugs is largely effective on limiting drug use, but also means there’s no space for things like drug rehab centers. It’s a one size fit all solution that is by no means perfect.

Any homeless is largely due to those who have reached unfortunate economic circumstances and do not want government assistance (through being sent to homeless centers, another form of institutionalization).

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On your #4, FrigidWind, I think you're evading legitimate issues concerning behavior control. Singapore's law enforcement has achieved an outcome of generally non-coercive order primarily as a result of three components (as I understand it): an underlying cultural heritage that values and tends to inculcate norms of group conformity over individual freedom; a history of government control that systematically punished non-conforming behavior over decades; a tight network of harsh legal sanctions for behaviors that could weaken the fabric of group conformity. All this underlies the appearance of a "system of public order," rendering it much less a designed scheme than the phrase implies.

While I would never call this "fascism" I think it's easy to see why the American liberals would see problems with Singapore's orderly outcome. It is does not prioritize values fundamental to US law and founding ideology, the outcome relied on a sustained period of coercive government, and its laws are restrictive to a degree that our culture would not tolerate (on both Right and Left--think of "Second Amendment rights" if you're wondering why the Right would be unhappy). In the trade-off between "freedom" and security, Singapore has struck a fundamentally un-American balance.

Within the Singaporean consensus outcome, I think the result is indeed a widespread feeling of both freedom and security. It's certainly a very pleasant place to visit and I've encountered highly creative people there--I don't mean to knock it. I don't even know that there are a significant number of would-be "vagrants" whom the police actually need to deter or control (although that may be more a product of wealth, housing abundance, and the welfare system than of social and legal constraints). But I also believe that there has been a very large trade-off involved in reaching this outcome. While the downside of our alternative is visible in homelessness and high property crime--and a social-political reaction to them that I think sometimes comes much closer to fascism--there are positives that come from the openness of US society, though their relative absence in Singapore is more difficult to appreciate because invisibility is harder to detect.

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> 2. Nor is there one of people dying due to lack of funds to pay for healthcare. Medisave, Medishield, Medifund etc + monopsony power means that healthcare is very cheap and very good.

I'm not sure where you get 'monopsy power' from? Anyone can buy healthcare in Singapore, there's no monopsy.

> 3. An excellent education system with proper streaming and few hangups about ethnic balance. Students can be taught at their own pace without being held back by laggards.

Alas, the education system isn't that great. Kids have to put in a lot of effort, and after you control for demographics, the results aren't all that great. (Basically, ethnically Chinese and Indian people do well academically in the US and Europe, too. So it's not clear that our local education system adds much.)

> 4. A professional police force and system of public order that means people can walk at night without fear and leave their houses unlocked. Not a vagrant in sight, smell or hearing range on the streets or in public transit. Unfortunately, many in the USA consider this fascism because they can’t get over the fact that bad things are bad and some people deserve only punishment and coercion.

I can't complain about the police here. They even got me my bicycle back when it was stolen.

But yet again, if you control for demographics and wealth, the US isn't that bad either? (Of course, safety might be both a cause and an effect of wealth.)

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Nov 13, 2023·edited Nov 13, 2023

Don't most ethnic groups in the United States have a higher crime rate than they do in their "ancestral" homeland?

White Americans have a higher murder rate than Europeans, black Americans have a higher murder rate than Africans (except in South Africa and its immediate neighbours) and Asian-Americans have a FAR higher murder rate than East Asians.

The one exception is Latinos, because Central and northern South America (probably due to being the centre of the global cocaine trade) are the worst part of the entire planet for criminal violence.

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Africa is probably the most ethnically diverse continent. So talking about Africans as homogeneous ethnic group doesn't make much sense.

I suspect it should be possible to figure out roughly what ethnic groups where enslaved and shipped to the Americas, if you want to make that comparison. (Eg I'm fairly sure it wasn't Egyptians. And it wasn't people who used to live in what's now South Africa.)

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They are probably from Guinea Coast - from Senegal to Angola

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You are wrong about point 1. US Social Security is not in danger of running out of money, it is just a matter of raising taxes, and the young will always have to subsidize the old, this is the case in Singapore and all other countries. You see, the portion of the population that is not actively working, such as children and the elderly, has to be transferred resources by the portion of the population that is active, this is an inescapable fact, regardless of how you organize the transfer. You can let families take care of it, you can have a public system, or you can force people to save, either way, the inactive population will be subsidized by the active population.

