New York Times
September 14, 2005
There is something troublingly self-indulgent and slothful about America today - something that Katrina highlighted and that people who live in countries where the laws of gravity still apply really noticed. It has rattled them - like watching a parent melt down.
That is certainly the sense I got after observing the Katrina debacle from half a world away here in Singapore - a city-state that, if it believes in anything, believes in good governance. It may roll up the sidewalks pretty early here, and it may even fine you if you spit out your gum, but if you had to choose anywhere in Asia you would want to be caught in a typhoon, it would be Singapore. Trust me, the head of Civil Defense here is not simply someone's college roommate.
Indeed, Singapore believes so strongly that you have to get the best-qualified and least-corruptible people you can into senior positions in the government, judiciary and civil service that its pays its prime minister a salary of $1.1 million a year. It pays its cabinet ministers and Supreme Court justices just under $1 million a year, and pays judges and senior civil servants handsomely down the line.
From Singapore's early years, good governance mattered because the ruling party was in a struggle for the people's hearts and minds with the Communists, who were perceived to be both noncorrupt and caring - so the state had to be the same and more.
Even after the Communists faded, Singapore maintained a tradition of good governance because as a country of only four million people with no natural resources, it had to live by its wits. It needed to run its economy and schools in a way that would extract the maximum from each citizen, which is how four million people built reserves of $100 billion.
"In the areas that are critical to our survival, like Defense, Finance and the Ministry of Home Affairs, we look for the best talent," said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy. "You lose New Orleans, and you have 100 other cities just like it. But we're a city-state. We lose Singapore and there is nothing else. ... [So] the standards of discipline are very high. There is a very high degree of accountability in Singapore."
When a subway tunnel under construction collapsed here in April 2004 and four workers were killed, a government inquiry concluded that top executives of the contracting company should be either fined or jailed.
The discipline that the cold war imposed on America, by contrast, seems to have faded. Last year, we cut the National Science Foundation budget, while indulging absurd creationist theories in our schools and passing pork-laden energy and transportation bills in the middle of an energy crisis.
We let the families of the victims of 9/11 redesign our intelligence organizations, and our president and Congress held a midnight session about the health care of one woman, Terri Schiavo, while ignoring the health crisis of 40 million uninsured. Our economy seems to be fueled lately by either suing each other or selling each other houses. Our government launched a war in Iraq without any real plan for the morning after, and it cut taxes in the middle of that war, ensuring that future generations would get the bill.
Speaking of Katrina, Sumiko Tan, a columnist for the Sunday edition of The Straits Times in Singapore, wrote: "We were shocked at what we saw. Death and destruction from natural disaster is par for the course. But the pictures of dead people left uncollected on the streets, armed looters ransacking shops, survivors desperate to be rescued, racial divisions - these were truly out of sync with what we'd imagined the land of the free to be, even if we had encountered homelessness and violence on visits there. ... If America becomes so unglued when bad things happen in its own backyard, how can it fulfill its role as leader of the world?"
Janadas Devan, a Straits Times columnist, tried to explain to his Asian readers how the U.S. is changing. "Today's conservatives," he wrote, "differ in one crucial aspect from yesterday's conservatives: the latter believed in small government, but believed, too, that a country ought to pay for all the government that it needed.
"The former believe in no government, and therefore conclude that there is no need for a country to pay for even the government that it does have. ... [But] it is not only government that doesn't show up when government is starved of resources and leached of all its meaning. Community doesn't show up either, sacrifice doesn't show up, pulling together doesn't show up, 'we're all in this together' doesn't show up."