“Talent is a country’s most precious asset. For a small resource-poor country like Singapore, with 2 million people at independence in 1965, it is the defining factor.”
– Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First

I have been traveling in Asia in December 2023 and pondered the utility of traveling. One part of traveling I enjoyed is that I get to experience a place that I have read about before and can make contact with reality and close inferences gaps between what I’ve read and the world as it is. This is an important skill for professional life as well and I find it a lot of fun.


I read Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography From Third World to First in November 2023. What was striking was his pragmatism and his clarity of thought. He outlines from first principles his motivations for making certain policy choices, ranging from ideological choices like prioritizing economic activity with the Western world early on to technocratic choices in infrastructure. 

Lee Kuan Yew views Singapore’s exceptional infrastructure as a necessity, as he sees Singapore faced with a constant existential threat.

Lee Kuan Yew demonstrates that having views on political questions is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a great statesman. Being a great statesman means getting things done and he understands this. He believes that attracting and selecting great talent for the government is among his top priorities and outlines how he chose specific individuals and convinced them to join him for crucial positions. He also understands that he has to actively take care of the most important agenda item and shows that he is willing and effective at getting in the weeds for this to ensure it is done well.

Sidenote: I am confused why many of my Western friends and colleagues have not read Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography. Lee Kuan Yew seems to be quite well-known in Silicon Valley, but even there the familiarity with his book does not strike me as being exceptionally high.

That is not to say I agree with all of Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking. For instance, he writes extensively about the need to use policy and social levers to drive education-based assortative mating for highly educated women. A key motivation is increasing human capital levels. Similarly, he asserts his view that freedom of press had to be restricted in the early days of building Singapore. Key motivations were fighting communist forces and building a coherent national state. 

As a classical liberal, the means of these measures seem too authoritarian.

Traveling to Singapore

Reading From Third World to First World set high expectations for Singapore being a well-run city. These expectations were broadly met. However, I expected Singapore to be less clean and did not expect to see that many nudges about Singapore’s harsh punishments.

Originally, I wanted to discriminate a la Tyler Cowen between what I under- and what I overestimated. However, I realized that I underestimated most aspects of Singapore. The only thing I strongly overrated was the penetration rate of digital technology: I was surprised at how often I had to use cash to pay for food. These places were predominantly Hawker stores run by the elderly, so the most plausible explanation is that the owners were not willing to adopt this technology. But Singapore was closer to Germany’s notoriously low levels of card payment adoption, which was surprising.

With that out of the way, here are things I underestimated about Singapore. I was mildly surprised by the extent to which the Singaporean government uses social mechanism design. Coming from Germany, I am used to a government that provides public goods, regulates, and redistributes wealth to help citizens meet the bare minimum of moral subsistence. Conversely, the Singaporean government feels like it is constantly nudging its citizens to be more “prosocial”1 – either by punishing antisocial behavior (sticks) or by encouraging prosocial behavior stronger (carrot).

Stick: The Justice System

In contrast with Western policing, the justice system feels like an utilitarian dream in punishing antisocial behavior. Given that one can never prosecute every single crime, the approach of classical criminology is to increase the punishment (‘costs’) for misconduct to an amount where every person that is caught ‘pays the price’ as a signal for all the people that were not caught. If you assume that crime is an act of free-will, hard punishment would make a rational actor less likely to commit crimes.

The power of these nudges is their subtlety and aptness. Whenever I felt that someone could have a desire to commit a crime, there was almost always a sign nearby reminding me of the fines associated with the act of committing this crime.

For instance, I went to a busy mall of hawker stores with little security personnel and no (visible) video surveillance. There was a cardboard cutout of a police person with a sign that said “EYE AM WATCHING YOU – Punishment for Shoptheft: Imprisonment of up to 7 Years and/or with fine.”

Compare this to San Francisco, San Francisco has chosen defeatism, where the public is punished by bearing the costs of crime and constant threat of violence. For instance, pharmacies have to lock items behind doors and many shops have to hire private security services to prevent shop theft – and even then I have seen it happen right in front of me.

Personally, I do not like the fact that deterrence is so effective in controlling human behavior because I want to have a less Hobbesian-, and a more Rousseauian view of human nature. Unfortunately, I cannot deny that deterrence seems to work in Singapore which implies that incentives matter more than I anticipated before.

