When skeptics of libertarianism argue against the philosophy, it’s often predicated on a simple question. If libertarianism is such an ideal form of governance, where are the utopian models of libertarian states? Putting aside the fact that few nations are ideologically pure and that historical precedents that might prevent the growth of libertarian ideals, some in the community tout Singapore as the idealistic model of what a libertarian state could look like. While there’s plenty to admire about Singapore, the truth is significantly more complicated, and anyone how prescribes to libertarian ideology should examine the state of affairs in Singapore, as it can offer a blueprint both for what to do right and what can go wrong.
Singapore stands apart from much of the rest of the world in its steady adoption of some important libertarian values, but understanding the context is important. It seems reasonable to assume that Singapore’s age (first established in 1965) makes it more promising than some older nations as a test bed for Libertarian thought, while its size also makes it an ideal choice for testing out these principles. The entire city-state of Singapore is less than two-thirds the size of New York City. But it’s also important to understand the population. With foreign workers and other non-citizens making up nearly 40% of the population, it makes sense that Singapore would be averse to the notions of a welfare state, particularly given that nearly half of the population wouldn’t be paying taxes into that state. This combination of variables creates a perfect environment for the rise of libertarianism, but the result is something that’s not easy to identify as a pure libertarian state.
An Aspiring Meritocracy
Once a trading colony of the British, Singapore is now a self-ruled city-state positioned as a parliamentary democracy. Since its inception, economic growth in the state has been prolific, transforming the modestly sized former colony into the most advanced economy in Southeast Asia. Unlike many of its neighbors in the region, Singapore has never had to rely on export or production to maintain its economy, and it was seen as one of the Four Asian tiger economies of the second half of the 20th century. In large part, this seems to be due to the state’s libertarian approach to economic policy. Serious investments from multinational corporations buoy the nation, and the regulations in place are minimal. Economic policy is largely predicated on the notion of allowing as much economic freedom as possible to investors and entrepreneurs. It consistently ranks near the top for the annual Index of Economic Freedoms and the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index. It enjoys one of the lowest tax rates in the world, and it’s also notable for managing to maintain one of the least corrupt bureaucracies around. This stripping back of unnecessary regulations and approach to self-guided economic principles seems to have a refreshingly productive effect on how the government operates and on the economic freedoms enjoyed by its people. These economic guiding principles have only been expanded over the decades. Many citizens are absolved of any tax obligations, and 2008 saw the removal entirely of an inheritance or estate tax.
Despite a largely laissez-faire approach to the private sector, the government’s approach to ownership and economics are not solely carefree in practice. The state government owns roughly three-quarters of the land, and it’s also the largest major provider of bulk capital in the nation. In addition, the state’s necessity on capital investment and a desire to increase the labor market has resulted in no small amount of government intervention in how the market operates. This seems to be changing. Increased labor shortages and stagnated wages have excited a push towards an economic restructuring, one that falls in line with more deregulation. Market forces are increasingly becoming the guiding force in economic decision making, union enrollment is declining significantly, and more and more government enterprises are being converted to private businesses.
Still, many of the institutions that would be transitioned to private ventures in a purely libertarian market still feel the weight of sizable government oversight. The state still holds a monopoly on some of the most important life necessities through the implementation of the Central Provident Fund, a mandatory pension plan not dissimilar from America’s own Social Security program. Both employees and employers are required to buy into the pension plan, with the former paying 20% of their earnings and the latter required to match that investment at 17%. This money goes towards nationally overseen housing, retirement, and medical programs. Until the age of 55, money can be spent only in limited circumstances, such as paying rent for government housing or covering medical bills. After age 55, citizens can begin partially withdrawing from the fund.
Education and transportation similarly experience a very stringent level of government oversight. The primary school system is compulsory and regulated entirely by the government. While students can choose specializations later in their primary school career, many classes are mandatory, and many have concerns that the government’s curriculum whitewashes aspects of history to condition students. While private universities are present throughout Singapore, they’re still regulated by the government, and the most well-respected universities are government run. The state also oversees public transit in the form of bus and rails. The efficiency of such programs are largely criticized for being inefficient, a particular concern due to the density of Singapore’s population.
A Worrying Record on Civil Rights
While Singapore may rank near the top for economic freedoms, the opposite is true for civil freedoms. Singapore ranks a deplorable 151 in the World Freedom Index. Particularly concerning is the utter lack of a free press, as the strict regulations put in place for all registered news organizations is incredibly limiting and in stark contrast to the entrepreneurial freedoms celebrated elsewhere in Singapore. Censorship of popular media like films, books, and comics is similarly high, and the freedoms extended to the LGBTQ population is negligible. In a somewhat contradictory move, “homosexual behavior” is illegal while gay businesses are allowed to continue operating. It is perhaps one of the most illustrative examples of the disparity in Singapore’s political philosophy: a liberated sense of economic rights partnered with a highly authoritarian approach to personal rights.
It would be unfair to call Singapore a libertarian paradise. The strictness of government regulation and a poor reputation on civil rights certainly don’t align with libertarian values. But a lot is being done right regarding economic policy, and any sensible discussion about the implementation of proper libertarian policy needs to parse these libertarian-reaped benefits from the antithetical tones of authoritarianism and bureaucracy in place today.
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