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Nov 12, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

The architecture and cityscapes are lovely, and nicer for being pest and traffic free. The cultural mixture probably results in great restaurants, and maybe art and music (though I can’t think of a single Singaporean artist or musician). I wonder if it has underground shopping streets as are common in Japan (Tokyo midtown and Fukuoka’s Tenjin Chikagai are very nice) which would be a good pedestrian alternative to stroads and bring relief from the hot humidity and rain.

however, the primitive police state laws against victimless crimes (caning for gum chewing, 30 years prison for a half kilo of cannabis, death penalties for opium possession) and lack of protection for free expression and treatment of “guest workers” (probably true of Dubai also) are what makes it undesirable to live in or even visit.

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Nov 12, 2023·edited Nov 12, 2023

It made the news in the 1990s when an American teenager visiting Singapore drew some graffiti on a wall there and was sentenced to caning.

The incident was immortalized by Weird Al: https://youtu.be/dU95v23MQ4c?si=s-N42OJS37x5UZvM

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"He couldn't quite explain it, it had always just been there"

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I liked the audience reaction where the guys are utterly aghast and horrified that the guy lost his Weiner.

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Weird Al is a national treasure. It's hard to pick a favorite, although I give this one the edge, mostly because of Donny Osmond.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9qYF9DZPdw

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Hey, Donny can dance!

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It was a car, I think. Whatever, FAFO

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I think you make a good point about the lack of any notable artists, musicians, authors, etc from Singapore. Something about Singapore makes it a cultural dead zone.

I'm trying to think of another wealthy city of similar size that's similarly culturally challenged and I can't. Toronto gets a lot of flack for being culturally lacking but produces far more cultural artefacts than Singapore. Miami too.

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Toronto (counting nearby rurals who moved there for their first break) include Rush, Neil Young, The Band, Joni Mitchell and Drake. As well as Jim Carrey and Mike Meyers. So many more than Singapore.

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Drug use, free speech etc. would likely have resulted in most of hem ending up in jail in Singapore.

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I think it goes beyond art and music. There are relatively few scientists and academics generally from Singapore, compared to other cities its size around the world. (Though the National University of Singapore has certainly done a good job of hiring many well-respected people from other places and bringing them to work there!)

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Indeed. The way the government treated residents during COVID bordered on the inhumane. What do you expect from a culture which is mercantile and doesn't respect human rights?

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> (though I can’t think of a single Singaporean artist or musician).

Singapore is also pretty small. How many artists and musicians from eg Ahmedabad can you name? (To pick a random city with roughly the same population.)

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Ahmedabad is poor. It's also in India, which has a whole bunch of cultural artefacts which are hugely popular in India but not very popular outside, so I've never heard of (say) Darshan Raval or Alisha Chinai but I'm willing to believe they're a big deal.

In the rich world, the closest cities by population to Singapore are Atlanta, Philadelphia, Barcelona, Miami, Toronto, Washington DC and Melbourne. I feel like all of these outweigh Singapore, culturally speaking.

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Singapore is small but so is Hong Kong, yet Hong Kong culture is far more prominent. Despite Hong Kong being less rich (tho ofc still being very far from poor).

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Yes, that might be a good example. Though do keep in mind that until fairly recently, Hong Kong was richer than Singapore.

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The artist/musician thing is interesting, but it’s hard to see the connection to economics; literature and music are a big deal in Ireland (Noah’s previous case study, with the same population as Singapore) and always have been, irrespective of the economic conditions in the country. Painting and sculpture less so, and other arts even less (is there any ballet in Ireland?).

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I don’t think it’s due to economics, it’s probably more the strict focus on group cohesion and repression of individuality (and strict drug laws, including cannabis). There is for instance a notable symphony orchestra from Singapore but no folk, blues, jazz, punk, hip-hop music that I know of.

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Nov 12, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

There's lots to admire about Singapore. But there are two specific aspects to the Singapore model that I think mean it is not widely replicable:

1) So much of maintenance work that you reference as necessary is performed by imported workers paid substantially less than the minimum wages typical in the west. Construction workers, service staff, even public transport operators can have wages of little more than $1,000 a month. When I lived there, there were differential salary scales that applied to local staff (ie Singaporean), Chinese staff (lower) and others (lower again).

2) Key to the success of the HDB model (I think) is land ownership. Like Hong Kong, the Government either owns the necessary land or has the ability to purchase it at its valuation from 1970. That's a fairly big transfer of wealth from landowners to the common good. May very well be justifiable but would seem difficult to apply in other parts of the world given land rights, constitutions, courts etc. Is a HDB type model possible without this?

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Nov 12, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

This is the point, Ireland is different in that it does not have is a supply of cheap labour next door. All those tropical plants are tended by foreign labour that lives in a barracks and does not share fully in the prosperity of the country. Of course, there are highly paid expats too, and they enjoy these cheap services also from other immigrants.

