Graham Allison

The Lee Kuan Yew conundrum

The crowd at Singapore's Raffles Place watching the live telecast of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's funeral service on March 29, 2015. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
The crowd at Singapore's Raffles Place watching the live telecast of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's funeral service on March 29, 2015. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Washington, DC is fast becoming an acronym for "Dysfunctional Capital".

Singapore, in contrast, has become the poster child for "the concept of good governance", to quote the Financial Times' obituary for the country's longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew, who was laid to rest on Sunday.

For Americans, this contrast presents a conundrum. On the one hand, Americans hold as a self-evident truth that their democracy is the best form of government. On the other hand, they see mounting evidence daily of Washington's gridlock, corruption and theatrical distractions, which make their system seem incapable of addressing the country's real challenges.

In assessing the quality of national governance, global rankings often focus on three related baskets of indicators: first, a nation's level of democracy and civic participation, and the degree to which citizens exercise political rights; second, the effectiveness of its government in facing issues, making policy choices, executing policy, and preventing corruption; and third, its performance in producing the results people want, including rising incomes, health and safety.

Let's start with performance. As a Russian proverb says, it is better to be healthy, wealthy and safe than sick, poor and insecure.

Who can disagree?

On these criteria, how has Singapore performed over the course of its first five decades versus the United States; or the Philippines (which the US has been tutoring in democracy-building for a century); or Zimbabwe (an African analogue that declared independence from the United Kingdom just a few years after Singapore, and where dictator Robert Mugabe has been as dominant a national force as Mr Lee has been in Singapore)?

Over the past 50 years, Singapore's real per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has grown 12-fold; the average Singa-porean's income grew from US$500 a year in 1965 to US$55,000 (S$75,600) today. Real per capita GDP in the US and the Philippines doubled, Zimbabwe's dropped. (It is important to note that Singapore was essentially catching up to the US.)

But what about economic performance in the 21st century?

Over the past decade and a half, US GDP has grown an average of less than 2 per cent a year - while Singapore's averaged nearly 6 per cent. The World Economic Forum's latest Global Competitiveness Index ranks Singapore second overall, after Switzerland (the US is third). For the past seven years, Singapore has also been ranked the best place in the world to do business by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In healthcare, Singapore's infant mortality rate has fallen from 27.3 deaths per 1,000 births in 1965 to 2.2 in 2013. A child born in the US has three times the chance of dying in infancy of one in Singapore. In the Philippines, 23 out of every 1,000 children born die in infancy. In Zimbabwe, 55.

In 2012, Bloomberg Rankings judged Singapore the world's healthiest country based on the full array of health metrics; the US ranked 33rd, the Philippines 86th, and Zimbabwe 116th. Singapore also has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. A citizen is 24 times more likely to be murdered in the US than in Singapore. And in 2012, less than 1 per cent of Singaporeans reported that they struggled to afford food or shelter, by far the lowest percentage in the world.

The second basket in assessing governance focuses on what experts call the effectiveness of the governmental process itself.

Each year, the World Bank produces Governance Indicators metrics on government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption. Singapore leads the US by a significant margin on all these measures; the Philippines and Zimbabwe are not even on the same level.

Singapore's widest lead over the US and comparable nations comes in the prevention of corruption and graft. Singapore scores in the top 10 while the US ranks 20 countries lower on the list, with the Philippines and Zimbabwe in the bottom third. According to the 2014 Gallup World Poll, 85 per cent of Americans see "widespread" corruption in their government, while only 8 per cent of Singaporeans believe their government is corrupt.

On democratic participation and personal liberties, Freedom House has an annual report. In its 2014 ranking, the US was among the freest countries in the world. Singapore scored in the bottom half, behind South Korea and the Philippines. It lost points mainly for Mr Lee's People's Action Party's (PAP's) tight management of the political process. According to its report: "Singapore is not an electoral democracy... Opposition campaigns have typically been hamstrung by a ban on political films and television programmes, the threat of libel suits, strict regulations on political associations, and the PAP's influence on the media and the courts."

The contrast between Singapore's ranking in the first two categories and the third reminds us of a fundamental question of political philosophy: What is government for?

Contemporary Western Europeans and Americans tend to answer that question by emphasising political rights. But for Mr Lee, "the ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society establish conditions that improve the standard of living for the majority of its people".

As Singaporean Calvin Cheng wrote this past week in The Independent: "Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one's door open and not fear that one would be burgled. Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night falls."

Mr Lee Kuan Yew always insisted that the proof of the pudding is in the eating: rising incomes for the broad middle class, health, security, economic opportunity.

To Western ears, the claim that an autocratic state can govern more effectively than a democratic one sounds heretical. History offers few examples of benevolent dictatorships that delivered the goods - or stayed benevolent for long. But in Singapore's case, it is hard to deny that the nation Mr Lee built has produced more wealth per capita, more health and more security for ordinary citizens than any of his competitors.

Thus Mr Lee leaves students and practitioners of government with a challenge.

If Churchill was right in saying that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, what about Singapore?

THE ATLANTIC

The writer is the director of the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is co-author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights On China, The United States, And The World.