Britain has a lot to learn from Singapore’s astounding economic success


Dr Cheang points out that public spending in Singapore is less than 20% of GDP. In contrast, the ratio frequently exceeds 40% in OECD countries. It will be over 45% in the UK this year. According to Dr Cheang, the Singapore government spends £ 3,500 per person per year less than the UK government on social spending, but performs better. Singapore truly has one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Lower public spending allows taxes to be much lower.

Singapore’s approach to health care is striking. When she became independent, she inherited the British, i.e. the NHS, approach to healthcare. This model has been consciously dismissed by Singapore leader Lee Kwan Yew as inherently wasteful. Instead, in the Singapore model, although the state provides a framework for health care and ensures that the poorest people are properly cared for, the system relies on individual contributions and compulsory membership in a state-funded fund that provides money for health care, unemployment benefits, education and pensions. Singaporeans who want to access health services, including seeing a GP, have to pay something for the costs.

The education system has also been a resounding success, with very high levels of success. Again, this is a mix of individual payment and competition with effective state involvement and the provision of state funds to finance the education of disadvantaged children.

What I find most remarkable about this whole story is the apparent lack of interest of the British establishment in the success of this extraordinary little country. The “blob” systematically assumes that if we don’t know better in this country, at least the apparent lessons from abroad don’t apply to us because our circumstances are so different. In the case of Singapore, they can argue that its population, at less than 6m, is less than 10% that of Great Britain and covers an area less than double the size of the Isle of Wight. But these are excuses for inaction rather than points that substantially explain Britain’s relative shortfall.

When it comes to healthcare, anyone who has the temerity to suggest that our NHS is not the envy of the world is immediately lambasted by the accusation of wanting to turn our system into something like the American one. The unspoken assumption is that this is the only alternative model and that no one in their right mind would want our health care system to turn out like that of the United States. However, there are many other options, including the Singaporean model. The health systems of many continental countries also compare very favorably to ours, and they tend to use a mixture of insurance, public benefits and co-payment.

For me, however, what is really striking about Singapore’s success is its sheer scale. Everything from healthcare and social services to education, traffic management, industrial policy and pension provision has been intelligently structured (as you can see in the table below).


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