Park Geun-hye and Lee Kuan Yew, Seoul 1979

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore, passed away at age 91. President Park attended his funeral on the 29th, a meaningful gesture suggesting that she too upholds the special connection between late Mr. Lee and her father Park Chung Hee, the two hallmark leaders of Asia during its rigorous developmental phase. (The Korean president by contrast skipped the funerals of Nelson Mandela and Saudi King earlier this year.)

It is no wonder that the so-called ‘Singapore model’ of economy reemerges on discussions in Korea upon Lee’s death. The two countries, despite their obvious structural and size differences, share a mirrored success story featuring authoritarian figure(s) who transformed former Third World colonial territories into one of the richest, cutting-edge nations in the world.

But to the 21st century citizens of Korea and Singapore, the legacies of such similar history vary.

For 30 years since the fall of military government, Korea has maintained a tradition of successful alternation of ruling parties, which was unseen in the Southeast Asian de facto one-party city state; the press and labor unions are active and assertive in Korea, while those of Singapore’s still remain tightly controlled. Lee unequivocally prioritized economic development over other values such as democracy and human rights, while late former president of Korea Kim Dae Jung, another contemporary of Lee, directly rebutted Lee’s approach in his famous article to Foreign Affairs.

The controversy of Singapore model does not merely remain in the political discourse, however. The slick wonders of Singaporean economy is also questioned when its income inequality(GINI index) places 32nd among 141 countries, according to the CIA’s statistics. A criticism that the prime minister’s family monopolizes wealth has been around for many years. What comes in more shock is the issue of poverty: according to a source, about 26% of Singapore’s population lives below poverty line, a surprising number for a country of per capita GDP reaching $US 52 thousands.

Not all Singaporeans are richㅡmore than obviously

These numbers inevitably call for a careful scrutiny into the validity of Singapore modelㅡgarlanded with all those neoliberal praises for being the world’s most free economy along with Hong Kong, financial hub of Asia, etc.ㅡin the angle of true welfare for the people.

When public policy is discussed, not only specific policy skills but underlying values and ideology are brought under spotlight as well. Regardless of how frugal and admirable late Mr. Lee personally was, the belief of those who fervently support the Singapore model goes in parallel with the mammonist zeitgeist: that money, sluicing through giant casinos for rich foreigners and Marina Bay Sands-style shopping complexes, shall trickle down to save us all.

Provision of health care is one pivotal area to examine in this discussion, for health services are directly linked to the very lives of a nation’s people. Singapore’s unique Medical Savings Account(MSA) can be defined as compulsory savings out of everyone’s income into a private Medisave account, from which one pays his/her own medical bills. When the balance reaches $34,100, excess funds are free to spend for non-health related purposes. Of course, the government still plays some role. Progressive rates of of savings apply for different age groups and job status; and though Medisave accounts are private or family held, 80% of all hospitals in Singapore is run publicly.

Nonetheless, the core value beneath this system strongly emphasizes individual responsibility over social responsibility and solidarity, as the Korean and Japanese national health insurances do. The problems are obvious: what if you or your family members are not employed? what about the diseases and illnesses whose market price of operations and long-term treatments are simply not affordable by your earnings? where is the safety net?

The second area to look at is the health service industry and for-profit hospitals. For those who remember, Raffles Hospital received hot media attention in 2003 thanks to the Korean conjoined twins who had a successful separation surgery there. The incident soon turned into a catalyst for an endless wave of press coverage, reports, and even exchange programs to learn the magic of Singaporean medical services. The subheading of Chosun Ilbo’s feature article which joined this party line reads:  “The leadership behind the building of medical power” One might as well describe it as late Mr. Lee inadvertently dictating South Korea’s vision of health industry.

the Platonic philosophy behind ‘Singapore model’ is questionable in this post-2008 era

Unlike the idea of enlarging private responsibility in health share, which was against the general Korean sentiment, for-profit hospitals have been perceived with positive vibe thus far, especially in the light of globalization, liberalization, and emergence of health tourism in the 2000s. If you ask me what effects these policies eventually had over the welfare of Singapore’s citizens, I honestly do not know very well. After all, Singapore is often labelled a “clean as Disneyland” republic. Self-reflections and evaluations are hard to be found. Those who know enough tell me that such establishment-challenging analysis and studies are pretty much withheld in a controlled society like Singapore.

What I care to tackle is the legacy of Singapore model here in Korea. An alarming trend of worshiping glitzy Singaporean skyline and service industry-oriented structure is sweeping across the nationㅡthe Platonic philosophy behind which is questionable in this post-2008 era. How fair and sustainable is this model? Would sagacious Lee Kuan Yew have sincerely recommended it to Park for the prosperity and good of Korean people, had he been alive? We will never know.  Read this article in Korean

The People’s Health Institute

The People’s Health Institute

PHI is a progressive non-profit research institute in Korea based on the initiatives of activists, researchers, and leaders of civic organizations. PHI supports people’s decision-making from the perspectives of equitable health and social justice.