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Harry Cassin
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Andy Spalding
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Jessica Tillipman
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Richard L. Cassin
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Julie DiMauro
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Thomas Fox
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Marc Alain Bohn
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Bill Waite
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Shruti J. Shah
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Russell A. Stamets
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Richard Bistrong
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Eric Carlson
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Bill Steinman
Contributing Editor

In Singapore, they agreed to agree

Most people in the West share the belief that we all have a right to our own opinions, and a right to act on those opinions. We call it pluralism. But is Western-style pluralism always best?

Singaporeans don’t think so.

“The big secret which may be unpalatable to the West is this: sometimes, consensus works,” Singapore lawyer and writer Adrian Tan told the FCPA Blog.

“Sometimes, having a one-party system, whether in a nation, a state, or a city, works better than a system that is based on two parties fighting each other,” he said.

Singapore’s per capita GDP is now $87,900. In the United States, it’s $57,400.

Some attribute Singapore’s success to low tax rates. Companies pay just 17 percent. But Bulgaria’s corporate tax rate is just 10 percent. No one talks about a Bulgarian economic miracle.

Individuals in Singapore are taxed at a top rate of 20 percent. Ukraine, Angola, and Romania have even lower individual rates. Western companies aren’t flocking to those countries.

How did Singapore do it?

Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founder and prime minister from 1965 until 1990, steered people away from pluralism. He promoted “Asian values” — respect for the family and deference to institutional authority. He created a partnership among the government, industry, and trade unions.

And despite criticism from the West that his policies were illiberal and repressive, Lee also called for an acceptance of races and religions.

His vision of voluntary social discipline worked.

“Certainly, for Singapore to develop itself from a disparate group of immigrants on a resource-poor island to a wealthy nation state, people had to learn cooperation,” Adrian said.

A cooperative approach has some drawbacks. Most Singaporeans will admit that only pluralistic America could have produced Microsoft, Intel, and Apple.

But Singapore’s 5.6 million people enjoy their own collective innovation — an ultra-modern city that actually works.

There are jobs for everyone who wants one. Street crime is practically non-existent, and there are no dangerous neighborhoods. Medical care is affordable. The schools at all levels produce world-class students. The public transportation system makes cars strictly optional.  

“Sometimes it’s better to work together on a few average ideas, rather than to debate endlessly to find the best idea,” Adrian said.

Singapore’s population is diverse. Ethnic Chinese make up about three quarters, Malays around 15 percent, and Indians about 8 percent.

And there’s no common religion to unite the people. Just the opposite. Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse nation, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.  

About a quarter of the people are Buddhist, 30 percent are Taoist, 15 percent are Muslim, 10 percent are Christian, and 4 percent are Hindu.

But peace and prosperity prevail. How?

“In the West, people agree to disagree. Here, people learned to agree to agree,” Adrian said.

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Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog.

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