Servants without Masters

Friday, November 20th, 2015

Singapore’s government has an extensive guest-worker system — which creates some dynamics Harold Lee found jarring:

There, in the flesh, was a middle-aged Filipino woman who was just there to attend to my needs, as a guest of the family. I was expected to ask her to wash my clothes, for example, and prepare whatever I wanted for breakfast. And for all my admiration of the political needle-threading of Singaporean immigration policy, this situation completely freaked me out. It made me intensely uncomfortable to have someone hanging around just to attend to my needs, and tell them to do menial chores for me.

And yet, when I thought about it, I realized that I had no problem with janitors or baristas doing dirty work for me. My emotional reaction was not really about being an American with sturdy frontier values of self-sufficiency. I was perfectly happy to farm out menial work — as long as it was done by a faceless worker in a uniform, rather than a single person I was expected to have a relationship with. This incongruence was one of the major lessons I took from my trip to Singapore. Even after I returned to the Land of the Free, I kept being struck by the ease with which I blithely accepted the service of servants as long as they were framed as business transactions with dehumanized service workers.

And I noticed that the same blind spot applied in the other direction, in people’s attitudes towards submission towards superiors. The very word “submissiveness” tends to raise people’s hackles in our culture, but in fact we are happy to accept it — if and only if it’s submission to a faceless institution, rather than to someone’s personal authority. In an old-school apprenticeship, the master essentially runs your life for seven years and can bring you back if you run away, possibly with a flogging for good measure. This seems incredibly coercive today, and is probably one of the reasons apprenticeship and other forms of demanding mentorship are in short supply. But at the same time, it’s considered completely unremarkable for someone to go into nondischargeable debt to go to grad school and work hard to satisfy every whim of their professors. For a more barbed example, it’s considered entirely unremarkable for a woman to be submissive to her boss, but sounds terribly suspect to expect her to be equivalently submissive to her husband.


It’s a sort of inverse Confucianism — a system where authority can only be exercised by people who deliberately do not engage in one-on-one superior-inferior relationships.

This reminds me, oddly enough, of George Fitzhugh‘s very Southern view of slavery as the best form of socialism.

IQ Shredders

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

Singapore is an IQ shredder, Spandrell has pointed out. How does an IQ Shredder work?

The basic machinery is not difficult to describe, once its profound socio-historical irony is appreciated. The model IQ Shredder is a high-performance capitalistic polity, with a strong neoreactionary bias.

  1. Its level of civilization and social order is such that it is attractive to talented and competent people.
  2. Its immigration policy is unapologetically selective (i.e. first-order eugenic).
  3. It sustains an economic structure that is remarkably effective at extracting productive activity from all available adults.
  4. It is efficiently specialized within a wider commercial network, to which it provides valuable goods and services, and from which it draws economic and demographic resources.

In sum, it skims the human genetic stock, regionally and even globally, in large part due to the exceptional opportunity it provides for the conversion of bio-privileged human capital into economic value. From a strictly capitalistic perspective, genetic quality is comparatively wasted anywhere else. Consequently, spontaneous currents of economic incentive suck in talent, to optimize its exploitation.

If you think this sounds simply horrific, this argument is not for you. You don’t need it. If, on the other hand, it conjures up a vision of terrestrial paradise — as it does for the magnetized migrants it draws in — then you need to follow it carefully. The most advanced models of neoreactionary social order on earth work like this (Hong Kong and Singapore), combining resilient ethnic traditions with super-dynamic techonomic performance, to produce an open yet self-protective, civilized, socially-tranquil, high-growth enclave of outstanding broad-spectrum functionality. The outcome, as Spandrell explains, is genetic incineration:

Mr Lee said: “[China] will make progress but if you look at the per capita they have got, the differences are so wide. We have the advantage of quality control of the people who come in so we have bright Indians, bright Chinese, bright Caucasians so the increase in population means an increase in talent.”

How many bright Indians and bright Chinese are there, Harry? Surely they are not infinite. And what will they do in Singapore? Well, engage in the finance and marketing rat-race and depress their fertility to 0.78, wasting valuable genes just so your property prices don’t go down. Singapore is an IQ shredder.

The most hard-core capitalist response to this is to double-down on the antihumanist accelerationism. This genetic burn-rate is obviously unsustainable, so we need to convert the human species into auto-intelligenic robotized capital is fast as possible, before the whole process goes down in flames. (I don’t expect this suggestion to be well-received in reactionary circles.)

