story | Meghna Basu, Guest Writer

photo | Meghna Basu


On a windy evening in January 2016, a group of unlike-minded individuals gathered atop Prospect Hill, New Haven — the site of the Yale University Observatory. It was the first major gathering of students and faculty from both Yale University and Yale-NUS College on our American parent campus. Professors, students, and staff mingled and discussed the future of Asia’s first modern liberal arts college. As with most Yale-NUS-related events, a 1+1=3 optimism pulsed through the room.

Almost inevitably, the subject of Yale’s purpose in Singapore arose. Unsurprisingly, a Yale staff member proceeded to warm-heartedly muse about the prospect that Yale-NUS might “needle” Singapore into becoming more liberal — more democratic. My friends and I sitting at the table at the time shared bemused glances with each other, and someone attempted to explain why that made little sense.

Yale-NUS wasn’t a civilizing mission, we reasoned: it was meant to be a meeting of minds rather than the imposition of one thought. While Singapore could certainly learn from the States’ vibrant culture of art and creativity, its ability to integrate foreigners into its national fabric, as well as its LGBTQ+ positive policy positions, the United States could also learn a thing or two from the small city-state of Singapore — including but not limited to its impressive and enduring safety record, its affordable healthcare, and the availability of sexual health facilities. In the absence of Carly Fiorina and her ilk, abortions are available across the city-state of Singapore relatively freely.

In the matter of there being an ideological battle between Singapore and the US, the general consensus on campus is arguably exactly this: that our two parent institutions and their governing systems should work together to learn from each other.

This consensus seemed to break down rather quickly during the period of the Yale-NUS protests. In March of this year, a group of students took to public protest in a bid to address systemic issues with the way Yale-NUS was being run, giving rise to a dramatic rift on campus between students that vehemently supported the students’ decision to protest, and those that didn’t. This deep chasm was an uncomfortable reminder of the fundamental tension between our parent organizations: highlighting that amid students and teachers alike, our campus seemed to be divided between those who fundamentally agreed with the Singaporean position on freedom and those who did not.

Indeed the Singaporean government has been called a competitive autocracy, a benevolent dictatorship, and even an illiberal democracy — but it falls short of what is internationally recognized as a widely democratic administration. Singaporeans vote, but much of the viable opposition has either been bankrupted out of politics or co-opted into the incumbent party. The few chaotic and unpopular parties left attempt to compete, but the playing field is hardly level when the incumbent controls the Election Commission, virtually all government administrative bodies, and most mainstream media (all of which has been argued by academic Stephen Ortmann here). Elections do not have the same weight in Singapore as they do in stronger democracies such as Japan, India, or Germany, for example.

Lately, of course, it has become fashionable to point to Singapore’s less-than-democratic governance as a victorious triumph over the arrogance of Western liberalism. Emboldened by the chaos of Brexit negotiations and the Trump Administration, pro-Singapore and China pundits like to say that authoritarianism and centrally-planned states can now finally be seen for what they really are — viable vehicles for progress — now that the West has finally done itself in. By opposing the very notion of there being student protests on campus, many Yale-NUS students in some ways have jumped onto this bandwagon as well.

Yale-NUS now sits at an important time in history. In a world of an ascendant but widely authoritarian Asia, a seemingly chaotic West, and, of course, films such as Crazy Rich Asians that seem to celebrate countries like Singapore that lack certain civil liberties and democratic rights, millions of people around the world are asking the same question we as Yale-NUS students are increasingly asking ourselves: in the matter of policy, governance and liberties — which of these ideologies should we tend towards?

A Rock and a Hard Place

What has unfortunately emerged of course is that the American ideology contains far more flaws than previously imagined — and not just because of the circus of American politics. Behind the chaos, reasonable and potent concerns around the very philosophy guiding America’s growth have come to light: finally, America’s long-standing love affair with runaway capitalism is coming under fire.

Societal polarization, corporate consolidation, uncontrolled financialization, political corruption and inadequate social security have become powerful vehicles for political mobilization across the blue-red divide, finally giving purchase to important questions around the paradoxes of living in the world’s most powerful nation.

Indeed: how is it that despite being one of the richest nations in the world, 43 percent of households can’t afford basic living expenses? That in some parts of the US, life expectancies are lower than those of Nicaragua and Bangladesh? That almost a third of households struggle to pay for their homes? Amongst all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations, the USA has the highest poverty rate — higher than other far poorer OECD nations such as Mexico, Turkey, or Chile.

