Seriously Smart Singapore: An Alternative Way Forward

By webadmin on 08:45 pm Jan 31, 2011
Category Archive

Thomas Friedman

I am in the Gan Eng Seng Primary School in a middle-class neighborhood of Singapore, and the principal, A. W. Ai Ling, has me visiting a fifth-grade science class. All the 11-year-old boys and girls are wearing junior white lab coats with their names on them. Outside in the hall, yellow police tape has blocked off a “crime scene” and lying on a floor, bloodied, is a fake body that has been murdered. The class is learning about DNA through the use of fingerprints, and their science teacher has turned the students into little C.S.I. detectives. They have to collect fingerprints from the scene and then break them down.

When I asked the principal whether this was part of the national curriculum, she said no.

She just had a great science teacher, she said, and was aware that Singapore was expanding its biotech industries and thought it would be good to push her students in the same direction.

A couple of them checked my fingerprints. I was innocent — but impressed.

This was just an average public school, but the principal had made her own connections between “what world am I living in,” “where is my country trying to go in that world” and, therefore, “what should I teach in fifth-grade science.”

I was struck because that kind of linkage is so often missing in US politics today.

Republicans favor deep cuts in government spending, while so far exempting Medicare, Social Security and the defense budget.

 Not only is that not realistic, but it basically says that our nation’s priorities should be to fund retirement homes for older people rather than better schools for younger people and that we should build new schools in Afghanistan before Alabama.

President Obama just laid out a smart and compelling vision of where our priorities should be. But he did not spell out how and where we will have to both cut and invest to deliver on his vision.

Singapore is tiny and by no means a US-style democracy. Yet, like America, it has a multiethnic population with a big working class. It has no natural resources and even has to import sand for building.

But today its per-capita income is just below US levels, built with high-end manufacturing, services and exports. The country’s economy grew last year at 14.7 percent, led by biomedical exports. How?

If Singapore has one thing to teach America, it is about taking governing seriously, relentlessly asking: What world are we living in and how do we adapt to thrive.

“We’re like someone living in a hut without any insulation,” explained Tan Kong Yam, an economist.

“We feel every change in the wind or the temperature and have to adapt. You Americans are still living in a brick house with central heating and don’t have to be so responsive.” And we have not been.

Singapore probably has the freest market in the world; it doesn’t believe in import tariffs, minimum wages or unemployment insurance.

But it believes regulators need to make sure markets work properly — because they can’t on their own — and it subsidizes home ownership and education to give everyone the chance to be self-reliant.

Singapore copied the German model that strives to put everyone who graduates from high school on a track for higher education.

About 40 percent go to universities, the others are tracked to vocational institutes, so the vast majority graduate with the skills to get a job, whether it be as a plumber or a scientist.

Explained Ravi Menon, the permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry: “The two ‘isms’ that perhaps best describe Singapore’s approach are: pragmatism — an emphasis on what works in practice rather than abstract theory; and eclecticism — a willingness to adapt to the local context best practices from around the world.”

It is a sophisticated mix of radical free-market and nanny state that requires sophisticated policy makers to implement, which is why politics here is not treated as sport or entertainment.

Top bureaucrats and cabinet ministers have their pay linked to top private sector wages, so most make well over $1 million a year, and their bonuses are tied to the country’s annual GDP growth rate.

It means the government can attract high-quality professionals and corruption is low.

America never would or should copy Singapore’s less-than-free politics. But the city-state has something to teach us about “attitude” — about taking governing seriously and thinking strategically.

We used to do that and must again because our little brick house with central heating is not going to be resistant to the storms much longer.

“There is real puzzlement here about America today,” said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, “because we learned all about what it takes to build a well-functioning society from you. Many of our top officials are graduates of the Kennedy School at Harvard. They just came back home and applied its lessons vigorously.”
 

Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.