Singapore: an economist's wet dream. A self-described Platonic
republic, ruled by Philosopher Kings and a cadre of of elites who rose
up through the meritocracy to be sent to America to study Economics
and Electrical Engineering, before returning home to rule with
absolute power but benevolent intentions.
The flight over was ridiculous. I counted and realized I watched a sum
total of nine movies over the 39 hours of flying back and forth.
Legally Blonde, , high crimes, crossroads, ocean's 11, kate
and leopold, snow dogs, beautiful mind, monster's inc. I actually
enjoyed the flight there. It is the only time in life when one is
allowed to just sit still, nap, and read, and watch movies, without a
care in the world. Managed to get quite a bit of studying on the way
over at least. Though I must complain that United provided no personal
TV's or the toiletry kits that airliens like virgin or continental or
brittish airways all have in coach on their international flights. And
the constant feeding, a meal every 3 hours, eventually made me sick,
though I couldn't help myself from eating.
Left campus Tuesday morning, arrived Wednesday at midnight. While
waiting in the sparse but impeccably airport decorated with odd purple
and green pastel's but otherwise, a bit boring in architecture , for
Shiyan's flight to arrive in the airport, met a mom (MIT class of 83)
and her son, who were back visiting relatives. We spend some time
trying to figure out who we know in common.
As Shiyan arose, we got a ride from Shiyan's cousin accompanied by her
high school aged brother. While waiting, I studied a map, and indeed
the island is tiny. We arrive at Shiyan's place at the direct opposite
end of the island, in about 25 minutes.
Shiyan's house immediately struck me as a lot like the houses of my
Asian relatives in New York City. A cramped and narrow three story
townhouse, well tastefully decorated with western furniture and
Chinese brush paintings, and packed leaving no room for walking,
though all is neatly arranged.
Shiyan's parents are in France, but in the house is also their
dark-skinned maid (Malaysian I believe), and though Shiyan is probably
one of the most progressive people on the island, I can't help but
feel that the maid is treated like furniture. I never hear her speak
one word the 3 days I am there. Not that I can blame anyone. I never
talk to her either. I don't think she speaks English or Chinese. My
grandmother in Taiwan has a similar dark-skinned maid (though I think
she was Filipina).
Shiyan graciously gives me her room (Shiyan sleeps in her parents'), a
typical abandoned high school student room, with computer with dsl
internet, and a large weirdly familar photo on the wall of very young
smiling shiyan with a large lizard painted on her cheek, that I later
learn was printed in the Klutz face painting book. I shower to wash
off the sticky heat and humidity present evet at 2:30 am, (the hot
water has to be turned on because it is solar powered, the toilet
flushes with the force of a waterfall, apparently Singapore gets its
water from Malaysia and is one thing they don't particularly
conserve). The bedrooms each have their own remote controlled A/C, but
the house on the whole is still warm.
The next morning, Shiyan calls a cab. The cab system is computerized,
and so gps automatically determines the closest free cab while on the
phone, and tells you the cab number right away. As the cab gets close,
we get an automated phone call telling us the cab is about to arrive,
so someone hits the button to electronically open the outer gates.
World Cup playoff news is on tv, being watched by Shiyan's brother,
Shihao, awake up early despite it being summer, to go do his school
mandated community service. English is spoken between the two, and
though the parent's try to insist on their speaking mandarin, it is
clear that their mandarin is nearly as disused as my own.
On the cab ride out, we see that Shiyan's house is in a residential
neighborhood, crowded but still filled with trees. Shiyan notes that
the government was careful to keep some of the natural environment
behind in its construction, though most people live in their own
government subsidized houses in tall housing projects (which has some
acronym. Acronyms, along with Malaysian phrases, fly constantly amidst
the english, or Singlish as they call it, but they comfortably use PR
(permanant resident), IP (intellectual property) SME (small midsized
enterprise), CBT (something like that for their pension scheme).
The cab, like all cars in Singapore, have an electronic debit machine,
which automatically charges tolls that vary by street and time of day,
thus to alleviate congestion. I am also told that the number of cars
is controlled to limit congestion, and so permits to own a car must be
obtained by auction before a car can be bought.
This is an economist's dream. Too many cars causes an externality by
leading to excess congestion. Everyone would be happier if there were
fewer cars on the road, since with too many cars, traffic becomes
deadening. Thus, we need permits. The most efficient allocation is
through an auction. Wow!
