Subba’s Serendipitous moments

May 24, 2009

Singapore and Israel — a study of contrasts

I had a chance meeting with a NUS don and we ended up discussing my post on whether East Asia can produce a Susan Boyle. While remaining neutral about the arguments that I put forth, he mentioned the reason about Singapore being “small”.

I have heard the argument of Singapore being “small” ad nauseam. Singapore uses that as a convenient excuse whenever there’s a short coming or if they have to justify any hard measure to contain order. They also use it to explain away many of the things where they have come short. But, if you turn around and ask them how Singapore achieved some wonderful things in specific areas despite its small size, the discussion has veered off into a different direction.

Size and stability may be good, but lack of size and stability is not a deterrent to be successful. This reminds me of the famous lines in the old classic The Third Man: ” For 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

To serious skeptics, I usually cite Israel (population of 7.2 million) as an example.

Israel since its independence in 1948 has fought a several wars with its neighbors. It is always in a state of military preparedness. Yet it ranks highest in terms of human development, freedom of the press and economic competitiveness amongst Middle East countries. It is a parliamentary democracy and the average span of Israeli government of 22 months. The governments have often changed for a number of reasons — political scandals, peace process with their neighbors and the role of religion. It has the highest level of civil and human rights comparable to any Western world democracy and the freedom of press has been ranked highest amongst the Southwest regions.

Economically it is rated 3rd in the World Economic Forum’s Global competitiveness report. It has the 2nd largest number of startups after the US and the most number of companies listed in NASDAQ. Many of the large technology vendors like IBM, Microsoft, Cisco have advanced development centers in Israel.

Contrary to the Singaporean thinking, the Israelis have used the small size of Israel as an advantage. A Israeli start up knows that is home market is limited and hence function as a “mini-multinational” from day one. A surprising thing among Israelis is that they are never scared of failure and if 5% of the start ups in US are headed by repeat entrepreneurs, in Israel the ratio is well over around 30%.

Now coming to creative arts, Israel music has influences from all over the world. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has been operating for over 70 years and performs over 200 concerts each year. It also has a vibrant theatre scene.

How does one explain these successes in so many diverse fields despite its size and lack of peace? My view is their ability to be an inclusive society and they valuing diversity. All Jews irrespective of their lineage are welcome and they constitute 75% of the population. Muslims are the largest minority and it equally welcomes Christians.

The difference between Singapore and Israel was neatly summed up by Guy Kawasaki in one of his recent visits to Singapore. He called Singapore an one-opinion town. His precise words were: Israel has 5 million people, six million entrepreneurs, and fifteen million opinions. Singapore has 5 million people, six entrepreneurs and one opinion. Yesterday Lydia Lim a political correspondent from Straits Times referred to this difference, but only to defend Singapore and make a statement that Singapore has more than one opinion.

Her effort was painstaking, but what she ended up doing was only to reinforce the Singapore’s stability mantra which gives the society the order, but fails to deliver the innovation and creativity that Singapore badly needs in these times of global slowdown.



  1. I personally believe the “small-size” and “vulnerability” arguments to be overused/over-emphasised. The resilience and adaptability of people have been discounted far too much. I also tend to believe that the “can-do” entrepreneurial spirit of the forefathers and first immigrants (who came here with only the proverbial shirts on their back) have whittled away and need to be rediscovered! A comparison of the migrant Chinese in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines will prove to be a very illuminating study in contrast.

    Comment by Foong — May 25, 2009 @ 11:06 am | Reply

  2. It also debunks the whole PAP argument about political stability being a core component of economic prosperity.

    Comment by Insane Polygons — May 25, 2009 @ 11:31 am | Reply

  3. Good piece of writing. Shows much thought. I agree absolutely. This whole thing about S’pore being too small is way oversold, and what’s more disconcerting is that the sold-called educated class actually buys it. LKY is fond of pointing to the “smallness” of S’pore as all the reasons why this that or the other cannot be done or is not allowed. This Don is repeating the same. They all rely on statistics without actually even thinking about it. The Don has forgotten how to think, and the old man is only functioing on instinct honed over the tumultous years. We are all being held back because someone couldn’t let go and is still having recurrent nightmares in his sleep.

