Mises Wire

The Man Behind Singapore’s Transition to Economic Powerhouse, Lee Kuan Yew, Dead at 91

Lee Kuan Yew , who led the successful effort to turn Singapore into a economic and financial powerhouse, died Monday at age 91. 

Yew developed the Singapore model out of necessity. Singapore had no natural resources and no agricultural hinterlands to exploit. So, he turned to global trade. The political model is authoritarian — a model of strict enforcement against crime and even controls on freedom of speech — right down to what Americans would consider to be minor transgressions like graffiti — combined with laissez-faire economic policies. The result was a city-state where GDP per capita increased from $500 in 1965 to over $55,000 today. 

But, if human experience has taught us anything, it’s that there’s always a fly in the ointment. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Along the way, Singapore, now one of the world’s richest nations, drew criticism from rights groups that said it attained its developed-world living standards without adopting full Western-style democracy or some of the freedoms taken for granted in Western societies.

This is not quite accurate. Singapore does indeed have Western-style democracy in the sense that it has universal suffrage for citizens. Voting is even mandatory, so Obama should be a fan. The problem with the Singapore regime is not that it has failed to adopt democracy, but that it has failed to adopt a true respect for property rights. The Singapore regime, even today, engages in indefinite detention without trial, censorship of news outlets, and punishes people for made-up non-crimes like “scandalising the court” in which one can be sanctioned for criticizing government employees. Singapore also has conscription.  

Property Rights Should Come Before Voting “Rights” 

The Singaporean state claims these measures are necessary to maintain respect for property rights. In other words, its the old position of “we must violate property rights to save them.” Behind this, however, is the idea that property rights are inferior to the “right” to vote.  Put another way, the Singaporean state fears that free speech, free assembly and so-called rabble-rousing may lead de-stabilization in a community where all citizens may vote. The state fears that  ”low-information voters“ will be led astray by opponents of the regime. Hence, the limitations on freedom of speech.

But Singapore has it backwards. The answer is not to limit property rights, which is always morally illegitimate, but to limit “the vote” which is not a right at all. Indeed, voting “rights” must always be regarded as inferior to property rights. If the Singaporean state fears low-information voters, as it clearly does, then it should ensure that its voting population consists only of high-information voters. Or at least that it consists of voters who are net taxpayers and thus have a true stake in limiting the state’s power. 

Throwing people in prison without trial for making government agents look bad is hardly necessary to maintain property rights. In fact, such practices are directly contrary to property rights. 

How Strong is the Singaporean State, Really? 

And yet, in spite of Singapore’s many faults, we must remember that the Singaporean state’s monopoly is quite limited by size. On other words, the smallness of the Singaporean state is a mitigating factor. Physical barriers to exit are very low, and the Singaporean state doesn’t even enjoy an ethnic barrier to emigration in the sense that it is not the sole homeland of any particular ethnic group. Thus, Singapore does not benefit from any built-in ethnic or linguistic barriers to exit that would strengthen the state’s monopoly over the resident population. Most residents are there for economic reasons, and most speak the same language as the people in numerous other nations. This means they and not learn a new language or necessarily be ethnic outsiders in nearby states should they wish to emigrate.

To illustrate what I mean here, we might compare Singapore to the United States, which enjoys numerous linguistic and geographic advantages in maintaining its monopoly. The sheer size of the United States ensures that anyone wishing to emigrate must move hundreds if not thousands of miles from friends and family, just to change the regime under which one lives. At the same time, the United States contains three-fourths of the world’s native English speakers. So, if one wishes to emigrate, he is likely to have to learn a new language. These language and geographical barriers provide a huge advantage to the US state in terms of preventing emigration and brain drains. A state’s monopoly is enhanced by both size and by its ability to benefit from cultural barriers. The US regime enjoys both to a large extent, but the Singapore regime enjoys these benefits to a much, much smaller extent. 

Thus, one can certainly make the case, that in spite of the Singaporean state’s propensity for limiting free speech, its monopoly is far more limited than the monopoly the United States enjoys. 

But of course, it’s important to remember that Singapore does not view politics through a lens of the property-rights ideology known as liberalism. Lee Kuan Yew himself portrayed his turn to private property as a largely practical matter, and in this he joins numerous other Asian political reformers who view market economics not as a moral imperative, but as a matter of practicality. 


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