This is a consistent theme throughout my visit. Everything is designed
rationally, with an economist's cold steel hearted calculations.
Though at the same time, as was a constant theme in our presentations
and deliberation, Singapore is now feeling economic's limitations.
What economic rationalism leaves out is the room for emotion,
creativty, passion, innovation. The role of innovation in traditional
finance theory is the extra stuff that comes out of the equation but
can't be explained by economy theory. To deal with the impending
information age, this might not be enough.
We arrive at the treasury building, where Contact Singapore and most
of the other offices within which have meetings are located. It is a
boxy modern glassy building with locked doors and tight security,
though surprisingly no metal detectors, and quite different from the
imposing imperial neo-classical style of Washington DC, or even of
Boston's federal building.
Breakfast is served in the conference room we are meeting at for most
of the two days, you will be well fed in Singapore is a recurring
refrain. Breakfast is mostly akin to dimsum, but with added fried
fare. Very scrumptious. A welcome change from the airplane.
The morning was spent doing a run through of our presentation. I was
nervous and spoke too fast, and tripped over areas where I wasn't sure
what to say. I was clearly the least effective speaker of the
presenters, (especially compared to Leng, the Harvard MBA/Anglican
priest that spoke after me), and criticism flowed freely but
constructively, and I never felt put off. (Naresh commented he thought
I lost weight, thank you Naresh) The meeting was capped by a briefing
on how to handle the media who would be doing tv and print interviews
mostly in English but also Chinese at the cocktail reception prior to
dinner that night.
We walked to lunch in a swanky chinese restaurant at a nearby mall,
also located in downtown. The food was good, though not spectacular.
That afternoon, we met with reps and a senior minister from the
services sub committee, part of the official ERC group from Singapore.
At 4, we had one more practice before taking the bus to the also
swanky Asian Civilization Museum with a rooftop deck overlooking parts
of the skyline, and a river lined with colourful Hakka stands (Hakka
is a group akin to gypsies that would sell wares. They were later
localized into centers for sanitary purposes, and now hakka refers to
any collection of outdoor food vendors. I learned this from Mark an
MIT grad student in TPP, who like Sze Meng, proved extrememly
knowledgeable about everything, but Singapore in particular) where
they were were serving wine and cocktails. I took some hopefully
stunning pictures, and got to know the other Americans, meeting the
Boston group for the first time. We got along famously, except for the
Hong Kong group which was much older and didn't seem to like us. The
media never did interview me, though I'm told many of us were spotted
on TV that night. Below are some articles:
http://www.zaobao.com/sp/sp001_140602.html (In Chinese)
Dinner had assigned seating. I was always trying to figure out how
they decided who sits next to who. I was put next to Professor Arnaud
De Meyer, dean of the business school INSEAD's Singapore branch). He
encouraged me to apply for an assistant professorship. Food was
excellent, though more fusion than authentic. But I was well sated. It
was late when we finished, and sleepily took a cab back home.
The next day, we decided to take the subway in. We took a cab to the
station, and then onto the subway. The subway was crowded but very
clean. Happened upon Mark at the station. Just gives an idea of how
small Singapore is. Upon arrival, there was no breakfast, so we
complained. So quickly, someone went out to fetch these fastfood
Indian breakfast samosa thingees. Yummee! We did a pracice run through
again. I was better this time, now that I knew what I watned to say,
though still too fast, and still tripped up a bit. Then had a brief
economic briefing by their economist. Lunch was another fancy Chinese
place in the mall, but this food was much better.
After lunch, we went to the main conference room. We had only half an
hour to the main event. My group (the loans people, Joel, Sze Meng,
and recent addition Vaughn a brilliant freshman art history major from
harvard who was rejected by NUS) took me outside to help me practice.
The conference room was large, and the 25 or so ERC members were
seated in a large center table. About half were private sector and
half ministers headed by the deputy prime minister (DPM) Lee Hsieng
Loong, though it is already known that he will be "elected" prime
minister when the current, Goh, retires. We were seated along the
outside. Each was served with tea and fruit. Dress was shockingly
casual, compared to the formalism I was used to at the White House.
Few wore ties.
The hong kong group went first. My heart was palpatating non stop.
They, all being older, had a very differnt deliberate style. Dry,
slow, sleepy. They got perfunctory responses. (Later, we learn from
Colin that they were quite dejected at the response.)
