09/28/2014 10:15 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2014

The Limits of Ideology: Lessons from Singapore

Next year will see the 50th anniversary of the creating of Singapore, widely hailed as one of the most successful of the Asian tigers. In that short space of time, the tiny nation state has grown into one of the world's largest financial cities and most important ports. It has done so by becoming the partner every nation wants to work with: efficient, trustworthy and stable. In education, healthcare and economic competitiveness, Singapore routinely occupies a high position in global rankings. So it's not surprising that commentators like Thomas Friedman often point to Singapore as doing well what the west does badly.

That polarization - between Singapore where everything works and the west, where nothing seems to - is alluring, not least in its simplicity. In a brilliant new book about their country, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, Donald Low and Sudhir Vadaketh dare something few Singaporeans attempt: they question this orthodox view of Singapore and ask how fit for the future their country is. In doing so, they do something infinitely more subtle and profound than identify weaknesses in national policy; they implicitly question many of the central assumptions on which all developed nations today are pinning their hopes for the future.

Competitive Meritocracy but Rising Inequality

Commentators routinely praise the competitive nature of Singapore's schools and civil service. Slavish devotion to exams and credentials, they like to believe, is what bring the best to the top. In the early days of Singapore's independence, this principle was coupled with the belief that everyone should have a fair shot at success. But as inequality has risen and social mobility has declined, those values look more like a justification for elitism. Does preserving this meritocracy does more to protect those in power than enable those who aspire to it?

Without social mobility and the continuing expansion of choices to the multi-ethnic population, meritocracy can come to feel like intrinsic, existential superiority: the sense that some are intrinsically more deserving than others. The bubble of money and power is isolating, severing the connections between governors and the governed. The surprise that greeted the 2011 election, in which the opposition to the governing PAP made significant gains, illustrated just how self-referential many in power had become.

With some of the longest working hours in the developed world, some of the least happy workers in the world and a population over half of which would emigrate if they could, Singapore's society represents a more than statistical challenge. That trickle-down is now widely discredited as an economic defense for inequality only further exposes it to challenge. That a few are so wealthy and so powerful is no longer seen as providing a wider social benefit; indeed the rich may pose a bigger social threat than the poor.

Security requires trade-offs

The physical vulnerability of tiny Singapore, wedged between Malaysia and Indonesia, coupled with its lack of natural resources and its complex ethnic composition, has been used in the past as an argument for restricted freedoms: only a very strong and unquestioned government can protect such a fragile state. Safety demanded the abdication of personal freedoms.

That this trade-off is no longer embraced without question is due to several forces. Globalization, rising educational standards, new technologies and pervasive sources of diverse information have combined to make Singaporeans less comfortable with the idea that their country alone cannot afford freedoms. Rising inflation and increasing problems with housing and transportation have seeded the provocative thought that perhaps the government does not always know best - and that ideas from outside Singapore might now be needed to preserve its success. It's a unique insight that those most likely to challenge the status quo are those who, heretofor, most benefited from it.

Poetry or Money?

I have a Singaporean friend who has spent substantial periods away from her country, working in the U.S. and Europe. What, I asked her, did she miss when she went away? "The fact that everything works," was her reply. Why did she keep leaving? "Because that's not enough."

The clean streets, high levels of service and safety that characterize Singapore are all efficient - but efficiency is fundamentally a negative virtue: an absence of friction rather than a richness of experience. And efficiency, Low and Vadaketh argue, masks an emptiness. All that order is bought: with fines for transgression. The emphasis on monetary sanctions has produced a populace that is compliant and submissive - but not socially engaged. The competitive emphasis on individualism coupled with obedience and conformity may make things work but it doesn't make them meaningful. Where is the rich skein of dependencies, shared triumphs and victories, rights and responsibilities that lie at the heart of every dynamic society?

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, once insisted that "poetry is a luxury we cannot afford" but few still believe that that is still true. More recently, concert halls and art schools have sprung up but they rarely feature indigenous art or art forms and Singaporeans are hard pressed to define their shared cultural values. It may be that poetry is just what Singaporeans need now to understand who they are and why they care.

US - or THEM?

What makes The Singapore Consensus fascinating reading, even for those who've never visited the country, is that this analysis of a political and economic crossroads is so similar to the landscape most developed economies confront today. We now know that, while competition can be motivating, it routinely produces perverse outcomes in the form of inequality, arrogance, complacency and a sense of entitlement among the rich and powerful. No meritocratic society in history has ever successfully escaped these byproducts.

The tradeoff between security and civil liberties is at the heart of western political debate today. Neither Edward Snowden nor Jim Sensenbrenner, the author of America's Patriot Act, feel comfortable with this kind of deal. If the elites are secluded by their privilege and wealth, then we need an open society more than ever if we are to find creative solutions to the dangers we face. Challenged on all sides by groups that feel keenly disenfranchised, extending that disenfranchisement is no solution at all.

And the neoconservative doctrines that brought the western economies to their knees had at their heart the notion that there was no such thing as society - only the economic contest for, and exchange of, goods. That transactional view effectively blinded financiers, regulators and governments alike to the threats contained in an economic system indifferent to social consequences.

Seen in this light, the early success of Singapore represents a triumphant validation of principles that the west holds dear. Imitation may be a sincere form of flattery but in holding a mirror up to our values, we may not like what we see; the country's current challenges and frustrations show us limitations we all need to see. Meritocracies, powerful central states and transactional social modes, in other words, may be enough to get a nation from birth to prosperity - but not nearly enough to keep it there. In that respect, the United States and Europe have far more in common with Singapore than perhaps their governments recognize.

What Singapore holds in reserve, however, is an asset western leaders would give their eye teeth for: a national surplus accrued over many years of fastidious economic management. How will this wealth be used? While western leaders use insolvency as a perennial alibi for their failure to make coherent strategic choices, Singapore's government has the money and the power to effect real change. Should it fail to do so, after this incisive an analysis of its opportunities, no politicians in Singapore will be able to claim they didn't see their chance. If, with the freedom to spend that most western leaders lack, Singapore cannot address its problems, then the principles it espouses - principles still broadly accepted by western governments - will be discredited for good.