On Sunday, Singapore cremates its greatest leader, the late Lee Kuan Yew, architect of its good fortunes. Yet the flames also could extinguish the era of relentless social and economic progress that Lee ushered in during his long, amazingly productive life.
World leaders, corporate hegemons, and much of the foreign policy establishment tend to worship Lee’s achievements. But the view from on high, not to mention across the seas, can be quite different from the reality on the ground, as I have learned over many trips to this most remarkable city-state.
Lee is rightly celebrated for his remarkable success in transforming a poor, southeast Asian metropolis into one of the wealthiest and most productive places on the planet. At the time of its independence in the mid-’60s, Singapore was a corrupt, dirty, and divided Asian metropolis, with a GDP of roughly $2,600 per capita, which put it ahead of China and most of its southeast Asian neighbors but below such countries as the Philippines, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Bolivia, and Argentina, and several times lower than Greece, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
Uncontestable: A Record of Economic Achievement
Under Lee and his cadre of well-educated, thoughtful civil servants, the tiny 225 square mile island republic has created arguably the best run and most successful dense urban place on the planet. Today the city-state has a per capita GDP estimated at $55,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, above the U.S. level and well ahead of Japan, Germany, and France, as well as its old colonial master, Great Britain.
Lee got there by having goals but being pragmatic about how to achieve them. He was what one observer called “a patient revolutionary,” a Fabian socialist whose underlying ideology can be boiled down to “what works.” This pragmatism was evident in economic policy, as the country focused first on trade and manufacturing and then towards a greater orientation to technology and high-end services.
Education was a critical component, and from the start it was seen as the primary way to build both the state and the economy. This policy has resulted in a high proportion of technically trained professionals, leading the Center on International Education Benchmarking Education to call Singapore’s workforce “among the most technically competent in the world. Unlike many places in the developing world, Singapore knows it must compete primarily on quality, not price.”
Perhaps the most critical aspect of Lee’s success, and that of his successors, was the ability to meet the requirements of multinational companies. Designating English as the national language was a primary advantage. Due largely to Lee, Singapore is a primarily English-speaking country, and global business tends to go where it is understood, and where its nationals can most easily function.
As a result, efficient, globally focused Singapore now boasts more than twice as many regional headquarters of foreign firms than far-larger Tokyo, not to mention Asia’s less affluent megacities. They provide expats working for multinationals with sanitation, parks, trees, clean housing, an educated workforce, and low corruption not readily available in the rest of south Asia. Anyone who has spent time in India, or even Vietnam, marvels at the relative ease of life in Singapore.
The Limits of Globalization
Yet with wealth have come new problems that are not widely acknowledged outside the city-state. The influx of foreigners has made property owners wealthier, but many feel it also has eroded local culture. Its benefits to ordinary Singaporeans are increasingly dubious. Even as GDP growth continues to chug at somewhat close to 5 percent per annum, real wages for ordinary Singaporeans have stagnated. From 1998 to 2008, the income of the bottom 20 percent of households dropped an average of 2.7 percent, while the salaries of the richest 20 percent rose by more than half.
For many Singaporeans, discontent has led them to consider a move elsewhere. Already some 300,000 citizens now live abroad, almost one of ten. As many as half of Singaporeans, according to a recent survey, would leave if they could.
The Shrinking Family
Arguably the biggest threat to Singapore’s future is occurring in the country’s bedrooms. As Lee was himself aware, Chinese civilization was built around a large extended family, often with several generations under the same roof. In the Chinese tradition, “regulating the family” was seen as critical to both “ordering the state” and pacifying the world.
As the Chinese began to spread to Southeast Asia and beyond, they carried elements of this family-centric culture with them. Kinship ties, according to the sociologist Peter Berger, constituted “the absolutely central institution” of overseas Chinese businesses in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Australia. In Singapore this familial situation propped up the hierarchy of the state; Lee, in a sense, was the father of all Singaporeans while the bureaucracy played the role of “tiger moms,” cajoling, instructing, demanding ever better results from their charges.
