The lessons that Japan could learn from Singapore: Yomiuri Shimbun contributor

The summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore was a flashy political show that drew massive global media attention.
The summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore was a flashy political show that drew massive global media attention.PHOTO: AFP

In the article, the writer draws attention to factors that could have contributed to Singapore's global standing

TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - No other world political event has drawn such massive global media attention in recent years as the June 12 summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

It was certainly a flashy political show.

Needless to say, we may have to wait for some time before we know exactly what their meeting meant and what will subsequently happen on the Korean Peninsula.

The Trump-Kim talks made me curious about the political and economic system of Singapore, which the United States and North Korea chose to be the venue of their historic meeting.

It seems to me that Singapore prompts us Japanese to ask the important question: What kind of nation do we want to be in the future?

Singapore is a demographically small country with a population of about 5.6 million.

Being a small country understandably means that it must be extraordinarily shrewd in the areas of security and diplomacy.

As such, it maintains omnidirectional security and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world, including China, the United States, France and Australia.

In November 2015, China and Taiwan held their first-ever summit meeting in Singapore after the city-state mediated between the two sides.

As a nation, Singapore is unique - no simple comparison with other countries is possible.

A Japanese journalist dispatched to cover the U.S.-North Korean summit meeting told me afterward that until he arrived in Singapore, he had known little about the state-imposed restrictions on freedom of expression there.

The reporter said he was surprised not only at the extremely tight security to protect Trump and Kim, but also at the tough restrictions on freedom of the press.

The city-state boasts Asia's highest per capita gross domestic product, surpassing Japan and Hong Kong.

Even just since the start of the 21st century, it has achieved remarkable economic expansion, with an average annual growth rate of about 6 per cent.

It is home to the world's No. 4 financial center after London, New York and Hong Kong, continuing to attract foreign businesses.

Taking advantage of the fact that English is the main language used in school and at work and capitalising on its thriving economy, Singapore has invited excellent researchers from other countries, a measure that has helped some of its universities gain higher spots in world university rankings.

Certainly, things seem to have been going well in Singapore.

But the brighter the light of glory, the darker its shadow.

Singapore has been relatively successful in implementing income redistribution policies, such as social security.

Nonetheless, the income gap between the rich and the poor is significantly greater than other high-income countries.

While Singapore is an economically affluent country, its population does not necessarily seem satisfied with the fact that the city-state has continued to be effectively under one-party rule.

In 2012, the world was stunned to learn that Gallup's "Global Emotions Report" of the year - which gave a picture of happiness and well-being in the world - showed that Singapore's population was the unhappiest among the 148 countries polled in the survey.

Singapore moved up to 26th in the 2017 edition of the world happiness rankings, well ahead of 50th-placed Japan.

When we look further at Singapore, it becomes clear that the relationship between the state and the people holding Singaporean citizenship can serve as a useful reference for the future of Japan.

According to the city-state's demographic statistics, those with Singaporean citizenship account for about 60 per cent of its 5.6 million population, with the remaining 40 per cent having foreign nationalities.

Singapore's judicial system and police force are powerful enough to make it one of the world's safest cities.

Nevertheless, it experienced rioting in 2013 - the first in Singapore in more than 30 years.

News reports said the rioting took place against a backdrop of discontent among South Asian migrant workers with terrible working conditions.

When a country seeks to enjoy economic prosperity by relying on foreign migrant workers to support low-paid sectors, such a social structure is insecure in terms of national integration.

Government stability depends largely on what kind of values - other than economic values - a state considers to be important to its existence.

Singapore also offers an opportunity for Japan to think about how we should relate freedom and economic prosperity and strike a balance between them.

In Singapore, economic growth has resulted in the widening of income inequality, while economic affluence has been achieved amid the so-called development dictatorship system's sacrifice of freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

The moral of Aesop's fable of "The Dog and the Wolf" rightly asserts that choosing one thing means giving up something else.

About half a century ago, arguments among economics scholars centered on contrasting socialist planned economies under one-party rule and market economies under a free and democratic system.

At the time, a majority thought the latter was superior.

However, given the existing political and economic regimes in the world, the planned-economy-versus-market-economy comparison no longer makes much sense as a basis for analysis.

The world has witnessed the emergence of a "hybrid system" of market economies under one-party rule in China and de facto one-party rule in Singapore.

What's more, it has become increasingly apparent that a hybrid economy tends to be capable of performing well in the span of at least 20 or 30 years.

But we need to question whether such a favorable economic environment can be sustained generation after generation.

If wealth is accumulated further and further in the hands of a tiny portion of society without correcting income inequality, the affinity between dictatorial rule and market-economy mechanisms is unlikely to last.

Further, as far as the education systems in China and Singapore are concerned, I believe that their complete focus on econocentrism and meritocracy will not be effective in fully bringing out their populations' potential over the long term.

I once attended a dinner after an international study session, and a researcher from a socialist country who was sitting next to me lamented that humanities and social science scholars in his country suffered from chronically insufficient budgetary allocations for research.

He said those academic disciplines were regarded as making less of a contribution to the country while fostering biased political sentiment.

The researcher meant that in a country that advocates labour and economic activities as matters of utmost importance, intellectual activities that might bring little direct benefit to the state were not respected.

In the 20th century, certain dictatorial states ignored or suppressed types of art and literature that made no tangible contribution to the state, as well as social sciences that were critical of the regimes, by labeling them "bourgeois" and "degenerate."

As mentioned above, today some countries glorify education that emphasizes "economic absolutism" as a national ideal. To what extent do people living in those countries feel happy?

In Japan, today's society has very high expectations of technological innovation, including artificial intelligence.

It's true that the spirit of utilitarianism and competition to achieve technological breakthroughs can be a basis for the economic well-being of society.

In this connection, I would refer to the United States.

Despite being generally regarded as a country that tends to exclusively prioritise meritocracy and economic success, the United States actually maintains a flexible attitude toward education and research activities by respecting the well-balanced relationship between technology and liberal arts knowledge.

Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple admired as a champion of technological innovation, said: "It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough - it's technology married with liberal arts."

His words are worthy of consideration.

The Trump-Kim meeting has created a compelling opportunity to take a close look at the United States and North Korea as well as Singapore, prompting me to ask what kind of state we want to be from now on, especially in terms of what kind of education we need.

The writer is a professor emeritus at Osaka University, where he also served as dean of the economics department. The Yomiuri Shimbun is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.