In the midst of the controversy over the NLB it slipped my mind that I’d wanted to respond to Professor Mahbubani’s Big Idea on Saturday. But I came across a takedown of his article earlier today and that reminded me to write. The citations on that piece are excellent and I don’t have much data to add; instead, I wanted to focus on two things in Professor Mahbubani’s piece which may have slipped by a little less noticed.
The first is something on which we agree. There is no way Singapore will be as successful in the next 50 years as it’s been over the last 50. And although he exaggerates how special Singapore’s record is relative to other countries—and even though our median per-individual household income ($2247 monthly) is a far sight from our GDP per capita ($6710 monthly, according to his piece)—it’s true that living standards have improved. This progress is unlikely to be matched because the low-hanging policy fruit has already been harvested, so to speak—we’ve cleared our backlog of people to house, kids to educate and vaccinate, jobs to provide, sanitation to improve, and so on. This sort of unambiguously-good public policy is a thing of the past, and we’ll start to see more trade-offs appearing. Policies will have distributional consequences, favouring some segments of society over others (rich over poor, young over old, and so on). We’ll also begin to disagree on the desirability of policy outcomes (is having more people good or bad?) Because of this, there’s no way our public policies can attract the same sort of public consensus that they have had in the past. And if that’s the case, I believe it to be an argument for greater democratic contestation in Singapore.
The second is something I absolutely disagree with. Professor Mahbubani suggests that Singaporean property developers build cheap housing (homes priced at $50k) in neighbouring countries so that Singaporean families can enjoy space in their living arrangements. Nazi parallels aside (Lebensraum?), here’s why I think it’s a terrible idea: