Singapore: Free economy, flawed politics, and some interesting numbers

Singapore is exactly what you’d expect, but less so. Expensive? Yes, but you can be cheap. Clean? Yes, but not significantly more so than Japanese cities. Strict–draconian even? The signs telling you about fines are plentiful, but so are the people jaywalking and smoking in theoretical non-smoking areas. Efficient? Absolutely, but the bus stop didn’t have an electronic display and the subway made an unscheduled mid-ride stop; Korea had displays everywhere and 100% of my subway rides for the last three years have been uninterrupted. Polished and classy? Yes, but the good parts of the city are the more run-down, semi-gritty ones–and those do exist.

All that said, I enjoyed Singapore much more than I anticipated. I wouldn’t want to live there–I prefer a bit more personal freedom–but as a place to visit it offered a lot of budget-friendly, interesting options and a fairly painless experience getting around

Tangent: Singapore public wi-fi is a real pain

I’m going to get a bit more academic in a moment, but on a personal note I have to complain about the wi-fi situation in Singapore. I didn’t buy a SIM card for my two-day stay, thinking wi-fi would be ubiquitous. It is, somewhat, but only the city-run wi-fi hotspots are really ever open, and every time you want to connect you have to go through the multi-minute process of opening the login page on your browser, entering your foreign phone number (luckily I still had my Indonesian SIM card, or I would have been out of luck), getting a code via SMS, going back to the browser, entering the code, and then finally getting access to a fairly decent connection. You have to repeat this process every single time you want to connect, even if you’ve just moved to one down the street, unless you download the app–which I did, but couldn’t sign up for since I don’t have a Singaporean phone number. For a city called “the most tech-ready in the world” it has pretty horrible connectivity. I’ve had much better luck in most other Asian cities.

That said, here are some stats:

Population 5,600,000
GDP (nominal, 2017) $304 billion USD (37th largest; 39th in PPP terms)
GNI per capita nominal/PPP 2017 $52,000 USD/85,080 (3rd-highest)
Major sectors Manufacturing, business services, trade, finance
Unemployment (2016) 2.1% (not a typo, not an outlier)

Data from the World Bank and SingStat.gov–which is an amazing statistical resource that I wish more countries had something like.

I’ll break down those numbers really quick, because they do get interesting. Nominal GDP just means straight-up how much money the goods and services produced in Singapore are worth. Given that Singapore is only 2/3 the size of New York City, it is fairly impressive that it ranks 37th overall–though it is worth nothing that NYC’s GMP (Gross Metropolitan Product) is 1.55 trillion USD–about that of South Korea. Though if you read carefully into that report you’ll notice that this number includes some areas of New Jersey in the NYC metro area–fair enough, but a bit tricky.

The good stuff comes when you see the GNI (Gross National Income) per capita (per person). In nominal terms (how much money a Singaporean citizen earns in U.S dollars), the average Singaporean income is nice and middle-class. In terms of PPP (Purchasing Power Parity, or how much stuff they can buy compared to the rest of us), they’re sitting at a very respectable 85,000 USD, which means your average Singaporean citizen is U.S upper-middle class, right?

Well, we’ll get into inequality later; for now, suffice it to say that GNI per capita is calculated by taking the average of all citizens’ incomes, and Singapore has some rich, rich people. Median income, a more accurate picture of typical incomes calculated by looking at the middle of the distribution, is about 36,000 USD–though this is still hardly anything to sneeze at, and adjusted up for PPP is still excellent. Though you also have to shave off about 20% for CPF, Singapore’s social security program.

In plain words, the average person in Singapore is doing really well, and they can get more with their money than Americans can. Why do bars exist in Singapore when drink prices average 8-20 USD? Because, while it’s still expensive for them, Singaporeans can in general afford those prices.

Finally, unemployment is 2.1%, and that’s been pretty steady for at least a decade–that is insanely low (lowest in the world), and I’ll get to that around the end of the post. For now, here are a few ramblings to break up the numbers stuff.