    Comment by PJ — May 25, 2009 @ 11:30 pm | Reply

  4. Yes yes YES.

    Comment by Zern — May 26, 2009 @ 2:03 am | Reply

  5. And an MP has the cheek to say Singapore is mollycoddled, when the Powers dare not even let a single whimper of difference be whispered.

    It is most ironic that the one with the most power needs the most cushioning against any falls. And the little men gets blame for it.

    Comment by Rational — May 26, 2009 @ 12:27 pm | Reply

  6. while i don’t disagree that claims about singapore’s size being a disadvantage are sometimes overhyped and over-repeated, we cannot fail to ignore 2 significant factors that differentiate Singapore from Israel, altering the context of the discussion.

    1) Israel is a MASSIVE recipient of aid from the Western world, especially from the US. While it may strictly be military aid, one cent less spent on defenceis one cent more to be spent on economic, social and legal infrastructure and development. There is also the significant remittances that come into Israel from the Jewish diaspora, notably in the US. Singapore has never been privy to such copious levels of foreign aid.

    2) A significant proportion of Jews who initially settled in Israel were fleeing persecution and had survived the Holocaust during WWII – statistically, these would probably be a more educated, wealthier and capable population seed for a nation. Many of the most talented and riches Jews fled Europe in WWII, and settled in Israel instead of returning home at the end of the war. I’m pretty sure a comparison between the wealth/education/talent of the citizens of Israel in 1946 and Singapore in 1965 would produce a significant disparity.

    Comment by Bigger context — May 26, 2009 @ 3:49 pm | Reply

  7. Bigger,

    This is just plain excuses.

    “we cannot failto ignore 2 significant factors that differentiate Singapore from Israel, altering the context of the discussion”

    “1) Israel is a MASSIVE recipient of aid from the Western world, especially from the US.”

    Noone stop Singapore from receiving help from US as much as Israel only LKY does not like it because he is always thinking that “There is a conspiracy to do us in. Why?… They see us as a threat.”
    Ironically, we are giving help to US that crush our state reserves. Didn’t we deplete our reserves through Temasek, GIC into investing US frailing banks for greed rather than long term (stop kidding us about long term because in greed can one be so irrational and ridiculous in judgement), directly helping the US ?
    Didn’t we use 1/2 of our state reserves and money to help frailing banks from US and Australia (eg ABC learning) etc ?

    “2) A significant proportion of Jews who initially settled in Israel were fleeing persecution and had survived the Holocaust during WWII – statistically, these would probably be a more educated, wealthier and capable population seed for a nation.”

    Another excuse. Why the jew is so attracted to Israel and want to contribute back to the country whereas our talents want to get out of Singapore due to oppressive and tyrannical government ? There must be something to Singapore policies and government that citizen want to get out of.

    If you find the root cause of your reasons perhap u can see the crux of the problem.

    Comment by Anderson — May 27, 2009 @ 1:17 am | Reply

    • you are making comparisons in the context of Israel and Singapore today, when I was placing everything in the context of the initial period of nation building i.e. Singapore in 1959 and Israel in 1948. There is a significant difference between excuses and playing the cards you were dealt in your opening hand.

      1)I’m not even sure what sort of point you’re trying to put across here. Just because our early leaders refused to depend on foreign aid does not contradict the main issue in the end – nation building in Israel was privy to copious amounts of foreign capital and aid given without many strings attached. Singapore not so much. And your point about us ‘investing’ and ‘propping’ up western banks is non sequitur.

      2)Jews fled to Israel in 1948 because a)they’ve never had a homeland since the Roman Empire crushed them in the 1st century AD b)they had just experienced unbridled, full blown anti-semitism embodied in the Holocaust which was aimed at eliminating them entirely as a people c)Israel was their “promised land”, based on a few thousand years of religious tradition that undergrids their entire belief system. If you look at Singapore in 1959, our people (however you define it) never had such significant push and pull factors.

