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Singapore Realizes the American Dream--at a Price

June 12, 1988|Donella H. Meadows | Donella H. Meadows is a professor of environmental and policy studies at Dartmouth College.

Singapore doesn't intend to be a place that makes you think. It would rather make you spend. From its splendid airport shops to its glittering downtown skyscraper-malls, it offers the name brands of the world. Its restaurants tempt you with every kind of cuisine. Its financial centers sell stock and arrange loans with flawless efficiency. Its dollar is a lot sounder than ours.

In some ways Singapore has achieved the American dream more perfectly than America has. But it has done so through political and economic measures that would be unthinkable to us. Singapore shines a mirror onto ourselves, a fun-house mirror that shows a crazy image, just enough like us and just enough distorted to be both fascinating and disturbing.

The city looks and runs the way you wish Los Angeles would. Traffic flows freely over wide, flower-lined highways. There is no obvious litter or pollution, there are no slums or beggars. The people look industrious and purposeful, wealthy and satisfied. Services, from garbage collection to buses, run with a mindful orderliness that I have encountered nowhere else on earth except Switzerland.

The wealth and order are especially amazing given how recently they have appeared. At the end of World War II Singapore's only asset was its strategic position off the southern tip of what is now Malaysia. Beyond that it was a battered British port, an impoverished Asian city, its rapidly growing, largely illiterate population living in slums. As late as 1960 its per-capita gross national product was only $600 per year. Now it is $7,400, just about equal to that of England, half of ours. Third World to First World in 25 years. Only 0.3% of Singaporean families now live in poverty. Life expectancy is 71 years. The population has nearly stabilized at 2.6 million. There is no homelessness and little unemployment. From 1965 to 1985 the economy grew at an average annual rate of 10%--a doubling every seven years.

Some say Singapore developed so much faster than Jakarta, say, or Bangkok, because of its free-market principles and cozy relations with multinational corporations. Some point out the advantage of being a city-state with an international border to keep out migrants from the countryside. But the most important reason for Singapore's success is surely the brilliant, resolute--some would say ruthless--leadership of its mostly benevolent dictator, Lee Kuan Yew.

To work his economic miracle, Lee walks boldly where few governments have the mandate, understanding or gall to dare to tread. He regulates the birth rate, savings decisions and social behavior of his people. His government is, by all accounts, free of corruption, but it is involved in every aspect of life. This is the side of Singapore that bothers red-blooded, individualistic Americans. It shows us what we could have, and at what cost, if we were willing to be more regulated.

Lee knows that economic development can take off only when the savings and investments of a nation grow much faster than the population. So the first items on his agenda were population control and forced savings. He set up free family-planning clinics and mounted education campaigns. He offered $5,000 to mothers who agreed to be sterilized after their second child; their families got top priority for public housing and better schools.

The birth rate is now below replacement level, especially for ethnic Chinese, who make up 76% of the population but average only 1.4 children per family. (Malay and Indian families average 2.1 and 1.9 respectively.) Lee's response to the lower birth rate is to reverse gears and offer incentives to "educated mothers" to have three or more children. The government defends this policy on eugenic and economic grounds. It has been challenged as elitist and racist.

All workers in Singapore are required to save one-fourth of their incomes. The money is matched by employers (since the 1985 recession, employers have been required to match only 10% of salary). The savings must go into government bonds and can be redeemed only after the worker reaches age 55.

With the billions thus generated, Lee has built the city, especially its housing. Identical 16-story apartment blocks rise everywhere, each with a recreation center, swimming pool, shopping center, community center and school. The apartments are spacious and comfortable. Now that there are enough of them for everyone, the government lets people tap their savings before age 55 to buy them (from the government, of course). The goal is that 100% of families will own their homes; at present 75% do.

Lee also knows that cleanliness and orderliness have to be enforced by strong laws, at least until they become habits. He does not tolerate anti-social behavior in his tight little city-state. The fine for littering is $250. There are similar penalties for jaywalking, spitting and smoking in government offices. Drug trafficking is punished with death.

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