It is no coincidence that these alarming statistics are coming to light at a time when the power of the American vote has also been found to be in decline. Many academics have shown that in today’s America, the average voter has little-to-no sway on the makings of public policy in comparison with big money and lobbyists. A statistical study on polling data by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University concluded that “basically, average citizens only get what they want if economic elites or interest groups also want it.”

MIT Economist Peter Temin has gone so far as to describe the United States as a “dual economy” (a framework usually used to describe developing economies): one where 20 percent of the populace lies in the politically influential sector of finance, tech and electronics (the “FTE” sector), while the other 80 percent lie in the politically impotent “low-wage sector.” He writes: “Unlike a democratic country that takes care of all its citizens, the FTE sector cares only for itself… [and] wants to hurt the members of the low-wage sector in order to preserve access to a cheap labor force and voluntary army.”

Some of this should sound familiar to Singaporeans. With low corporate tax rates and no mandated minimum wage, Singapore has achieved impressive rates of growth and prosperity — but not for everyone.

Despite being the fourth richest country in the world, around one in ten HDB households experience food insecurity. In the absence of adequate old-age welfare, elderly people in Singapore are forced to work into their old age because many can’t afford (see here as well) to retire — widely in low-wage, and difficult manual labour jobs. The city-state has been lauded for its world-class education systems, but it ranks as one of the worst developed nations in terms of equal access to that education — a fact that even the principal of Singapore’s best and most prestigious school, Raffles Institution, lamented in a recent speech.

Singapore also has one of the healthiest fiscal positions in the world with an extremely high budget surplus per capita — and yet, it ranked 29th out of 30 developed countries in terms of government spending on social welfare. Economists have estimated that 10 to 20 percent of Singaporean households currently live in absolute poverty, while up to 30 percent are likely to fall into absolute poverty in their lifetime.

This situation is absurd and entirely avoidable. Many view the kind of wild inequality we see in Singapore and the US as a necessary evil that must accompany economic success, but this simply is not the case (see chart 1 below).

Source: World Bank, Harvard Dataverse

Singapore and the US are outliers, not the norm: according to data from Harvard’s Standardized World Income Inequality Database, Singapore and the United States are the most unequal nations in the developed world. Putting them in the company of nations such as Myanmar, Cameroon, Argentina and El Salvador, Singapore and the US’s levels of inequality make them look far more like developing economies than developed ones. Unlike much of the rest of the developed world, where income inequality is far flatter and political power is far more accessible (such as in Japan, Germany or France — see chart), Singapore and the US have come to look far too much like Peter Temin’s “dual economies” — where a powerful minority suppresses the opportunities and prosperities of a non-powerful majority.
Note: Singapore and the US are the most unequal nations in the developed world where “developed world” refers to countries where the GDP per capita at current US$ in 2014 is >20k excluding Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, and Gulf nations, and where “unequal” refers to gini coefficient (by disposable income) in 2014. Click the (“most unequal”) hyperlink to see the spreadsheet.

Whither Yale-NUS?

Clearly, I was wrong — that gathering in January 2016 atop Prospect Hill was not a meeting of unlike-minded individuals. It was instead a meeting of two systems that were fundamentally flawed yet alike, and ones that required dramatic reform. In the question of “which ideology to tend toward,” the answer seems clear: neither.

Why aren’t we talking about this more as a college, and as a community?

Unsurprisingly, Singapore suffers from an acute dearth of data, research and analysis on this subject (Singapore refuses to define a poverty line, for example), which means there is a painful lack of conversation about this issue around the city-state. These conversations have begun in the land of the supposedly free, but tangible actions on these matters seem forever frustrated by a chaotic political system owned by America Inc.

Yale-NUS is uniquely positioned to champion inquiry and advocacy into and for these topics: our mandate is after all (or at least it was, back in the days of its founding) to free ourselves of the legacies that came before us to recreate education, conversations and societies. As the birth child of these two nations, Yale-NUS must engage with this subject further — we must do more research, have more discussions and facilitate the development of more solutions. Unlike in Crazy Rich Asians, where Singaporean Kevin Kwan and American Jonathan M. Chu came together to highlight the worst in both nations, our Singa-American project need not be so futile. It’s time we as a community took a hard look at a fundamental question that will define the future of the developed world: what should prosperity look like?

Ed: The writer wishes to clarify that she expresses solely her own opinions, and does not represent her employer or any affiliated institution.