Yet this familial-based system is clearly breaking down. This is reflected by the decision of more Singaporeans not to have offspring. Indeed today Singapore has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates; and more young people are postponing or completely avoiding marriage (children out of wedlock remain very rare). The fertility rates in Singapore have fallen almost 50 percent below the replacement rate of 2.1. Overall, Singapore-based demographer Gavin Jones estimates that up to a quarter of all East Asian women now entering their 20s—including those in Singapore—will still be single by age 50, and up to a third will remain childless.
“People increasingly see marriage and children as very risky, so they avoid it,” notes Singapore based demographer Gavin Jones. “Even though there’s a strong ideology in Asia to have a family, it is fading.”
The Spiritual Crisis
Jones and others see this trend as something of a spiritual crisis, coupled with high housing prices and an overemphasis on work. In the old Chinese world, children were seen as essential to economic stability and social status. Now those values have drowned in a tsunami of materialism and global culture.
“My father was from the old generation,” says Singapore pastor Andrew Ong. “He came from a family of 16. Now people’s priorities have changed. They don’t really believe in sacrifice and family. They want the enjoyment of life, and children would impinge on that … they don’t value family and children the way we used to.”
In interviews, young Singaporeans often express the decision not to have children in very pragmatic terms. “Having kids was important to our parents,” noted one 30-something civil servant in Singapore, “but now we tend to have a cost and benefit analysis about family. The cost is tangible but the benefits are not knowable or tangible.”
The links among housing prices, work competition, and the decision not to have families was repeatedly mention by young people in Singapore. As one young civil servant told me, “I feel Singapore is becoming more stressful—people are living in smaller spaces. There’s no room for a child. The costs are tremendous. A generation ago, it was different. My father was a bus driver and could get a big HDB [Housing Development Board] flat. For my generation, it will be harder.”
Demographer Jones also links the low marriage and birth rates in part to extreme competition that forces people to work long hours. Despite successes over the past few decades, the degree of economic uncertainty has grown considerably in successful Asian countries, all of them faced with increased competition from the behemoths of India and China. Faced with these challenges, Singapore employers, Jones reports, remain “generally unforgiving of the divided loyalties inherent in the effort to combine child-raising with working.”
Such pressures were repeatedly reported in interviews with younger Singaporeans. “People are consumed by their work,” one young Singaporean told me. “There’s a lack of time. You would expect nature will take care of this but it doesn’t.”
These same phenomena can be seen in all the densest cities of Asia, from Tokyo and Seoul to Shanghai. The very work culture that is so impressive to foreign companies has had a very direct impact on family and society. “The focus in Singapore is not to enjoy life, but to keep score: in school, in jobs, in income,” noted one 30-year-old scholar at the NUS Institute for Policy Studies. “Many see getting attached as an impediment to this.”
The biggest impact on these change has been among women, who are playing an increasingly critical role in the local economy. Although most senior executives in the government and outside are male, the middle ranks, and many of the fastest up and comers, are female. Demographer Wolfgang Lutz notes that while Singapore may have strong pro-natalist policies, it still operates an economic system that encourages, even insists on, long hours for employees, many of whom are women. Singapore’s labor force participation rate for women is almost 60 percent. “In Singapore,” Lutz points out, “women work an average of 53 hours a week. Of course they are not going to have children. They don’t have the time.”
The danger of a ‘now’ society
The tendency to put off marriage and child-bearing, as well as the focus on material gain, works against the fundamental values of patience and persistence that animated Lee Kuan Yew’s career, and also shaped Chinese civilization. A society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future. Like other societies, Singapore can tilt more into a “now” society, geared towards consuming or recreating today, as opposed to nurturing and sacrificing for tomorrow.
These problems, of course, exist across the high-income world, but in Singapore, given its small space and its unfriendly neighborhood, the stakes are higher. After all, there is no suburbia for families to flee to, and there is no Texas to balance off the problems of an over-expensive New York or San Francisco. Singapore’s miracle, as Lee knew, was always a fragile one, and may become more so in the years after his passing.