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Mind you, the way the UK economy is going, Ireland might get a supply of cheap labour soon.

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Not really. Any group of immigrants with full entitlement to work and subject to non discrimination provisions will get the same pay as everyone else, and so will not be "cheap". For cheap labour, in Singapore or the Middle East, you need people subject to immigration restrictions who are segmented in the labour market.

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Sometimes Immigrants get paid less because they do not have the language skills to hold down Every type of job.

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From where? UK net *immigration* is 10x higher than Ireland. Or are you saying that the people queuing up on the French coast to get to the UK will brave the Irish sea instead?

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Sorry, it was a self-deprecating joke as a Brit that lots of Brits would be mo ing to Ireland

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Not all immigration to the UK comes via a tent near Dieppe, at least some of the other immigration has probably already made its way to Ireland post Brexit, for instance people from EU countries.

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About (1): and yet those migrant workers still have better jobs in Singapore than back home.

If your rich country of choice doesn't have migrant workers, they are making things worse. 'Out of sight, out of mind' is not an economically sound policy.

(Of course, Singapore could do even better by opening the borders further.)

Btw, there's no minimum wage here.

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Nov 12, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

I remember my 1st biz trip to fabulous Singapore in the 80s. We were on the plane at the old Hong Kong airport. Captain announces ovwr the PA. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the flight to Singapore.

In Singapore, any quantity of illegal drug, including Marijuana, is punishable by life imprisonment. Or as last week, a death sentence if quantity is large.

Again, if you are not going to Singapore and have boarded the wrong plane, you may exit out the front.

3 people left.

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Nov 12, 2023·edited Nov 12, 2023

They used to give haircuts (involuntarily) upon landing, too.

I remember returning once straight to Singapore from an upcountry project in a neighboring country (maybe mid 80’s) - dirty, unshaven, long hair etc, certain I was going to hosed down and shorn (and meticulously searched) upon arrival. They waved me right through (probably figured no hippie drug smuggler would ever be risk looking that bad).

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Username checks out.

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Nov 12, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

As an expat who recently fled the country, I would say your ode to Singapore is one sided. It may be superficially beautiful, but all that glitters is not gold. Dig beneath the sweaty skies of the Nation State and you will find a mercantile culture which has no regard for individual rights or liberties. It succeeds by catering to the whims of the tax dodging wealthy and the multinationals who use it as a gateway to the rest of Asia. The rest are glorified slaves.

Nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. The country has no regard for individual liberties, and consequently, has no soul.

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> Dig beneath the sweaty skies of the Nation State and you will find a mercantile culture which has no regard for individual rights or liberties.

Not sure what you mean. The government interferes differently, and often less, here than in eg my native Germany.

In Germany, if you want to work as a hairdresser for a living or if you want to fix computers or build furniture, you need to go through multiple years of government approved vocational training. If you want to run your own hairdressing shop, you need another few years of government approved training on top.

Of course, that's not only a infringement of the freedom of the service provider, but also the freedom of the customer.

In Singapore, there's no occupational licensing for hairdressers.

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Singapore is not a nation-state though, it's a city-state!

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The war on bugs and litter is more than collective OCD. It's how they keep a country in the heart of the 'malarial swamp' climate zone, almost completely free from the disease. And with a population made up of three different ethnic groups and half a dozen faith communities, discipline and cohesion were always seen as a priority.

I saw the film Midnight Express at a very impressionable age and vowed never to do drugs or to visit anywhere where I could be beaten, executed or imprisoned forever if falsely convicted of something . . . or Turkey . . . ever . . .

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It's not just malaria, but also Dengue.

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Nov 12, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

How much is that Singapore has easy, abundant access to cheap labor with all the much poorer countries nearby?

It’s like Mexican (now Guatemalan or Salvadorean) landscaper stereotype in the US, except in Singapore, it’s much larger compared with the citizen population and apparently legal so the government can use its services.

Also has the side effect that even middle class families can hire full time maids or Nannie’s or often both

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> How much is that Singapore has easy, abundant access to cheap labor with all the much poorer countries nearby?

Eh, flight tickets are cheap. Especially if you only go back home once or twice a year.

So all of Europe and America could have cheap foreign labour, even if they would have to import them from further away.

(In fact, many of our construction workers are from India and Bangladesh. India isn't all that close.)

