It’s fashionable to consider “overpopulation” as a blight on a nation’s economic prospects. Ever since Malthus, elites have soberly warned us that too many people on too little land guarantees hunger and poverty.
The recent death of Lee Kuan Yew is a fitting occasion to point out how mistaken the Malthusians are.
Start with too little land.
Yew was prime minister of a nation just 25 miles long with virtually no natural resources. In fact this country has to import water and dirt! It buys water from its mainland neighbor, as well as boat loads of landfill to dump along its shoreline to expand its size. Surely here’s a case of “too little land.”
How about too many people?
The 4.4 million people of this nation live on 241 square miles. That’s 18,652 people per square mile. Compare this population density with that of Brazil (62 p/sm), the USA (83 p/sm), or the famously “overpopulated” China (368 p/sm) or India (953 p/sm)!
Too little land, too many people. So, if there’s anything to the Malthusian premise, we should expect to find hunger and poverty in this land.
What if I were to tell you that this country, in 2013, was the third richest in the world based on per capita GDP of $78,762 (in international dollars). For comparison, the USA was number 10 with a per capita GDP of $53,001.
What if I were to tell you that this country was Singapore?
Singapore is considered a modern economic miracle, and the father of this miracle was Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died March 23, 2015. The day after Lee’s death, Ferdinando Giugliano wrote a tribute in The World, the Financial Times’ blog.
When Lee came to power in 1959, Singapore was an impoverished third-world country. Giugliano writes: “[When] Lee first became prime minister in 1959 until he stepped aside in 1990, per capita income in the city-state rose by a factor of 29, jumping from around $435 to more than $12,700 per year. Nearby Malaysia only managed a ten-fold increase, from $230 to around $2400.” (For more, see Giugliano’s article, “Singapore’s economic miracle uncovered.”)
In Dr. Thomas Sowell’s tribute to Lee Kuan Yew, he writes “Today, Singapore has a per capita gross domestic product more than 50 percent higher than that of the United Kingdom and a crime rate a small fraction of that in England. A 2010 study showed more patents and patent applications from the small city-state of Singapore than from Russia. Few places in the world can match Singapore for cleanliness and orderliness.”
Lee was a complex man. He could well be described as a benevolent dictator. Politically, he ruled with an iron fist. And yet he genuinely cared for the citizens of Singapore, perhaps caring more for the interests of the citizens of his nation than he did even for himself.
Lee’s maid of 40 years, Madam Ouyang, witnessed the prime minister at home with his family and his household staff. She said that “Mr. Lee had no airs about him and was friendly and humble to the servants.” “Humble to the servants!” What can this mean? Could a dictator have a servant’s heart?
I was recently in Singapore, and my friend, James, drove me by Prime Minister Lee’s home. James told me that Lee had lived in this modest home for decades and that the furnishings were 40 years old. For the prime minister of such a prosperous country, Lee lived simply. Madam Ouyang described the simplicity of his tastes: his typical breakfast was a glass of Ovaltine, two eggs and two pieces of toast. While he could be described as a powerful leader, he did not accrue the power for himself or to enrich his family.
In 1963, at the time of Singapore’s independence from British colonial rule, corruption was a way of life in Singapore as it was in all of Asia. It is reported that Prime Minister Lee was personally incorruptible. He understood that if Singapore was to develop it needed to stamp out corruption. And the prime minister led the fight. At times he had to arrest friends and members of his own party to show that corruption would not be tolerated.
Singapore is known as the least corrupt country in Asia
Singapore is known as the least corrupt country in Asia. In 1995, when Transparency International published their the first edition of the Corruption Perception Index, Singapore—with New Zealand, Denmark and Norway—was among the least corrupt nations in the world. And that’s in the same neighborhood with China and Indonesia, known as among the most corrupt nations in the world.
Prime Minister Lee’s tough but humble leadership not only succeeded in greatly reducing corruption, it also set Singapore on the path to be one of the most economically prosperous nations in the world. Lee astutely used Singapore’s geographic location and world-class deep-water port to become a hub for trade in Asia. My Singaporean friend, businessman James Teo, insightfully summarized that while Singapore had no resources of her own, she learned how to create wealth out of the Singaporean minds, by managing the vast resources of other nations.
The story of Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew demonstrates that a nation both resource poor and economically poor can be lifted out of material poverty in a generation or two. Consider the potential of a nation like the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa. Here is a nation fabulously rich in natural resources.
Nations that are still mired in poverty can find hope in the miracle of Singapore. This model shows how a nation can move from economic rags to riches in a short period of time. It shows that the key resources of a nation are not “in the ground” but in the minds of her people. It is human creativity and ingenuity that is the true source of flourishing. And it shows the importance of overthrowing the culture of corruption that is so often prevalent in impoverished nations.
So we want to pay tribute to the man who led Singapore from poverty to riches, from impotence to influence.
– Darrow Miller
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