Singapore Is Not the Model for a More Libertarian America

“In 1984, they introduced MediSave, a health savings account that was part of the country’s mandatory savings scheme, called the Central Provident Fund (CPF). Adding the MediSave bucket to the fund (which also has a bucket for housing and a bucket for retirement) forced all Singaporeans to pay something for medical care. This was followed in 1990 by the introduction of a catastrophic insurance policy called MediShield Life that is mandatory for all Singaporeans and permanent residents. Finally, in 1993, Singapore introduced MediFund, a government-managed endowment for Singaporeans who cannot cover their medical bills using the above two funding methods, cash, or family assistance. Interest from the endowment is given to certain health care institutions to underwrite the bills of patients who can’t pay. (The family help aspect is important, as MediSave funds can be used to pay the health bills of an immediate family member.) Although the country also has a supplemental private insurance market, Singaporeans under 55 must contribute 20 percent of their salaries, and their employers another 17 percent, to the CPF.

A network of public hospitals are meant to encourage what Lee Kuan Yew called a “self-administered means test.” Patients can choose any kind of hospital “ward” they like, but the subsidies slide based on consumer income and ward grade. A public hospital’s cheapest ward might sleep four patients to a room and lack air conditioning, while its most expensive wards sleep one person to a room and are cooled. While the vast majority of Singapore’s hospital beds are in public facilities, there are also private hospitals. (The situation for primary care and clinics, where care is cheaper, is the opposite: Most practices are private.)

Singapore has found that making people pay a nominal amount for every type of medical service discourages unnecessary consumption and that the spectrum of service upgrades—from shorter wait times to one-person rooms—allows prices to work as a mechanism for allocating resources. The system is greatly aided by a requirement from the Ministry of Health (MOH) that all public hospitals report to the government what they charge. The MOH then posts facility-specific averages on an easily searchable website where consumers can sort hospitals and wards by how much they charge for specific procedures. Private hospitals aren’t required to submit this information to the MOH, but many do so voluntarily. The differences are stark: The median cost of repairing a one-sided lower abdominal hernia at Singapore’s cheapest public hospital ward in 2018–2019 was $966. The median cost for the same procedure at Singapore’s most expensive private hospital was $15,729.”

“Singapore doesn’t control just the pharmaceutical choices of its residents; it also controls most of their media choices. Consider that Singapore’s buskers—the independent street performers one sees in public transportation systems and parks around the U.S.—not only need a permit (as is the case in Boston and several other American cities) but “are required to attend an audition to ensure consistency in the quality of busking activities,” according to guidelines published by Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA). Video games and movies “deemed to undermine public order” or that are “likely to be prejudicial to national interest” are prohibited. Press freedoms are nonexistent.”

“Even people who abhor the draconian policies in Singapore begrudgingly admit that it is a well-put-together place. The science fiction writer William Gibson visited the island for a 1993 Wired article in which he described the airport, streets, and buildings as perfectly maintained and the flora as immaculate. He could find no “wrong side of the tracks” or dilapidated infrastructure. The whole country was safe and polite and advanced. “Only the clouds were feathered with chaos,” Gibson wrote.

Following the publication of the piece, which described the country as “Disneyland with the death penalty,” Singapore banned the distribution of Wired.”

“Singapore is complex, but its core tension comes from the pairing of highly effective public and private institutions that take into account how people respond to incentives while engaging in shocking incursions on personal liberty and bodily autonomy. Imagine for a moment that it were possible for America to import what’s “good” about Singapore—the effective institutions, the economic growth, the tranquility. Could it be done without accidentally importing what’s bad?”

“Singapore is one of the few countries in the world where the public sector outbids the private sector for talent, thanks to the fact that “cabinet level pay may exceed U.S. $800,000, with bonuses attached that can double that sum for excellent performance.” The country’s culture of public service is also bolstered by “complex and overlapping incentives whereby top public sector workers are…respected highly and develop the personal networks for subsequent advancement in either the public or private sectors.””

“Bryan Caplan has argued that Singapore is unique in a way that does not bode well for policy adoption in either direction. In a 2009 paper, he summed up the “Singapore paradox” thusly: The island nation “persistently adopts policies that the democratic process would overturn almost anywhere else on earth, but the same party keeps winning election after election by a landslide. Why doesn’t a rival party promise to abolish the PAP’s unpopular policies and soar to power? How, in short, is Singapore’s political-economic equilibrium possible?”

Caplan probed several explanations in his paper, which he presented in Singapore. He ruled out the idea that the country is not actually a democracy, since it has free and fair (though not competitive) elections. Instead, he found strong survey evidence that Singaporeans were both “unusually concerned about economic performance” and deferential to the party that has delivered consistent economic growth for decades. The 2002 World Values Survey, where Caplan derived his data, reported that 58.8 percent of Singaporeans say “a high level of economic growth” should be their nation’s top priority, compared to 48.6 percent of Americans. In terms of political culture, the differences were much starker: 3.2 percent of Singaporeans reported being “very interested” in politics, and 32.8 percent were “somewhat interested” in politics. In America, the World Values Survey reported those numbers at 18.3 percent and 47.2 percent respectively.

Based on both the last eight months of social upheaval and on the United States’ decadeslong preference for swapping Democrats and Republicans in and out of federal power, Americans are almost certainly less deferential than are Singaporeans. And therein lies the rub: Being 10 percent less democratic requires American voters to trust elites and government far more than they do and, frankly, far more than they should.”

“Yana Chernyak, the assistant director of strategic initiatives at the American Enterprise Institute (and Cowen’s stepdaughter), wrote a guest post for Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog in 2014 in which she posited that people “run in circles discussing whether Singapore is replicable based on its public and economic policies” and generally miss that “what actually makes Singapore so unique and probably impossible (or at least very difficult) to replicate” is its culture—specifically, Peranakan culture, which is passed down by the descendants of pan-Asian merchants and which holds a “positive view of commercial activity as the machine of wealth creation and basis of improving one’s life.”” 

“Singapore has combined classical liberal policies such as free trade, an open port, and low taxes with an authoritarian single-party government that centrally plans large swaths of the island’s economy and infrastructure, plays the role of censor in practically every media sector, canes petty criminals, and executes drug offenders. Because of, or despite, this seemingly incongruous combination, Singapore for most of the 21st century has reported higher annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth than the U.S., as well as lower infant mortality, greater trust in government, a comparable GDP per capita, and a longer life expectancy. The island city-state, as its proudest inhabitants love to mention, is also cleaner than the U.S. and has much less crime.”

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