Carrot: Prosocial Nudging 

It feels like the government is trying to be the counterweight to instant gratification and social media algorithmically formed preferences – e.g. vapid consumerism. For instance, I found only a few commercial ads in public places like train stations or on walks. The few ads that I did see were designed by the Singaporean government and were recruiting police officers, nudging citizens towards saving for their retirement funds, or framing not taking a car as “the classy way to get around.”

At food markets, the trays have signs saying “Every dinner deserves a clean table.” There are facilities that are designed to be as convenient as possible, so people are more likely to use them. It also seems like the norm at these places is to ensure that they stay clean.

Public Goods are Well Managed

The combinational efforts of the criminal justice system as a stick and prosocial nudges as a carrot make managing public goods much easier, as they provide the preconditions of social order and safety necessary for public goods. Where San Francisco struggles to keep grocery stores, Singapore is willing to ban bubblegum to safeguard its train systems. These restrictive laws feel as if they do not aim merely to constrict the individual but to serve the collective and preserve public goods.

When I went past a construction site, the sign said: “Works in progress – Sorry for any inconvenience caused.” In all other countries I had been to before, I have never seen an apology for inconveniences caused to me. If anything, I felt like I was expected to be thankful that the government was building something. Although this is a minor difference, I do think it exemplifies a service-based approach to governance. At train stations and public places, you find signs with a phone number to call if there are any issues and an identification number to make coordination easier. I have not called the number, but based on how well maintained the footbridge was I assume that it would work very well.

In general, Singapore seems to be highly accessible and much easier to navigate than most places. For instance, there are clear indicators in trains that signal that doors open on the side I am looking at, whereas in Germany train announcements say “doors open on the left-hand side.”

Speaking of trains, transportation in Singapore is on-time and one can reach most places in Singapore reasonably fast by train. There is a government cap on cars and the licenses to own a car are expensive which permanently reduces car traffic to a sustainable amount. The last strike for public transport in Singapore was 2012, the last strike in Germany is right now.

Singaporean City Design

Singaporean City Design is also unusually effective. For instance, while navigating to a restaurant I realized I had to cross a busy street. Shortly after, an overhead pedestrian bridge emerged in my field of vision and I could safely cross with minimal additional effort.

It was striking how well-planned Singapore is. Walking through the city, I said “This just makes sense” about various elements of urban design at least ten times. The streets are straight and wide, there are very few flashing lights in public places, there was surprisingly little police or ambulance, and the noise levels were rather low for a city of Singapore’s size. The noise that remains  is absorbed through the greenery.

The form of the City’s design follows function, while also being designed well. For instance, the train stations have red platform markings to indicate where people are leaving the train and where travelers should wait. This level of design competency is antithetical to the haphazard BART system in the Bay Area or the labor union-captured Deutsche Bahn.

The level of expertise and competence in the government that is necessary to execute urban planning  at such an excellent quality level is higher than the West where government jobs are often underpaid and low status – taking the second string of the private sector. My friends in venture capital and the startup world tell me that Singapore is the only place in the world where their startups and the private sector broadly have to compete with the government for talent.

Changi Airport is the best airport in the world. The Botanical Gardens are just beautiful. The housing market is functional and young people can still afford to buy a house because of the public housing program, implemented by the Housing and Development Board. And so on, so forth.

And I think that is what makes Singapore work: Institutions work and people in turn develop trust in these institutions which makes the institutions work even better. Government at its best is a flywheel.


Speaking to some of my friends in Singapore, it feels like these observations are correct on an object-level but not capturing the true experience of being a Singaporean citizen. I am aware that what I liked as a visitor is built off the narrowing of life choices for my Singaporean friends – built off bureaucrats who are bonded after an Ivy League or Oxbridge education and every man doing national service. The social cohesion, cleanliness, and discipline are creature comforts as a visitor.

When Lee Kuan Yew assumed office, he found a country that was too poor to join Malaysia and later at risk of being annexed by it. Now, Singapore is flourishing economically and serves as an example for what great governance can look like. The Western World can learn good governance from Singapore without needing to be more authoritarian. One can disagree with Singapore’s values but one cannot disagree with the effectiveness of its governance.

Even if you think Singapore is too authoritarian or too socialist, it is easier to liberalize a flourishing country, than it is to exit the San Francisco doom loop.

Running an airport well is not a political question. It should be a non-negotiable requirement for a functioning government.

Thanks to Zi C. (Sam) Huang for helpful contributions and editing.

  1. As an authoritarian democracy, the Singaporean government sets a specific set of norms and policy choices that are considered to be prosocial. However, these might diverge from individual preferences for prosociality. 

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