Strangely Free

As I mentioned in the introduction, Singapore has a reputation for being a bit strict. You’re technically not allowed to bring chewing gum into the country because they don’t want it on the sidewalks. The subway specifically disallows durians (a particularly pungent fruit popular in Singapore). You can’t even buy a beer in a convenience store after 10:30pm,and the laws governing the sale of alcohol on and around public holidays are undoubtedly as irritating to locals as they seem confusing to visitors.

Of course, Singapore’s massive alcohol taxes (a trait it shares with neighboring Malaysia and its neighbor, Indonesia) make buying alcohol a bit unpleasant anyway.

But despite having sin taxes through the roof, Singapore is actually one of the most economically free countries in the world, as ranked by The Economist, Freedom House, and others. Income and corporate tax rates are quite low (someone earning $30,000 USD pays about 2%), and Singapore, being essentially a nation in a single city, doesn’t impose many import duties. Actually, about 99% of all imports enter tariff-free, with the exception of tobacco and alcohol (the fun stuff, of course).

My personal stereotype before learning about it was that Singapore must tax pretty heavily in order to maintain the infrastructure it’s famous for, but oddly enough, it turns out that government spending is about on par with taxes collected. That is to say, Singapore’s government is fairly frugal. So where does all the good stuff come from?

One answer is that a tiny but wealthy nation is a lot easier to manage well than a big wealthy one. They have to manage exactly one subway system, one set of building codes, one police force, et cetera. This enables them to really cut down on budget leakage and misuse and limits administrative gridlock. Centralization does its best work in homogeneous environments.

Singapore is also still fairly young demographically, so it has a low dependency ratio (ratio of people draining the social safety net versus contributing), and high immigration is sustaining that demographic advantage.

State-owned enterprises (the government profits off of shares and ownership in several industries) also bring in a decent profit that add to tax revenue.

And then there’s also the fact that low tax rates still bring in a lot of money when you have a very wealthy population. So overall, it looks like Singapore’s government is having its cake and eating it too, because they only had to make a small, excellent cake, and they had some excellent ingredients to work with.

So why do I say it feels “strangely free?” Well, the overbearing rules that haunt your daily life in Singapore are a symptom of a political system that Freedom House and most other indexes rate “partly free” or “flawed democracy.” You are generally free to do whatever you want in a financial sense, but not necessarily to participate in the political process. Singapore is currently on its third prime minister. Number three. That wouldn’t be so bad if Singapore had begun a decade or two ago, but the history buff will have already remembered that the city-state gained independence from Malaysia in 1965.

One man, Lee Kuan Yew, held the post of prime minister for over thirty years. The new one, Goh Chok Tong, was chosen to succeed Yew and became prime minister in 1990 without a vote, though the one-party system slipped a bit in the parliamentary election in 1991. The third PM, Lee Hsien Loong, is currently in office after being made deputy prime minister simultaneously with Tong ascending to PM. Loong also happens to be Lee Kuan Yew’s son.

Citizens have more say at the parliamentary level but even so, the centralization that makes Singapore such an economically free place still serves to limit how much can be accomplished politically, and how many things can really be changed. Electoral manipulation and political suppression are both still present, and free speech is not guaranteed.

Ethnicities and enclaves/Workers and wages

My absolute favorite parts about Singapore were not the most-photographed ones. Yes, the fancy buildings and harbor views were spectacular, but much more interesting at a human level were the districts of Little India and Chinatown–which are genuinely populated by people from these countries and with these backgrounds, and which exude their own unique vibes at stark odds with the neatly administrated neighborhoods surrounding them.

Singapore has a very large migrant population–Indians, Malays, Chinese, and many more. Some migrated several generations ago and are now full Singaporeans; some are here on migrant worker visas. Currently about 15% of Singapore’s residents are migrants.