The World’s Newest Monaco

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Straight-laced Singapore has become the world’s newest Monaco:

When most people think of Singapore, if they do at all, they think of an order-obsessed Asian version of Wall Street or London’s Canary Wharf, only with implausibly clean, sterile streets and no crime. The southeast Asian city-state of five million people is perhaps best known for banning the sale of chewing gum or caning vandals, including American Michael Fay in 1994 for spray-painting cars. Drug traffickers face the death penalty, and even Ault complains the authorities won’t let him import his prized gun collection, which now sits in his other homes in Palm Beach and Manhattan.

But over the past decade, Singapore has undergone a dramatic makeover, as the rich and famous from Asia and beyond debark on its shores in search of a glamorous new home — and one of the safest places to park their wealth. Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin gave up his American citizenship in favor of permanent residence there, choosing to live on and invest from the island while squiring around town in a Bentley. Australian mining tycoon Nathan Tinkler, that country’s second wealthiest man under 40, whose fortune is pegged at $825 million by Forbes, also chose to move to Singapore last year. They join Bhupendra Kumar Modi, one of India’s biggest telecom tycoons who gained Singapore citizenship in 2011, as well as New Zealand billionaire Richard Chandler, who relocated in 2008, and famed U.S. investor Jim Rogers, who set up shop there in 2007. Gina Rinehart, one of the world’s richest women, slapped down $46.3 million for a pair of Singapore condominium units last year.

And then there are, of course, your average millionaires — more of whom can be found among Singapore’s resident population than anywhere in the world. According to Boston Consulting Group, the island had 188,000 millionaire households in 2011 — slightly more than 17 percent of its resident households — which effectively means one in six homes has disposable private wealth of at least $1 million, excluding property, business and luxury goods. Add in property, with Singapore real estate among the most expensive in the world, and this number would be even higher. Singapore also now has the highest gross domestic product per capita in the world at $56,532, having overtaken Norway, the U.S., Hong Kong and Switzerland, according to a 2012 wealth report by Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank.

Is decadence unavoidable?

Why would a fanatical libertarian live in Singapore?

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Why would a fanatical libertarian live in Singapore?

First, it is a myth that democracies (read: dictatorship of the masses) by definition offer more benevolent living conditions. In my experience, democracies have seeds of self-destruction. Singapore, on the other hand, is more like a family-run corporation — a political system I prefer over democracy.

Here I don’t see any busybodies around. Bureaucratic interferences in your life are minimal. They focus on governance and they do it relatively well. They are nowhere close to an ideal government, but compared to what you get elsewhere, Singapore is a treat.

Second, while it is true that they do have tough drug and gun laws, they are effective. Singapore is one of the safest cities on the planet and a young girl here can feel comfortable walking by herself just about anywhere, even late at night. Since I have no reason to own a gun nor do I consume drugs, Singapore fits in my life design plan just fine.

Third, while this may sound quite shocking, to me, caning as a mode of punishment looks quite appropriate in many situations.

For example, I recently saw a video of three teenagers beating an old man for fun in the U.S. The teenagers likely went unpunished. I would prefer that they had to slog for several years to make monetary retribution to the old man. But lacking that, I certainly think caning is a better form of punishment than letting the culprits go.

Lastly, freedom of speech is limited only in the arena of politics. Quite honestly, if more freedom of speech were allowed in Singapore, it would likely also degenerate into a “dictatorship of the mobs”, in which Peter lobbies or protests to steal what is Paul’s. Personally, my only reason for participating in mass protests is war. But since Singapore does not participate in attacking other countries, there is no need for antiwar protests anyway. So again this is acceptable to me in my life design plan.

If it weren’t for the gun laws…

(Hat tip to Foseti.)

The World’s Most Fabulous Airport

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Singapore’s Changi is arguably the world’s most fabulous airport:

Since it opened in 1981, the airport has notched more than 370 “best” awards world-wide from travel trade groups and publications. A look at its operations reveals much about how to run a top-notch airport—and ways other airports could improve.

The airport offers amenities found elsewhere only in airlines’ fancy lounges for premium passengers. There are comfortable areas for sleeping or watching TV, premium bars, work desks and free Internet. A nap room is about $23 for three hours; a shower can be had for $6. If you want to put your feet in a tank with tiny fish that eat dead skin, that’s $17 for 20 minutes.

The pool is free to guests of the airport’s in-transit hotels; otherwise it’s about $11 a person. A bus tour of Singapore is offered free by the airport. The tour is arranged so that passengers don’t have to clear immigration—the airport retains passports so passengers don’t run off.

