204 Comments
Nov 12Liked 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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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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Nov 12Liked 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 12Liked 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 12Liked 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 12Liked 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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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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Nov 12Liked 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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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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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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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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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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