70% of Singapore is ethnically Chinese, but unlike China, there really is no obstacle to becoming a citizen provided you meet the other requirements. This is perhaps one of the only Asian countries I know of that is so: it would be laughably difficult for a non-Korean to gain Korean citizenship; likewise in Japan, China, etc. And even if they did–and some have–there is a very strong sense that you are never Korean/Japanese/Chinese if you lack the ethnic aspect.

The official language being English also gives it quite an international feel and makes it far easier for migrants to settle here, as English is widely spoken and practiced by those anticipating a career abroad.

For all their charm and melting-pot sensibilities, however, the ethnic enclaves can put on display some of Singapore’s high economic inequality. They score 49.3 on the GINI coefficient (a 1-100 measure of economic equality, with 0 being exactly even distribution and 100 being “one person has it all”).Of course, the GINI coefficient is flawed as it is highly susceptible to outliers–the more rich people move to Singapore, the higher the coefficient gets because more income is technically now going to the top, and Singapore has an especially high level of super-wealthy people in its population.

This last explanation does tend to be the state’s defense of their GINI score, but it hardly explains away everything. Especially among the migrant worker populations there are high rates of poverty which tend to be ignored. Given that Singapore’s economy benefits quite a bit from these non-citizen workers, perhaps they should be acknowledged a bit more.

That said, inequality is by no means automatically a bad thing, and the fact that people migrate to Singapore for work means that they tend to view it as a step up. The fact is, Singapore’s median income is excellent, and the standard of living there tends to be very high; both ends of the spectrum exist, but on the whole the average Singaporean is doing well enough.

Unemployment? What’s that?

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Singapore is its freakishly low unemployment rates–they’ve hovered around two percent for quite a long time, which is far below the roughly five percent that most health economies tend to be at. Frankly, if you get too far below five percent for too long you end up, among other things, not having enough qualified workers available to fill open positions, leading to economic slowdowns as firms struggle to grow or even maintain their labor force.

So how’s Singapore, this crazy economic outlier, actually doing it?

One reason is already listed above–immigraton. Singapore has a fairly flexible workforce, and in fact the unemployment rate for residents only tends to be higher than that of the entire population, since temporary/non-resident workers tend to leave altogether if they lose their job.

They have also experienced pretty much non-stop economic growth, and with economic growth comes jobs.

So no extremely well-organized central planning committee or cultural work ethic necessarily–just immigrants and growth.

Conclusion

My advice for those visiting Singapore: eat at the hawker centers (it’s so much cheaper), take a break from the alcohol, visit the photo spots, and make sure you check out the parts of Singapore that don’t match up with the myth. And while you’re there, go ahead and contemplate the successes and paradoxes that underlie Singapore’s safe, smooth exterior.

Can moral psychology explain why libertarians are (maybe) bad dancers? (Part 1/2)

 

Part 1/2

Here’s a wacky proposition: where you fit on the political spectrum might be a rough indicator of how you feel about dancing.

Anecdotal evidence comes to mind for every political stereotype, but my flash of inspiration came about one group in particular: libertarians. Aside from James Weeks, that one guy who so well exemplified the time-honored tradition of protest through strip-dancing onstage at the 2014 Libertarian Convention, I’d argue that moral and political psychology has a few things to say about why these strange political animals might not enjoy dancing.

Disclaimer: I am not drawing my premise that libertarians are unwilling dancers from any study or previous research; my evidence thus far is mostly personal experience, but I’d be very interested to see any actual data pertaining to it.

Personally, I’m not much of a mover and shaker on the dance floor, particularly regarding solo, club-style, improvisational body movement. Aside from the fact that I’m just not very good at it, I don’t really get the appeal. Rhythmic body movement is popular and often artistic, but I don’t find it entertaining, unless the music is good enough to be independently interesting. Given that I’m a (small-l, non-dogmatic) libertarian, reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and subsequently encountering an unwelcome dancing situation was a combination that struck a chord somewhere between my political mind and my socially awkward one.