Simple steps matter, like minimizing annoying announcements and honking carts and instead playing soothing music to reduce stress. Placing rival currency-exchange booths and clothing stores side-by-side stimulates competition. Touch screens in bathrooms let travelers send text messages to supervisors when toilet paper runs out, for example.

Changi figures such perks entice passengers to spend more money at the airport and select Singapore over other connecting hubs. About 750,000 square feet of concession space—approximately the size of a suburban shopping mall—provides 50% of the airport’s revenue, helping to pay for amenities and keep down costs to airlines. The airport says its merchants recorded $1 billion in retail sales last year.

A four-story amusement-park type slide is even tied into retail. If you want to use the slide, you have to have a receipt from an airport merchant showing roughly $8 and up in purchases. Without that, you can only ride the bottom 1½ stories of the slide.

Terminal 3, the largest, opened in 2008 with skylights, a wall of windows and an interior wall covered in plants rotated out of the airport’s greenhouse. It is a city unto itself: dry cleaners, medical center with everything from dental care to fertility treatments, a grocery store, pharmacy, flower shop, jewelry stores, clothing stores and an indoor amusement park for kids with a balloon bounce house.

Go East, young bureaucrat

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Go East, young bureaucrat, urges The Economist, and learn from Singapore:

The Singaporeans argue that they have the perfect compromise between accountability and efficiency. Their politicians are regularly tested in elections and have to make themselves available to their constituents; but since the government knows it is likely to win, it can take a long view. Fixing things like ITE takes time. “Our strength is that we are able to think strategically and look ahead,” says the prime minister. “If the government changed every five years it would be harder.”

There is more truth in this than Western liberals would like to admit. Not many people in Washington are thinking beyond the 2012 presidential election. It is sometimes argued that an American administration operates strategically for only around six months, at the beginning of its second year — after it has got its staff confirmed by the Senate and before the mid-terms campaign begins.

Yet even assuming that voters are happy to swap a little more efficiency for less democracy, Singapore still seems a difficult model to follow. Not only is it manageably small, but balancing authoritarianism and accountability comes down largely to personal skills (and even the opposition admits that the two Lees have been extremely good at it). More generally, Singapore’s success as a planning state has a lot to do with the sort of people who run it.

One thing that stands out in Singapore is the quality of its civil service. Unlike the egalitarian Western public sector, Singapore follows an elitist model, paying those at the top $2m a year or more. It spots talented youngsters early, lures them with scholarships and keeps investing in them. People who don’t make the grade are pushed out quickly.

Sitting around a table with its 30-something mandarins is more like meeting junior partners at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey than the cast of “Yes, Minister”. The person on your left is on secondment at a big oil company; on your right sits a woman who between spells at the finance and defence ministries has picked up degrees from the London School of Economics, Cambridge and Stanford. High-fliers pop in and out of the Civil Service College for more training; the prime minister has written case studies for them. But it is not a closed shop. Talent from the private sector is recruited into both the civil service and politics. The current education minister used to be a surgeon.

Western civil services often have pretty good people at the top, but in Singapore meritocracy reigns all the way down the system. Teachers, for instance, need to have finished in the top third of their class (as they do in Finland and South Korea, which also shine in the education rankings). Headmasters are often appointed in their 30s and rewarded with merit pay if they do well but moved on quickly if their schools underperform. Tests are endemic.

How much strategic intervention takes place in the economy? The Lees have dabbled in industrial policy, betting first on manufacturing and then on services. Temasek manages a portfolio of S$190 billion ($150 billion). The country is now trying to push into creative industries, with limited success thus far, as ministers admit.

These attempts at dirigisme have made Singapore a more reserved, less entrepreneurial place than Hong Kong with its feverish laissez-faire. It certainly has far fewer larger-than-life billionaires. But it is hard to hail Singapore as a success of top-down economic management in the way some Chinese seem to think. Indeed, the core of Singapore’s success — its ability to attract foreign multinationals — owes far more to laissez-faire than to industrial policy.

Drugs, Death, Censorship, and Singapore

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Bryan Caplan is indignant that Singapore executes drug dealers and censors “those who expose the ghoulish practice” — but some of the comments paint a different picture:

The Singapore government considers itself as having a “right of reply” to commentary about it. This is fairly fundamental to the system and is not likely to change.

Shadrake would probably not have been arrested had activists not helped him organize the launch; this would have been interpreted as an attempt to politicize an issue outside of permitted arenas of discussion (i.e., those where the government can reply promptly).

There are tons of books that sharply criticize the ruling party; you can even find them in the government-run public libraries. Singapore does not bother attempting thought control. But it does worry about political organization, and thus the authors and publishers know enough not to risk being ‘political’.

