Well, maybe not. Aside from spending on military, the United States is somewhere down the list on nearly every other criterion. From personal income to longevity to health care to international test scores, various northern European and Asian countries outpace us. But if you average the rankings, Singapore might very well be the country that can most accurately claim: “We’re Number One!”
On August 9, Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary as an independent nation.
I taught in the British colony of Hong Kong (now a part of China) from 1975 to 1978 and my attention was drawn to Singapore by teacher colleagues who had served at the Singapore American School. Singapore was an unusual democracy led by an intellectual. It has prospered to become the envy of every Asian country.
The British established Singapore as a trading colony in 1819. The intellectual Lee Kuan Yew led colleagues to break away and make Singapore independent in 1963. Singapore joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963 but was pushed out on August 9, 1965 for fear that Singapore would control Malaysia.
So began Singapore, a small city-state of 5,670,000. But it is the world’s busiest port. Lacking natural resources, Singapore became prosperous by becoming the most well-educated country in the world.
According to the C.I.A. country profile: “Singapore has a highly developed and successful free-market economy. It enjoys a remarkably open and corruption-free environment, stable prices, and a per capita GDP higher than that of most developed countries. Unemployment is very low. The economy depends heavily on exports, particularly of consumer electronics, information technology products, medical and optical devices, pharmaceuticals, and on its vibrant transportation, business, and financial services sectors.” That per capita Gross Domestic Product last year was US$82,800.
Life expectancy at birth is 82 for men and 87.5 for women. But along with a dramatically higher level of education comes a dramatically lower fertility rate of 0.81 children born per woman, way below replacement. As a result, Singapore provides large tax breaks for having children. And media campaigns suggest a child needs a sister or brother.
Health care takes up 4.6% of GDP which provides one physician for every 500 citizens. Singapore, similar to many Asian cities, is built with skyscraper apartments. Their cell phones are the most advanced in the world. And they discarded paper money and coins over a decade ago, using cell phones and transponder debit cards we are yet to see. The idea to allow only full cars to use the speed lane came from—you guessed it—Singapore. And Singapore is multi-lingual. To teach at their universities, you must speak English and one other language from among Chinese, Malay or Tamil.
In the last decade, many American schools have adopted “Singapore math” in an attempt to gain some magical curricular advantage. Their real advantage is their respect for education and teachers.
Singapore is easily the most successful “Mini-dragon” and was featured in an American television series of that name.
The “father of Singapore” was Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who served for the first three decades and was a strong advisor behind the scenes until his recent death. Today, his oldest son Lee Hsien Loong is Prime Minister.
But the Lee’s are no dictators. Singapore is a parliamentary republic based on English common law. Everyone votes at age 21—it is universal and compulsory. Six-year terms allow for long-range planning. There are three major political parties; this serves to focus on issues rather than cause knee-jerk gridlock.
Westerners usually know of Singapore’s strict laws and zero-tolerance for petty crime. But Singapore’s streets are safe at night. It makes us realize how so much of our “freedom” is only possible because we have so much space and so few people.
But on this 50th birthday, you will not hear Singaporeans shout: “Singapore! We’re Number One!”
They leave that empty bravado to us.