Home .Globalization winners Singapore in the Asian Century
Singapore in the Asian Century
Tuesday, 14 August 2012 19:46

After many decades of great success, how can Singapore contribute to the Asian Century?  Lorraine Bergeron, an invited contributor from Tokyo's Sophia University, shares with us her views.

The 21st Century is said to be the Asian Century. We are now twelve years into the new millennium and, although Asia can glorify itself with major achievements, more needs to be done and Asia cannot rest on its laurels if it wishes to converge and complete its catching-up process with the big leagues of the developed countries. "Embracing globalisation and regional co-operation has helped bring Asia success. Greater economic access and inclusion, and improved governance, would bring further gains."  These words from Stephen P. Groff, the vice-president of the Asian Development Bank, corresponds exactly to some of the topics I wish to develop in this paper.

Groff goes on to insist on the need to narrow the inequalities within and among Asian nations, to pursue sustainable development and to improve governance, if the Asian century is to become a reality. Each Asian country has a part to play in the future prosperity of Asia to make the scenario unfold according to expectations. In this paper, I wish to analyse the role of a small Southeast Asian country that has been a model of economic growth and development and an example of how a country can catch-up and develop its potential towards convergence.

This country is Singapore. The Singaporeans are very proud of what they have accomplished in a mere 45 years, that is since the birth of their nation in 1965, when they chose to leave the Federation of Malaysia and try to make it on their own under the direction of Lee Kuan Yew. Using different indicators, I will identify in which areas Singapore has fared well so far and in which areas progress needs to be made so that it may contribute to realizing the Asian Century.

The positive contribution of Singapore to an Asian century

Using mainly the CIA World book fact, I will give an overview of the demographic, economic and social portrait of the country and compare it to the United States in some cases as the US represents the ultimate to goal to catch up to. Singapore is a country of about just over 5 million people, out of which a bit less than 4 million are residents (citizens and permanent residents). In 1965, there were less than 2 million people living in this small country of 274 square miles made up of thirty islands or so. In demographic terms, Singapore has grown rather fast, more than doubling its population in less than 40 years.

The young people represent 14% of its total population, the adults make up 77% of the population and the older group is still fairly small with 9% the population. This gives Singapore a median age of 33.5 years, which makes it a "relatively" young population status compared to the 37 years for the United States and the 40 years and over for most developed countries in Europe. Its demographic growth rate is around 2% and Singapore has a low fertility rate of 0.78 per women, the lowest among 222 countries, which could be a problem in a near future as the population ages and the burden become heavy on a small group of working adults in another generation or so.

Four different ethnic groups form the Singaporean nation: Chinese (74%), Malay (13%), Indians (9%) and Eurasians (4%). There are four official languages: Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English, but the common language and language of business is English. The life expectancy at birth is 83.75 years, which places Singapore 4th in the world behind Monaco, Macau and Japan. Singapore is a city-state and is constituted of 100% urban areas and no rural activities remain in the country except for a few frog farms and some fishing. In summary, in terms of general demographics, Singapore compares well to any of the developed countries and follows generally the same trends as all highly industrialized and urbanized countries. In Singapore's case, Lewis turning point has happened almost over night, from a small fishing village to a very modern city with great infrastructure (well-planned road system, efficient airport, busiest port in the world, state-of-the-art tertiary educative facilities, convenient public transport system, housing and services all kinds) under a forward-planning, pragmatic and efficient government. What about the economic growth?

One of the first indicators used to situate a country's economic growth among world countries is the GDP per capita. Singapore has a highly developed market-based economy and is known to be one of the four Asian Tigers along with Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. The unemployment rate is at 2.8%, which is low compared to most other countries in the region and in the world. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) data, for the year 2010, with a GDP per capita of $56,570 (current international dollars), Singapore placed first in the Asia and Pacific region. The ADB also uses an average of 100 for the region of the Asia and Pacific, and Singapore ranked first for 2010 with a result of 850 which is extremely high, if we compare to Australia at 550, Japan at 450, Korea at 400. Only Brunei is close with a figure of 700.

To confirm Singapore's high GDP/capita, I compared them to the CIA figures. They are similar, with an estimate of $60,500 for the year 2011, putting Singapore in 5th place and thus surpassing the United States, which for the same year reported $49,000. Singapore in 2011 did better than the US, thus contributing highly to the convergence, as far as the GDP/capital is concerned. As for the wealth Gini Index, Singapore has a result of 0.689. The highest ranking country is Japan with 0.547. Since the United States has a Wealth Gini of 0.801, Singapore is not showing as a great disparity between the rich and the poor living within its borders as the US is, and therefore has also been successful in reaching convergence in that area as well.  "In 2010, its economy expanded by 14.5%, the fastest pace of growth in the region" . Not too many countries in the world can boast such high economic figure in these days of recession. Finally, Singapore place 6th on the Innovative Cities Asia Index of 2011 and 4th on Global Financial Centers Index. Having shown Singapore's economic growth and success, I will look into other aspects in which it could do better.

Areas in which Singapore needs to improve to help realize the Asian Century

Among the countries of the world, Singapore ranks 26th with a high development index (HDI) of 0.866, compared to Norway, which is in 1st place with 0.943 and the US in 4th  position with 0.910. Singapore can do better to improve certain aspects of its Human Development Index, even if it does place at the very top among countries in Asia and the Pacific.  Singapore must improve the education of its population if it is to join the countries in the very high HDI.  The expected years of schooling for a country with a very high HDI is 15.9. Singapore shows a figure of 14.4, which is below the US (16.0). This is an area that needs improvement. Singapore's public expenditure is at 3% of its GDP, whereas it would need to devote 3.3% to be in the top HDI group.

Its adult literacy rate is at 97.5 %, which good but needs to jump to 98.2 to aim for the top. The mean years of schooling of its adult population (over 25 years) also needs great improvement from 8.8 to 11.3. The UNDP also looks at the percentage of the population ages 25 and older that has attained a secondary or higher level of education. To be in the top category of countries with a very high HDI, Singapore would need a result of 0.969 and it only has a result of 0.885. As far of the level of higher education for those who do pursue university level studies, Singapore offers excellent opportunities of high quality education that attracts a high number of international students, mainly from other ASEAN countries, China and India.

On a positive note, Singaporean young girls between 15 and 19 years of age do not have a high fertility rate, which is a good thing because teenage pregnancy does often lead directly to poverty and intergenerational poverty. Its figure of 6.6 - although an increase from the previous year (4.8) - is well under the 15.4 figure as the expected limit to be in the top group. This also means young girls are in school and not at home taking care of a baby. In summary, in this section I have pointed out some areas in which Singapore still needs to improve if it wishes to be among the best.

I will now analyse briefly its environmental consciousness, by using the UNDP category of sustainability.  For the year 2007, Singapore's ecological footprint of consumption was at 5.3, below the 5.9 mark of very high HDI, but considering the figure was at 4.5 in 2006, it is possible the number is higher for 2012. Singapore's government is very environmentally conscious and has taken a series of measures to ensure a clean environment for its citizens. The city-state is known as one the greenest cities in the world for one thing. Furthermore, to limit the number of cars on the island, the government has made it very expensive for people to own a private car. One must purchase a certificate of entitlement to drive a car (between $48,000 and $68,000) and pay the 70% tax on the price of a car. Finally, you can only own a car for ten years after which you have to put in a bid for another ten years.

