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Make America Singapore? It Will Never Happen

Make America Singapore? It Will Never Happen

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Top image: Vulcan Post

While there is plenty in Singapore that needs to be fixed, there’s undoubtedly a lot that works too. And this has often been touted as a template for success, applicable anywhere in the world.

Most recently, this took the form of an op-ed published in The New York Times, which called Singapore’s healthcare system as the best in the world.

It’s time we laid this fantasy to rest.

It’s harder to see now, but the history of Singapore’s development has always been one of compromise, along with considerations of size, strategic location, and timing. But fundamentally, leaders like Lee Kuan Yew understood that human nature can be shaped.

The truth is, Singaporeans have been socially engineered by the country’s policies to accept the system.

This is why the country works, and why no other country will ever be able to replicate its journey.

It’s hard coded in our DNA to “play it safe” if we want to do reasonably well in life.

Cynics call this a climate of fear, one that compels individuals to toe the line instead of doing what’s best for their individual selves. Compared to Western cultures that believe in things like American exceptionalism, we are, at heart, a collectivist society.

Idealists call it a culture of pragmatism—one that empowers us to recognise that if we go to university, buy our BTOs, settle for our CPF-paying jobs and try not to break any rules, we can all come out ahead to lead stable, happy lives.

So, while we want to think of ourselves as individuals with agency, a lot of who we are has actually been shaped by the society and culture that we’ve grown up in.

Take our education system for instance. It tells us that doing well in school is the only way to succeed, and most of us still believe that social mobility is only possible with good grades.

This began in the 60s when Singapore incentivised and rewarded academic excellence, and established public sector jobs as some of the most coveted and well compensated. It was what the country needed to achieve its expedited growth.

Today, this remains largely the case, and this system of Singaporean meritocracy has in turn fostered obedience. It’s now hard coded in our DNA to “play it safe” if we want to do reasonably well in life.

All this has come together to make Singaporeans more willing to accept its government’s brand of paternalism. It also makes rolling out any new policy a breeze. In countries like America where conservative politics believe in a hands-off approach to government, this would never happen.

Between unhappiness and uncertainty, Singaporeans would rather pick unhappiness.

In many ways, the outcome of the 2015 General Elections was a distillation of this Singaporean mindset. Most don’t get what’s so bad about the country or what’s so terrible about not having certain individual freedoms, while a large proportion of those who bitch about the G are secretly terrified of change. Between unhappiness and uncertainty, they’d rather have unhappiness.

This isn’t fear, it’s pragmatism.

Accepting that we have to make CPF contributions is pragmatic, because why fight something we can’t change anyway? Accepting that the country’s politicians are overpaid is pragmatic, because there’s nothing anyone can do to change that either.

As Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy puts it, “Pragmatism means that a country does not try to reinvent the wheel.”

This was said in reference to Dr. Goh Keng Swee’s approach of adapting best practices from other countries to Singapore, privileging the “tried and tested” over originality. After all, it’s an approach that allowed the country’s per capita income to go from $500 in the 60s to $55,000 in 2015.

With the country having done so well, why fix what isn’t broken? The status quo remains king, and most of us are not hungry or desperate enough to try something impractical like doing things differently.

Realistically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with this way of thinking. Today, Singapore is a developed nation of countless conveniences. Our healthcare system works because most of us are mere cogs in the wheel of Singapore’s success.

We’re happy to do and follow, content with the idea that not all of us can be extraordinary.

And so unless a country like America finds itself with a population small enough to be socially engineered to think in this way, it will not be possible to do what Singapore has done.

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