Washington, D.C., is fast becoming an acronym for “Dysfunctional Capital.” Singapore, in contrast, has become the poster child for “the concept of good governance,” to quote the Financial Times’s obituary for the country’s longtime leader, Lee Kuan Yew, who was laid to rest on Sunday. For Americans in particular, this contrast presents a conundrum. On the one hand, Americans hold as a self-evident truth that their democracy is the best form of government. On the other hand, they see mounting evidence daily of Washington’s gridlock, corruption, and theatrical distractions, which makes their system seem incapable of addressing the country’s real challenges.
In assessing the quality of national governance, international rankings often focus on three related baskets of indicators: first, a nation’s level of democracy and civic participation, and the degree to which citizens exercise political rights; second, the effectiveness of its government in facing issues, making policy choices, executing policy, and preventing corruption; and third, its performance in producing the results people want, including rising incomes, health, and safety.
Let’s start with performance, since it is easiest to measure. As a Russian proverb declares, it is better to be healthy, wealthy, and safe than sick, poor, and insecure. Who can disagree? On these criteria, how has Singapore performed over the course of its first five decades versus the United States; or the Philippines (which the U.S. has been tutoring in democracy-building for a century); or Zimbabwe (an African analogue that declared independence from the United Kingdom just a few years after Singapore, and where dictator Robert Mugabe has been as dominant a national force as Lee Kuan Yew has been in Singapore)?