      Once again, i don’t disagree with the crux of the reasoning in this article. However, I believe it is crucial to set up the proper preamble and historical context before you build up a substantial, effective argument.

      Comment by Bigger context — June 1, 2009 @ 11:12 am | Reply

  8. As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth. Perhaps that’s the problem with Israel? Despite having so many entrepreneurs and opinions, Israel’s GDP (PPP)per capita is nowhere near Singapore’s. How’s that so?

    Even if Singapore indeed has only one opinion, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It could well mean that Singaporeans are united in the way they see things. That is, in a pragmatic way.

    Comment by chili — May 27, 2009 @ 6:16 am | Reply

  9. “Despite having so many entrepreneurs and opinions, Israel’s GDP (PPP)per capita is nowhere near Singapore’s.”

    Another nonsense. Why talk about GDP when Israel is always on the state of alert, bombing ,terror activity ? If Singapore can have terror activity and yet so entrepreneurial and creativity then you can start talking about GDP comparison. If you can’t find a better comparison other than GDP, just don’t bother to compare in case you embarrass yourself.

    Comment by Anderson — May 27, 2009 @ 6:28 am | Reply

  10. The point here is that there is more than one viable model for a small country, namely Israel and Singapore. And there are other examples too, eg Denmark, Norway, New Zealand, Uruguay, etc

    And Israel is certainly in a more precarious neighbourhood than us, and yet its politics are as contentious, unstable, multi-partied and, if you like, chaotic, as any genuine democracy. And yet despite this, and their constant wars, their GDP ranking is not too far away from Singapore’s (Go wiki the figures).

    Immediately the question is, if truly vulnerable Israel can not only survived but thrived in such a hostile environment, surely we need not be so anal retentive and insistent about curtailed political freedoms and the necessity for dictatorship, or that Singapore will collapse in chaos if it is other than PAP in power. I think the reality and evidence in Israel, and elsewhere, have shown that this may not be the case. On the other hand PAP’s constant assertion of Singapore’s imminent collapse is but a thesis, and just blatant political marketing.

    But if there is a difference between Singapore and Israel, is that the latter is homogeneous.

    They are certainly one people, one culture, with some very small Arab minority, and although strictly they are not of one religion, the Jews are nonetheless of the belief they are one people, ordained by God or not, and differentiated from anyone else in the world. The other examples of small countries are also relatively homogeneous, eg Finland, and even Ireland.

    We are however multi racial and multi religious, with real cracks even today, and we do not really have a common mother tongue. Although we use English as a common language, I realised often that people do not speak what they mean, and vice versa, intentional or not.

    There is really no national psyche or sense of being one people, the songs we sing notwithstanding. For you cannot educate these kinds of things. There is need for shared experience. The Japanese occupation is rather alien to most Singaporeans, and foreign immigrants. The latter can only mean a less cohesive and less homogeneous country in the future. We are not like the USA, which is also an artificial country, but has had its definitive historical experiences to become a true nation.

    Singapore have been too protective of itself – understandably so for the founding father – for the people to really experience any birth pangs to become a true nation, and to arrive at a true identity, ie not something politically imposed or “educated” (or indoctrinated) but a genuine, perhaps spontaneous, chemistry, of all our aspirations, values, beliefs, differences, to create a unique voice and song, that will sear and leave an indelible mark on our psyche for all generations to come. (The AWARE saga is a possible glimpse of how this could be, but obviously the PAP is not too enthusiastic about it.)

    And birth pangs sometimes can and even need be an explosive process, a baptism of fire, and if Singapore is so cushioned to become inert, then we can never become truly Singapore. Also there is the constant seduction of money, ie the argument, why upset things when you are or can be making money. Singapore is thus castrated and prostituted too.

