Why Singapore Succeeded: Applying the Acemoglu and Robinson-Sachs Debate

Why are some nations rich and some poor? Who are the winners and losers of colonialism and why? These questions have recently gained much attention, not only amongst historians but also economists who are now looking into global history to provide a fuller understanding of why and how had nations developed. One of the most recent works was Why Nations Fail by economist Daron Acemoglu and political economist James Robinson. They hypothesise that the nature of political institutions are the causes of why some countries are rich and some are poor today. Their works raised lively debate and comments, including those made by Jeffrey Sachs who argues that such mono-causal explanation is too simplistic. Both works made references to Singapore as one of the many case examples to illustrate their arguments. How is Singapore’s economic transformation explained in the light of this debate? The small city-state had a history of 145 years of colonial rule under the British and for about three years it was known as Syonan-to or the “Light of the South”, under the Japanese Imperial Empire. Acemoglu and Robinson are pessimistic that former colonies of European empires are ever able to become rich nations. The economic transformation of Singapore, a colony of the British Empire, has proven otherwise.

By the end of the Second World War, the British Empire was effectively gone. At its apogee, it was one of the largest territorial empires the world has ever witnessed and it profoundly shaped the lives of people both in Britain and overseas. The debate as to whether former colonies of Britain – and the other European empires - came out as “winners” or “losers” is still popularly debated. Undoubtedly, some imperial nations were better rulers than others and their colonies performed better after gaining full sovereignty and independence. For the Spaniards, the conquest of the Americas was accomplished with much cruelty and treachery, and all in the name of seeking and controlling the treasures of the lands. For the Portuguese in Asia, fortresses and defensible strongholds such as Goa had to be built in order to control trade, the local merchants and the population at large. As for the Dutch, their rule of the Indonesian archipelago was largely exploitative. Economic historians have also debated much on the impact of “developmental colonialism” in former colonies in the East and Southeast Asia. It is well documented (Myers & Beattie, 1984; Fuess, 1988; Haggard, Kang &  Moon, 1997; Kohli, 2004) that the two former Japanese colonies of South Korea and Taiwan have achieved remarkable economic growth post-1945. In her comparative study of the economic performance of colonies in East Asia and Southeast Asia, Anne Booth concludes that those who argue that “it was post-colonial policies which were crucial in transforming both states [Korea and Taiwan] and in holding back South East Asian countries would still seem to be on stronger ground” (Booth, 2005).

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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