Was Singapore’s growth really exceptional?

The success of the Asian Tiger economies has always posed an interesting question for African economic policy: if these post-colonial countries could grow so rapidly, why haven’t most others?  Strong authoritarian leadership and favorable geography are generally thought to explain some of the difference, but the rest is usually attributed to poor industrial policy on the part of African leaders.

Since the death of Lee Kuan Yew earlier this week, I’ve seen a number of articles questioning this narrative of Singapore’s exceptional growth.  Kevin Lees notes that Lee’s own policy ideas weren’t always very good – the disasterous federation with Malaya being prime among them – and that he was supported by capable finance ministers who might have achieved good outcomes even under a different leader.  More importantly, however, both Singapore and Hong Kong benefited greatly as destinations for overseas investment from China.  As Lees writes, “The obvious inference is that, though British colonial rule of Hong Kong through 1997 may not have been democratic, liberal freedoms didn’t especially hinder the same kind of economic ‘miracle’ there.”

Tom Pepinsky points out that Singapore’s per capita GDP was already fairly high at independence.  In his words,

Already by the 1970s, Singaporean GDP per capita actually exceeded that of the UK. But the main point to take away … is that Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time. That Singapore has progressed tremendously since independence is true, but not a story of turning the “Third World” into the first. If anything, it is a story of how to escape the middle income trap.

In another post, Tom shared a video that makes a similar point: the Singapore of 1957 looked more similar to the Singapore of today than one might have expected.

While not directly related to economic growth, I also found Emmanuel Yujuico’s post on the establishment of the Singaporean military fascinating.  Lacking the domestic capability to build a strong army quickly, Lee solicited help from Israel, and the strong military relationship between the two countries persists to this day.

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