The Heritage Foundation has just released its latest index of economic freedom around the world and has Singapore in a solid and rising second place behind Hong Kong. Fifth in real per capita income behind Qatar, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Bermuda (CIA World Factbook data), Singapore is much praised by many as a "well-manicured" place with low corruption and transparent laws, although with considerable political autocracy based on the long-running rule in the country by Lee Kuan Yew and his son, the current prime minister (the father is Minister Mentor).
Despite this general perception of super laissez-faire-dom, Wikipedia labels it as I did in the title of this post. It is a curious mixture of socialism and state planning with innovative free market approaches. 60% of the GDP is produced by companies with at least partial state ownership. Nevertheless, one can start a new business in only three days, compared to a global average of 34 days. It is the first country to have congestion pricing (1992), and is now very green with limits on car ownership, given by the Certificates of Entitlement (COEs), or rights to buy a car, which in turn are auctioned off and currently selling for about 70,000 Singaporean dollars (1.3 of them to US $ roughly), or substantially more than most new cars cost. Public transport, infrastructure, and education are excellent and efficiently provided. Most housing is built by the government, with private citizens becoming owners under very strict regulations, including very active intervention in property markets to control speculative bubbles.
I just returned from a conference in this curious place, which has much to please for visitors, including diverse, high quality, and inexpensive food, as well as lively ethnic neighborhoods. However, I became aware of elements of the dark side of Singapore, which it must be said are not as bad in some other autocratic countries. Thus, political dissidents tend to get sued by the ruling family for defamation rather than thrown in prison or tortured. However, caning is widespread for many crimes and rising, doubling between 1993 and 2007. While some of the canable offenses are regular crimes, they also include illegally immigrating and engaging in illegal money lending, with Singapore receiving its lowest freedom ranking for "financial freedom" from Heritage at 60 (out of 100, Singapore's overall score is 87.2).
Unsurprisingly the darker side shows up in labor markets and income inequality. There are no reliable statistics on poverty. While I did see one beggar, they are reportedly picked up off the street and arrested. The latest Gini coefficient is 48, the same as Mexico's. Of 164 countries listed by CIA, only 27 have worse ones, 12 of those in Latin America, 11 in Africa, Bosnia and Herzegovina in Europe, and Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and PNG worse in Asia.
In labor markets there is the largely unreported matter of indentured laborers from other countries (the unemployment rate is very low). I saw some in the backs of trucks, and I was told to avoid certain parts of Little India on Sunday because they congregate there and are reputedly engage in theft on their one day off (although some indentured domestic servants get no time off). A good source on them and their situation from 2006 can be found at http://newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=8a93766ff16fec2a9dfdfc2516f87482. If that does not work, just google, "indentured labor Singapore" and it is (or was) the top hit. Ironically, or perhaps unsurprisingly, Heritage praises Singapore's labor laws, ignoring this indentured labor situation while praising their lack of any restrictions on laying off workers, and giving them a 98.0 on "labor freedom" (just behind their 98.2 for "business freedom,").
So, Singapore is not what it seems in many media accounts, in many ways a progressive and innovative society that is growing rapidly economically, while also experiencing substantial inequality and repression in various forms. It is unsurprising that many commentators have seen the former communist/socialist and now Confucian Lee Kuan Yew's system as a model for the post-Mao Dengist reform movement in China.