Debate over economist's call for US to learn from Singapore

SINGAPORE - An op-ed in the New York Times by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has triggered fierce debate over whether the US can learn anything at all from Singapore in the way it handles a widening income gap.

Stiglitz's answer to that question had been an emphatic "yes" and he outlined the reasons why in a commentary titled "Singapore's Lessons for an Unequal America".

Like the US, Singapore has among the most unequal Gini coefficient scores in the developed world. The difference Stiglitz highlights, however, lies in the problem in being tackled.

He picks out four aspects of the Singaporeans model that he says are "more applicable to the United States than a sceptical American observer might imagine".

The first is an emphasis on being self-sufficient and he says that the CPF scheme has helped around 90 per cent of Singaporeans own homes.

Second is the use of progressive Government programmes.

"While everyone contributed, those who were well off contributed more to help those at the bottom, to make sure that everyone could live a decent life, as defined by what Singaporean society, at each stage of its development, could afford," wrote Stiglitz.

The shift towards increasing progressivity had been a key thrust of the recently passed Budget 2013.

Third, said Stiglitz, was the move by the Government to redistribute pre-tax income and weigh in on barganing between firms and workers though its tripartite framework.

Finally, he pointed to heavy investment in education.

The op-ed triggered a wave of comments - some 230 within a day - debating the relative merits of Singapore's system.

Some accuse Stiglitz of either being selective about what he chose to highlight or sugar-coating the real situation on the ground. Others took exception to the fact that he chose lift up Singapore as a an example for the US, even given the island's tighter reins on political and civil liberties.

There were those, too, who came to Singapore's defence, making the point that Stiglitz is simply picking out things that he thought Singapore did well and was in no way suggesting a wholesale copy.

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