Singapore’s Institutions

Societies prosper and last due to the strength of their institutions


This is the conclusion derived from reading “Why Nations Fail” by Acemoglu and Robinson, and from reading “The Origins of Political Order” by Fukuyama.


Societies begin to decay when a particular group of people are able to exploit their privileged positions and use it to direct resources to their own private use. Typically, these privileged groups will want to benefit their friends, allies and relatives although not too much that they can overcome the ruler. Opportunities to success become closed and inequalities increase. Meantime, the privileged attempt to extract more resources from society and continue to use more exploitative means, while at the same time, closing off critical thought and openness to new ideas. The extreme examples today include the DPRK, and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. One could argue that the influence of US legislation by lobbyists constitute a worrying trend, but ultimately, the democratic process of elections and possible mobilization of various civil society groups can still form a robust check on potential abuses of power. 


In Singapore, there is no sign that the elites are buying their power through financial or other means. While there are weaknesses in oversight processes, ordinary people and citizens, together with the selective transparency of the bureaucracy, still counts as a limited check. Despite rumours/fact of the children of ministers being awarded their scholarships, they are not given positions by fiat, nor can they demand it. In principle, elections still constitute a check on the power of the incumbent. Civil society is respected and influential in limited domains. While the PAP is powerful, it is not invincible. 


As with any sufficiently developed society, the elites, despite their diversity, will still go through similar processes of socialization, be it all through their lives as children of privilege, or during their entry into highly privileged positions as adults. Due to the limited numbers they will get to meet each and socialize, but that does not mean that they are a monolithic bunch. Singapore’s elites still constitute a sufficiently-broad base that no particular group can wield unlimited power but remain constrained by the actions of others. 


Singapore remains an open society, and possibilities of creativity still exist, though hamstrung by the small market here. There is nothing institutionally stopping the processes of innovation, and there are no edicts that prevent explicitly the enactment of new ideas – in fact we are very much encouraged to act on new ideas. Singapore has decided that there shall be no development of an alternative Internet, as PRC or the DPRK has done, nor will we become blocked off from global services. 


There is much to celebrate on 9 August 2012 in Singapore. The strength and integrity of our institutions deserve our cheers. 

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