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The West does import cheap foreign labour, they just fail to use it sensibly. The right way to do it is:

a) Give people strictly temporary visas

b) Pay them substantially less than local workers

c) Ensure there exists dorm-style housing for them (don't expect them to live like locals)

d) Definitely kick them out at the end of their visa, don't let them marry locals or have local-citizen children

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Nov 13, 2023·edited Nov 13, 2023

What goals is your 'right way' supposed to accomplish? And who is supposed to implement them? (Most of your points seem to be about regulation, but point (b) seems like something the market would handle, if allowed to do so?)

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I was under the impression that Singapore carefully controls the the ethnic balance of housing specifically to avoid ethnic neighborhoods. Is that not true?

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This is correct.

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So how is there a Little India?

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author

Lots of Indian themed stores.

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The same reason why there is a 'Chinatown' in an ethnically Chinese majority society: Vestiges of colonial-era segregation. There are obviously no such restrictions now so enclaves of commercial activty are fairly organic.

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You would assume the government could do a lot more to de-segregate Little India if it felt like it, though. They could start with the name. But I assume this would annoy a lot of people and is generally considered not worth it (there were riots in Little India in 2013).

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Slightly more cynically:

One common way around the world to jump-start a political opposition is by focusing on the plight of one ethnic group. The combination of first-past-the-post voting and policies to disperse the ethnic groups makes that political tactic harder to pull off.

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Typo: “Singapore is the third-richest country in the world, behind only Ireland and Singapore (whose numbers are distorted by their tax haven status)”

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author

Thanks! That's "Ireland and Luxembourg". Fixed!

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Great writeup—I had the same thoughts when I was in SG recently. Not mentioned, but SG has high-quality (and heavily subsidized) childcare, preschool and kindergarten. As the U.S. struggles with a broken childcare system, Singapore has quietly made it a national priority.

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As a person who recently fled Singapore, I can tell you: not everything that glitters is gold. The mercantile mindset which has helped Singapore prosper has come at the expense of individual initiative. Everything about Singapore is planned. It is a theme park for the wealthy, but has no soul. Great if you're a tax dodging expat looking for a patina of legitimacy, or a giant corporation looking at Singapore as the gateway to Asia. Great if you are a CCP official looking to launder your take at the casino tables of Marina Bay Sands. Great if you are economically illiterate and looking for the state to take care of you while you pass your days playing Mah Jong.

Not so great if you are a person who believes the individual is the foundation of liberty, who wants to have his freedoms defined by a Constitution , who values freedom of speech, who revels in the expression of his or her individuality.

Not so great if you are a foreigner and fear the authoritarian impulses of a state which tolerates the individual only so far. The government jammed mRNA vaccines down the throats of everyone, intruded into their private lives, and even encouraged neighbours to rat on each other during COVID.

Don't fall for the superficial. All that glitters is not gold. You might enjoy a week dining in the fabulous restaurants, the lovely malls and the superficial culture. But living there is madness.

Singapore has no soul .

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Been to Singapore three times. Loved each visit. Fav spot was the zoo on a Wednesday AM (almost no visitors!) and open enclosures that got me up close and personal with orangutans and several other critters. Many of the 'enclosures' are to keep out humans rather than the residents. Even better was the night zoo that I almost skipped when I thought it was the day zoo at night then realized it was the nocturnal section. Taking a tram while Malaysian Tapirs walked close by unimpeded and being warned not to reach out to touch them and risk having one tear your hand off made it real. The lighting was simulated moonlight and the King of the Jungle was magically basking on the small hill under a 'full moon'. Not to be missed.

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As a long-time resident of SE Asia, I take issue with this glowing look at Singapore, which many people consider to be a sterile, soulless place. As part of its development process, the oppressive regime bulldozed all the kampung, the traditional villages that formed the city, as well as nearly all of its old shoplots - mixed residential and commercial neighborhoods. Singapore bulldozed its history. Kuala Lumpur, in contrast, has respected its history even while developing into a vibrant modern city. I would cheerfully live in KL, as I once did, but nothing on earth could persuade me to live in Asian Disney. And if you want to consider a gloriously beautiful city that remembers its past, visit Penang.

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Lee Kuan Yew is criminally underrated as one of the great men of the 20th century. The man created a first world country from a backwater and told his critics to fuck off. The USA needs someone like him. Instead we get Trump, Biden and Sanders.

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I would fight you so hard on this you wouldn’t know what hit you. I refuse to Disney-fy my and my child’s world. And I will go to war to stop it. Like already stated Singapore has no soul.

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Blame the voters?

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A good report, Noah. Try to pick up my book, "Singapore Singapura: from miracle to complacency" while you're there. It puts some meat onto the bones, and encourages you to see the city on foot (despite the heat...).

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