Incidentally, Shadrake has been released on bail and charged with contempt of court and (of course) criminal defamation.

Caplan is also indignant about the tiny city-state’s policy of mandatory military service — which leaves open the question of just how they’d field an army otherwise.

Pringles in Singapore

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

The Pringles in Singapore come in slightly different flavors than I’m used to: seaweed, soft-shell crab, and grilled shrimp. I suppose curry wasn’t exotic enough to photograph.

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Hong Kong: The Envy of Lee Kuan Yew

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

I’ve been meaning to read “Harry” Lee Kuan Yew’s From Third World to First. In it, Bryan Caplan explains, there is only one country that he positively seems to envy — Hong Kong:

Hong Kong had a bleaker economic and political environment in 1949, totally dependent on the mainland’s restraint. China’s People’s Liberation Army could march in any time they were ordered to. But despite uncertainty and the fear of a disastrous tomorrow, or the day after, Hong Kong thrived.

Singapore did not then face such dire prospects… Only in 1965, after we were asked to leave Malaysia, did we face as bleak a future. But unlike Hong Kong we did not have a million and a half refugees from the mainland.
People in Hong Kong depended not on the government but on themselves and their families… The drive to succeed was intense; family and extended family ties were strong. Long before Milton Friedman held up Hong Kong as a model of a free-enterprise economy, I had seen the advantage of having little or no safety net. It spurred Hong Kong’s people to strive to succeed. There was no social contract between the colonial government and them. Unlike Singaporeans, they could not and did not defend themselves or their collective interests. They were not a nation — indeed, were not allowed to become a nation…

A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Fareed Zakaria had a fascinating conversation with “Harry” Lee Kuan Yew, back in 1994, in which the Senior Minister of Singapore explained his basic philosophy of government:

As an East Asian looking at America, I find attractive and unattractive features. I like, for example, the free, easy and open relations between people regardless of social status, ethnicity or religion. And the things that I have always admired about America, as against the communist system, I still do: a certain openness in argument about what is good or bad for society; the accountability of public officials; none of the secrecy and terror that’s part and parcel of communist government.

But as a total system, I find parts of it totally unacceptable: guns, drugs, violent crime, vagrancy, unbecoming behavior in public — in sum the breakdown of civil society. The expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society. In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy.

He sounds like a pretty straightforward conservative — which, I suppose, is pretty exotic, for someone in power — when he admits that he admires the America of today less than that of 25 years earlier:

Yes, things have changed. I would hazard a guess that it has a lot to do with the erosion of the moral underpinnings of a society and the diminution of personal responsibility. The liberal, intellectual tradition that developed after World War II claimed that human beings had arrived at this perfect state where everybody would be better off if they were allowed to do their own thing and flourish. It has not worked out, and I doubt if it will. Certain basics about human nature do not change. Man needs a certain moral sense of right and wrong. There is such a thing called evil, and it is not the result of being a victim of society. You are just an evil man, prone to do evil things, and you have to be stopped from doing them. Westerners have abandoned an ethical basis for society, believing that all problems are solvable by a good government, which we in the East never believed possible.
In the West, especially after World War II, the government came to be seen as so successful that it could fulfill all the obligations that in less modern societies are fulfilled by the family. This approach encouraged alternative families, single mothers for instance, believing that government could provide the support to make up for the absent father. This is a bold, Huxleyan view of life, but one from which I as an East Asian shy away. I would be afraid to experiment with it. I’m not sure what the consequences are, and I don’t like the consequences that I see in the West. You will find this view widely shared in East Asia. It’s not that we don’t have single mothers here. We are also caught in the same social problems of change when we educate our women and they become independent financially and no longer need to put up with unhappy marriages. But there is grave disquiet when we break away from tested norms, and the tested norm is the family unit. It is the building brick of society.
ments will come, governments will go, but this [duty to family] endures. We start with self-reliance. In the West today it is the opposite. The government says give me a popular mandate and I will solve all society’s problems.
What would I do if I were an American? First, you must have order in society. Guns, drugs and violent crime all go together, threatening social order. Then the schools; when you have violence in schools, you are not going to have education, so you’ve got to put that right. Then you have to educate rigorously and train a whole generation of skilled, intelligent, knowledgeable people who can be productive. I would start off with basics, working on the individual, looking at him within the context of his family, his friends, his society. But the Westerner says I’ll fix things at the top. One magic formula, one grand plan. I will wave a wand and everything will work out. It’s an interesting theory but not a proven method.