    Comment by David — May 27, 2009 @ 8:28 am | Reply

  11. Well, perhaps if not for too many opinions, Israel could have done even better??

    Comment by chili — May 27, 2009 @ 9:15 am | Reply

    • That’s a moot question, even as the question, perhaps for MORE opinions Israel could have done even “better”?

      Comment by Believer — May 27, 2009 @ 10:10 am | Reply

  12. Likewise, it’s also moot to say that Singapore would necessarily be better off with more opinions.

    Comment by chili — May 27, 2009 @ 11:37 am | Reply

    • Just compare then the achievements, or lack thereof, as they are, eg name me one Singaporean Noble laureate or even a Susan Boyle? And “better” is certainly not solely, or even, in terms of money. The relevant question is, do we want more of this sterile, kaisu sameness, or do we think there is something beyond which the present arrangements are limited, and for which the time has come to go where we have never gone before – possibly chaotic, painful and definitely uncertain, but so be it. Just the fact that we dare and are bold enough to go and be somewhere else, and come out of our comfortable and safe cocoon, will I think be already better than what is today.

      Comment by Believer — May 27, 2009 @ 11:52 am | Reply

  13. I’m sure when things get chaotic, you’ll be the first to flee.

    If I had to choose, give me peace and harmony anytime. These are ‘achievements’ that are the envy of many.

    Comment by chili — May 28, 2009 @ 5:38 am | Reply

  14. OHH Some very interesting and insightful thoughts. I like this.

    Comment by asia trading — June 4, 2009 @ 10:50 pm | Reply

  15. A big difference between Israel and Singapore (and worthy of mention) is that Israel has a over 5000 years of history. It has roots that are deep seated, unlike Singapore. That explains why the Jews (who by the way had far more success in all areas and especially in businesses)from all over the world (whether dispersed / exiled due to political or racial factors) sent tons of financial support back to Israel to build it up. Years of oppression and anti-Jew movements has actually failed weaken them, it has done the reverse. They are a people, though dispersed, they are a people with deep, strong cultural roots. Singapore does not, we are just 40 years old. We are actually just experimenting, thus far, our experiment has shown calculable, visible results. We are not sure what the slightly more liberal new generation of leaders will lead Singapore to, but I believe just for the visible results we have a achieved thus far, the government do deserve a pat on its back.

    Israel is further strengthened by one belief. Though they may be multi-cultured, they have one belief. They believe in one God. They all keep the Sabbath, or don’t they? Let’s not ignore that fact. It means a great deal to its development as a people. It may have fifteen million opinions, it has just one belief. That is sufficient to unite them, in fact, if they continue to have that, it will continue to be a strong, unbreakable bond. Generally speaking, deep in their hearts they (tho I can’t say all of them)know the existence of an all-knowing God and have a reverence towards Him. Their belief is deep-seated and unites them in ways that cannot be easily broken. They have one interest that has higher priority over their personal interests. That is why they send back billions of dollars (not the Americans, but the Jews themselves) to rebuild their country. How many of us Singaporeans will do that? Why? Precisely, Singapore do not have that root yet to back up a belief that Israel has – we are indeed a young country. And being small at the same time, we really cannot afford certain risks.

    Comment by Ah Beng — June 6, 2009 @ 9:57 am | Reply

  16. Agreed. To add another point… The true test of a country’s “character” is when the going gets tough, not when everything is painted rosy and nice : )

    Comment by Dave Wang — June 6, 2009 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

  17. the critique of lydia shows to what point most gov officials are completely indoctrinated and frankly dumb. might be a lack of protein intake could explain difference between most economies where people innovate and singapore a land so devoid of innovation, culture and curiosity.
    Looking at the number of idiots with no brains working in the cbd thinking that they are smart because they buy low and sell high is pathetic. most of them would not even find a job anywhere. everyone is a manager of some dreary admin process and all they can say is “no we cannot do this” when third parties come up with solutions. typical kia tsu mentality of not loosing face.
    lack of critical thinking is the main cause why singapore is actually a third world country operating with 1st world infrastructure.

    Comment by nori — June 16, 2009 @ 10:02 pm | Reply

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