If you’ve spent much time enduring the hassles, filth and indignities of LAX, Dulles and JFK, Singapore’s Changi airport is a revelation. As former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew decreed, you get from the gate to a taxi in 15 minutes. The men’s room is sleek and immaculate, and even asks you to rate your experience (and thus the attendant) via a handy touchscreen ranking as you leave.
As close readers of this column will have noticed, I’ve been a gushing fan of Singapore’s public policy achievements since I began looking at them a few years back. Singapore spends 4 percent of gross domestic product on health care vs. America’s 17 percent, yet it delivers equal or better health outcomes. It’s at the top of global school rankings because (unlike us) it routinely recruits exemplary students into the teaching profession. Yes, I know, Singapore still denies press and assembly freedoms we take for granted, and has awful anti-gay laws on the books (which I’m told go unenforced). But a few days spent talking with officials, businesspeople, students and government critics in the city-state that now boasts one of the world’s highest per capita incomes have deepened my admiration for Singapore’s accomplishments. I also came away convinced that last year’s watershed elections — in which the ruling People’s Action Party won just 60 percent of the popular vote and lost a group constituency (and three cabinet ministers) for the first time since independence in 1965 — mean a more democratic political era is unfolding.
A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the host of the new podcast “This...Is Interesting,” Miller writes a weekly column for The Post.
Start with what Singapore has delivered for its 5 million people. The place is a policy wonk’s paradise. Thanks to what may be a historically unique blend of dedicated, highly educated technocrats and the “luxury” of decades of one-party rule, the government has always taken the long view. Pragmatic problem-solving is its creed. Benevolent dictatorship never looked so good.
Beyond world-beating health care and education systems, some highlights:
* Development. Back when most developing countries shunned multinationals as evil exploiters, Singapore smartly embraced global firms as indispensable sources of training, technology and jobs. As a result, Singapore grew in real terms by a stunning 8 percent a year on average between 1965 and 2010, and has become a site of choice for top firms serving Asian markets. Even Uncle Sam now tries to emulate Singapore’s savvy in courting foreign direct investment. The state’s latest economic strategy document, crafted with input from stakeholders across the island, reads more like a strategy consultant’s analysis than the usual blue-ribbon mush. “We’re like a company,” says Philip Yeo, who ran the globally admired Economic Development Board for years before launching a new agency that’s an innovative cross between the National Science Foundation and a venture capital firm. “We have a plan.”
* Clean talent. Singapore’s government has always been clean and exceptional. The tone was set early on by Lee, who flew commercial to international meetings and was repulsed by African leaders who came in on private jets while their people starved. Lee ruthlessly punished officials who tried to use their post to line their pockets, insisting that the rule of law meant just that. Top students are offered full rides to places such as Oxford, MIT and Stanford, and then “bonded” to do, say, six years of government service thereafter. Twenty years ago this culture was bolstered by the introduction of the world’s highest public-sector salaries, so that government could compete for the best and brightest. I’m talking roughly $2.5 million for the prime minister and $1.3 million for cabinet ministers (with bonuses tied to GDP growth). Pay became an issue in the last election and was recently scaled back for top officials by roughly a third in response. But whatever the right balance, pause and think how smart it is to pay for the talent a country needs to govern — and how differently we’d view, say, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s approach to Wall Street reform if everyone wasn’t expecting him to cash in when he leaves.