Then it was our turn. My turn would be next to last. The meeting was
interesting because the only people that talked was the DPM, and two
private sector members of the ERC of European descent and the
Americans. Even the other senior ministers were too deferential to
ever say more than a word. The Americans though didn't mind chiming
in. And Shiyan got a hearty laugh from the room when she openly
contradicted the DPM and shouted back at him. The Education group
(Terrence, Shiyan, Tee Sing) were given a good deal of leeway, for
their age, but also for their insolence, leading to an effective
My turn came up. As always, in times of nervousness, though in
practice, I had managed to slow it down, I went off like a rocket at a
million miles per hour. The fellow group members in back though were
constantly supportive, gesturing for me to slow down, but otherwise
smiling. In the end, aside from the speed, I did the rest right
(didn't get tripped up, maintained eye contact, didn't stare at the
screen, didn't fidget.)
As I finished, relieved my spiel was over, the DPM deflated me with
his comment. China already has such a program. They send out half a
million each year. Only 100,000 come back. It quickly became clear
that he was well aware of the issues. That the trivial matters like
monetary cost didn't matter to him. What mattered is that as many as
half would not come back. (I later learned from my cab driver that
that Singapore likes keeping a tight grip on its citizens. Instead of
social security, government forces you to save 20% of your income in
accounts [with yet another acronym of a name], much like Bush's
proposed plan actually. But if you ever give up your citizenship, so
goes your savings.) I realize that we should have in the end been more
focused on the philosophical (later I came up a market failure/rate of
return argument that might have flown better, oh well), but in some
ways, perhaps it was hopeless. The DPM never openly rejected, but he
just said "we should think very carefully before we proceed" but he
basically rejected it.
So I was feeling somewhat dejected, but the upside is that afterwards,
Peng, some computer entrepreneur, and one of the private members in
attendance came up to us afterwards and said that he liked the idea,
thought it was important, and if the government didn't do it, someone
should. So that he was willing to back 10 loans, and had 5 friends who
would back 10 loans each. So in some quick discussion we realize this
has potential. First, find rich people willing to back loans. Setup a
foundation so that they could get tax deductions. Write a social
entrepreneurship business plan. Second, part of the requirement for
the loan is at some point, to backup a loan for someone else sometime
after graduation. "Pay it forward" so to speak. Basically, this will
allow the program to grow and eventually become self sustaining.
Anyway, these were the quick ideas we came up then. Vaughn, Joel, and
Sze Meng are working on this in Singapore. Hopefully something will
come of it.
So after the presentation, we went to some other shwanky restaurant
whose only fault was that it was outdoors, and thus oppressively hot,
though it had nice tropical plants, was on the roof, had a pool, but
there we got to meet the ERC members, and that was fascinating.
We met one minister, who was keenly aware of his constituents. He
spends hours every wednesday night meeting with individual district
members, peddling favors much as American Congressmen do. Every
weekend, he goes door to door to houses checking to see how they are
What you hear over and over again is the line "they're politicans"
which is amusing because they are so different in that the elections
are all for the most part uncontested. The Singaporean politicans were
keenly aware that they are responsible to the people, perhaps because
they need to fend off coup, but partly perhaps out of some genuine
During dinner, the senior ministers rotated among the tables and we
got to spend time eating and talking with each one. The DPM was very
clintonesque, elder statement, sharp as a tack, always smiling, trying
to become your friends. The Minister of Education and I got into a
debate about race. Race is still a touchy issue, and though the
population is 75% Chinese, almost all the Singaporeans there were
Chinese, and all the ERC members were male. Admittedly they do
everythign possible to level the playing field, but they draw the line
extremely firmly when anything smells of affirmative action. The idea
repulses them. Though in the end, this fits somewhat in their
I am a bit out of steam now, but there were many interesting ideas
that came up about how the government legislates and imposes language
on the people, both English and mandarin Chinese, and thus culture.
Ideas on how they always survived because they always had the 1st
world to copy, but now it's not so easy, now they have a GDP per
capita surpassing France. That the definition of a democracy is when
the ruling party can peacefully step down, something that is far from
happening. Anyway, I think I have said enough.
Oh, the evening ended with the US people sitting around on the
roofdeck, around midnight, the heat somewaht abated, all of us
exhausted, sitting around and reflecting. I was genuinely appreciative
of the camraderie that developed, and how I was accepted among the
Singaporeans. It was all in all a nice trip.