To compensate the fact that most people do not own a car (only 14% of the population) because the government has voluntarily made it very costly, an efficient, cheap and convenient public transport systems of buses and metro lines has been put in place, thus reducing air pollution. Another measure to prevent health problem relating to air pollution has been to put on separate islands, away from the main island, the most polluting type of industries such as the oil refineries. Unfortunately, from time to time, Singaporeans have to suffer bouts of haze due the illegal burning fires coming from Indonesia. The environmentally friendly measures have allowed Singapore to reduce its greenhouse gases per capita to 1.4 (tonnes of CO2 equivalent), well below the 2.7 benchmark. For its environmental performance, the country receives a mark of 69.6, slightly higher than the 68.2 limit and above the United States mark of 63.5.

Of course, Singapore being a small country, in which most industries are mostly high-tech and not highly polluting, inhabited by a small population, it is difficult to compare it in terms of pollution with large, highly populated countries, in which the industrial sector is still the major source of revenue. In summary, as far as environmental concerns, I can say that Singapore fares rather well but as the country continues to develop, it must continue to be watchful to save its green spaces, to protect its endangered species (17 of them), to reduce the air pollution and to control its water reserves. Singapore does not have enough fresh water reserves and must import a large of its water from Malaysia. Being in a dependency situation is not one the country feels comfortable with so it has spent considerable amounts of money to develop safe techniques to recycle its used water and produce "New Water", as well as working on less costly desalinization methods of sea water.  In the next section, I will have a look at governance and government, and point to some areas which Singapore definitely needs to improve if it wishes to join the great democracies of this world.

As far as the corruption perception index, Singapore is way above most countries in the world as it ranks 5th, which is excellent and much better than the United States' 24th position. Singapore's need for FDI and foreign business has always put forth anti-corruption measures from the very beginning under Lee Kuan Yew's direction. It also uses the arguments that well-paid civil servants will not turn to corruption methods. Civil servants are indeed well paid, starting with the Prime Minister that is the best paid leader among all leaders in the world. Criticism of the corruption index has been often voiced and the index must taken as a simple indicator of a certain reality, as all indices.

The Economic Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index places Singapore in the 81st place out of 167 countries with an index of 5.89 as where the United States it in 18th position with an index of 8.11. The 1st place is held by Norway with 9.80. Among the four possible categories, full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes, Singapore is considered in the hybrid regime category along with 37 other countries in the world. It must therefore improve in the area of democracy. Lately, interesting events seem to show that this is starting to happen. The People's Action Party has won every election since 1965, but the last election of 2011 showed a growing opposition from the Worker's Party who managed to win 6 seats in the House of the 81 seats. The PAP only received 60% of the popular vote and this was a shock to the PAP leader and PM Lee Hsien Loong. As Singapore's population is getting more educated, it will be asking for more freedom of expression and less censorship, which an "intelligent" government will soon realize it has to grant its population, now that it has put the country on the right track.

A very interesting index called the Rule of Law Index  compares 66 countries and is another way of giving us a picture of Singapore's government compared to the American government, seen as the "ideal democracy".  Out of eight categories, Singapore surprisingly ranks better than the United States in five of them, is relatively close for one, but definitely needs to improve as far the fundamental rights and the openness of its government.

There would be so much more to say, but I must conclude. I have shown that Singapore is wealthy country. It is generally said that it has an important middle-class, a small but extremely rich upper class and a relatively small poor part of its population living in relative poverty. To continue contributing to the Asian Century, Singapore must make every effort possible effort to improve the education performance of its young people and bring more of them to higher level of schooling. The government must become more open and offer more fundamental rights to its people, by allowing more freedom of speech and less censorship. The Singaporean government, and the PAP in particular, has demonstrated that it has ruled for the good of the country, but it must now adopt a true democratic way of governing its people, allowing the opposition to express itself more freely. Furthermore, although it has already limited the death penalty to offenders of extremely serious crimes, a true democratic country should do away with the death penalty altogether.

On the whole, Singapore has mobilized its population and succeeded. The recipe may not be exactly replicable, but it is a model to follow for other countries in Asia in many aspects, so that together they may realize the Asian century.


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