Why Singapore is fantastic…

January 5, 2010

National Geographic deserves its iconic status as the premier magazine for scientific development and historical study. Everything is going for it. It has a history (it was founded in 1888). It has a sleek, recognizable look (the yellow cover frame being present early on). It has the audience (its distribution is estimated to be over fifty million per month with translations in 30+ languages). And the articles and photographic essays are continually heaped with honors and praise. In spite of my complaints against them (see my “Naming America” posting for the gist of it), the magazine regularly provides a quality read.

This month’s issue contains a piece called “The Singapore Solution,” which talks about the country’s meteoric rise to economic stability and the restrictions their government imposes to create a hyper-driven workforce and the safest streets in the Far East (aside from the desert plains of the Qinghai province in China, which I’d imagine are pretty tame). If I were to rename the article, I would call it “Why Singapore Makes Me Laugh.” It is a riot to hear the platitudes espoused from the country’s practically-deified father-figure, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. More Hobbes than Hegel, the MM says, “I have always thought that humanity was animal-like. The Confucian theory was man could be improved, but I’m not sure he can be. He can be trained, he can be disciplined.” Nothing like importing those 17th century notions into the 20th and 21st centuries.

After twenty-six years as Prime Minister and fifteen years (tugging the puppet master strings) as a senior minister, he was given this lofty new title upon his son’s ascent to the PM position in 2004. Basically, he has the authority of his former position and a dictator’s accountability. He can do whatever the fuck he chooses. Amazing. As such, Singapore’s military budget is a massive 4.5 percent of their GDP, placing them 20th in the world. [Keep in mind that the United States is 27th on this list and that Singapore is approximately one-eighth of Delaware’s size.] Drug trafficking is punishable by death. Spitting and graffiti may be punished with caning. And English is the official (and mandatory) language.

Lee Kuan Yew is the spawn of Martha Stewart and Mao: seamster of the scourge, a despotic daddy.

Let me introduce two of his government programs that are particularly humorous to me.

  • “Assortative Mating”- College graduates procreating with other college grads to raise the national IQ. Related to “Romancing Singapore,” a series of public events intended to lubricate social interaction between the sexes and (hopefully) raise the near-negative fertility rate, currently just above one percent. Listen up Singapore, your government wants you to have lots of sex…where’s the issue?
  • Addressing the creativity crisis: “When Scape, a youth outreach group, opened a “graffiti wall,” youngsters were instructed to submit graffiti designs for consideration; those chosen would be painted on a designated wall at an assigned time.” Hilarious. Nothing like assignations for sparking one’s creativity.

The country is truly a paragon, though, in spite of these programs, and partly due to this man’s lifetime of work. With savings practices enforced similar to their  northern neighbor’s own, the country can proudly boast that over ninety percent of Singaporeans own their own homes. Unemployment rarely passes three percent. And per capita income rivals (and often exceeds) European countries. As a result of this exponential climb, former Eastern bloc countries have adopted Singapore’s economic practices.

Lee Kuan Yew, looking fierce and feisty.

But of all the restrictions imposed on Singaporeans, the internet has yet to be restricted. Playboy Magazine is, but not the infamous Google or Amazon websites. And to many in Singapore this represents a very important step forward for greater civil liberties. With the MM at eighty odd years old and his grip on the country lessening, at least in the country’s consciousness, this moment could be a major turning point. So exciting.

But how will it change Singapore and the now-famous Singapore Model of development? Lee Kuan Yew contends that the United States’ freedoms undermine what would otherwise be an orderly, great society. We interrupt our own success trying to maintain the ideals our country is based on. Think how great we could be with this determination and drivenness. When I am feeling very practical, I love this idea: determination, competition to be the best, (enforced) politeness. To paraphrase LKY, if we kick the spurs into the hide and get our lazier tendencies (and citizens) expunged, our country would be a new place. Consumerism’s sustainability, the benefits of constant growth and no busts in the cycle.

But then I think, “What the hell? I have to spit and I’m gonna damn well spit where I want.” Those are moments I’m particularly patriotic. I love America.

The National Geographic article can be found online here.

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