I’ll make my argument in two parts: the first will summarize some important main points, mostly derived from Jonathan Haidt; the second will apply these ideas to political groups (libertarians in particular).

Politics = Genetics

Haidt, as part of his overall argument for increasing political understanding between groups, makes the case that our political beliefs may be at least partially a product of genetics. It’s fairly well-proven that our brains have some level of hardwiring, and that they can respond differently to the same inputs or seek out different things to light up their reward centers.

If you have a lower native fear response, for example, you’ll tend to be more rewarded by more adventurous activities. If you have a higher fear response, you’ll find more comfort in the known and the stable. Twin studies and other pieces of evidence seem to support the idea that our politics may not be as rationally constructed as we’d like to think in many other areas as well.

Let’s break down the broad claim into two more specific and relevant ideas.

Politics(Morals(genetics))
Politics is a function of morals, which are a function of genetics

Let’s apply this genetic wiring idea to the (highly theoretical) moral and political psychology of dance: Liberals typically score higher on measures of openness and lower on levels of fear–traits that just might push you towards enjoying a night packed in with any number of dubious strangers at the club. Conservatives score high on almost every value Haidt includes in his main six foundations (care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, liberty/oppression. These traits might push you less towards a club and maybe a little more towards a square dance or some other form of less confusing and invasive group bonding. When you value many things, you will tend to have a more tightly constructed view of the world (not necessarily bad; Yin and Yang need each other).

Politics(Morals(brain chemistry(genetics)))
Politics is a function of morals which are a function of brain chemistry which is a function of genetics. 

Also worth mentioning is Haidt’s frequent referral to the brain hormone oxytocin, which is not “the universal cuddle hormone” as it’s been commonly called, but one which plays a critical role in forming in-group attachments and out-group suspicion. Essentially, you generate it by bonding with your group, and it does make you feel more connected–but not to everyone. Working off of my very general knowledge of neuroscience/psychology, I’d theorize that oxytocin has different mechanisms (triggers, production levels, etc) for each individual brain, probably varying to at least some degree with the above-mentioned genetics.

These three things, genetics, their related psychological/moral measures, and oxytocin relate directly to the psychology of group formation and stability, which requires bonding among members. Haidt points out that almost every culture has independently developed rituals of physical bonding in order to strengthen group identity and generally increase a sense of belonging and cooperation. That’s oxytocin and a few other psychological/chemical levers being pulled–most universally, Haidt points out, in the form of dance, which tends to hold similar ceremonial significance across continents, cultures, and times.

These tidbits pulled from The Righteous Mind can now be held up against yet another of Haidt’s projects–this one a paper coauthored with Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, and Peter Ditto: “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Declared Libertarians.”

The paper is worth reading, as libertarians don’t get quite as much academic attention as the mainstream left and right parties. To briefly summarize their three main findings:

  1. Libertarians mostly care about individual liberty. Not so much about Haidt’s other five foundations.
  2. They veer “cerebral” rather than “emotional” in their cognitive styles.
  3. They’re less interdependent and social.

Analyzing responses from a few thousand libertarians, the authors confirmed what we all already suspected: the above three things are pretty accurate when it comes to describing libertarians, or at the very least, how they see themselves (self-reported survey data is at least mostly accurate for that).

In the next post I’ll speculate about how these might work together and be applied speculatively to willingness to dance.

Tl;dr: Jonathan Haidt wrote a book called The Righteous Mind. In part of it, he argues that political beliefs are a function of morals, and that morals can be a function of brain chemistry and structure, which can be a function of genetics.  He also argues that humans are very group-focused, and mentions that dancing is an excellent way of strengthening psychological group bonds through some of the aforementioned avenues.  Some time later, with several coauthors, Haidt produced a paper that specifically applied these insights and survey data to find that libertarians are liberty-focused, cerebral, and less interdependent.  Can we combine these insights to predict how libertarians might feel about dancing? Probably.