I can’t imagine an America or European politician, even a semi-retired one, voicing these thoughts — and neither can Lee Kwan Yew:

Groups of people develop different characteristics when they have evolved for thousands of years separately. Genetics and history interact. The Native American Indian is genetically of the same stock as the Mongoloids of East Asia — the Chinese, the Koreans and the Japanese. But one group got cut off after the Bering Straits melted away. Without that land bridge they were totally isolated in America for thousands of years. The other, in East Asia, met successive invading forces from Central Asia and interacted with waves of people moving back and forth. The two groups may share certain characteristics, for instance if you measure the shape of their skulls and so on, but if you start testing them you find that they are different, most particularly in their neurological development, and their cultural values.

Now if you gloss over these kinds of issues because it is politically incorrect to study them, then you have laid a land mine for yourself. This is what leads to the disappointments with social policies, embarked upon in America with great enthusiasm and expectations, but which yield such meager results. There isn’t a willingness to see things in their stark reality. But then I am not being politically correct.

Read the whole thing.

Two Paradoxes of Singaporean Political Economy

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Bryan Caplan presents Two Paradoxes of Singaporean Political Economy:

Puzzle #1: Singapore frequently adopts the kind of policies that economists would call “economically efficient, but politically unpopular.” For example, Singapore has (nearly) unilateral free trade, admits unusually large numbers of immigrants, supplies most medical care on a fee-for-service basis, means-tests most government assistance, imposes peak load pricing on roads, and fights recessions by cutting employers’ taxes. In most democracies, advocating any of these policies could easily cost a politician his job. In Singapore, policies like this have stood the test of time.

Puzzle #2: Even though it follows the forms of British parliamentary democracy, Singapore is effectively a one-party state. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has held uninterrupted power since the country gained Home Rule in 1959, and has never received less than 60% of the popular vote. Even more strikingly, the PAP has a near-monopoly in Singapore’s Parliament. In many electoral cycles, this party literally won 100% of the seats; it currently holds 82 out of 84.

The Origin of Singaporean Crime Policy

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Bryan Caplan shares The Origin of Singaporean Crime Policy — which is famously harsh:

When I was filling out my customs form for Singapore, I was chilled to see the all-capital letters, “DEATH FOR DRUGS IN SINGAPORE.”  Philosophically, I have nothing against the death penalty, but of course I have everything against drug prohibition.  Still, I was intrigued to discover the origin of Singapore’s draconian approach.  From Mauzy and Milne, Singapore Politics Under the People’s Action Party:
The death penalty is mandatory for murder, drug trafficking, treason, and certain firearms offenses.  Lee Kuan Yew was impressed that there was no crime in Singapore during the Japanese occupation because punishment was severe.  “As a result, I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime.”

Not only does Singapore execute a lot of people; by being strident in the face of international criticism (and using all-capital letters!), it also takes advantage of availability bias to amplify the death penalty’s deterrent effect.

Singaporean Pragmatism

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Singaporean Pragmatism is not American Pragmatism. Bryan Caplan explains:

Singaporeans often speak of their policies’ “pragmatism.” But their version of pragmatism is very different from ours. In the U.S., pragmatism primarily means going along with public opinion and openness to political compromise. In Singapore, in contrast, pragmatism primarily means judging policies based on their actual consequences, not their popularity. “Pragmatism” is virtually a synonym for “utilitarianism.”

Example: In the American sense of the term, congestion prices for roads would not be “pragmatic” because lots of people would object. In the Singaporean sense of the term, congestion pricing for roads is “pragmatic” because it sharply reduces rush hour traffic jams. Get it?

I’ve seen the future, and it works!

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

Bryan Caplan returns from Singapore and is tempted to say, I’ve seen the future, and it works!

If Asia stays on course for the next three decades, China will be a massive version of Singapore — and India will be a massive version of Malaysia.

Why Don’t the Chinese Learn from Singapore?

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

Why Don’t the Chinese Learn from Singapore?, Bryan Caplan asks:

I can vaguely understand why Western democracies won’t deign to emulate Singapore’s miraculously cheap and effective health care system. But when the Chinese ignore Singapore and copy Western socialized medicine, I can only roll my eyes in disgust.
If I didn’t know anything else, I’d be tempted to see this as an atavistic “back to Mao” movement. But alas, it’s Western advisors who are to blame.
Admittedly, if the goal of the plan is to maintain the popularity of the Communst Party rather than deliver low-cost quality health care, the foreign advisors may have it right. After all their crimes against humanity, the Chinese Communists almost desperately need to “show that they care.”