How Singapore stacks up: What do global reports scoring country's performance say

16 Dec 2019

Straits Times, 16 Dec 2019, How Singapore stacks up: What do global reports scoring country's performance say
On average, a new report on how Singapore stacks up against the global competition emerges every other week.
One of the latest, the Human Development Index by the United Nations Development Programme, attempts to determine a country's level of development by indicators such as education and living standards. Singapore was ranked ninth this year.
And on the Global Power City Index by Japanese think-tank Mori Memorial Foundation, which aims to capture a city's "magnetism", Singapore managed to hold on to fifth place - but barely.
Over the course of the year, The Straits Times has published the results of more than 20 such reports.
These score Singapore's performance in areas as broad as innovation, or as specific as the city's readiness for disruption brought about by artificial intelligence.
The Republic tends to do well on indices which measure a country's economic potential, such as innovation, competitiveness, and being a smart city.
In contrast, its performance on indices designed to capture the more intangible, "softer" aspects of life has been somewhat lacklustre. These include happiness, soft power, liveability and quality of life.
But taken as a composite whole, what do these indices say about Singapore as a brand? And how seriously should we take such rankings in the first place?
The overall picture painted by these indices is rosy.
This year, Singapore topped the World Economic Forum's competitiveness ranking of 141 economies. It has placed among the top three for at least eight years.
It also came in among the top 10 in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Safe Cities Index and the Global Innovation Index, which was put together by Insead, Cornell University and the World Intellectual Property Organisation.
But drill down into the details, and persistent weak spots begin to emerge.
For example, both the Global Innovation Index and Global Competitiveness Report marked Singapore down on its environmental policy.
The competitiveness report put Singapore at 62nd place for renewable energy regulation, and 119th when it came to the number of environmental treaties the country has in force.
Meanwhile, Singapore was ranked 45 out of 129 economies for "environmental performance" in the innovation index, with the report's authors noting that this was one of the country's weaknesses.
The environmental performance measure gauged how close countries are to established environmental policy goals by looking at 20 indicators, from environmental public health to ecosystem vitality.
The Republic also consistently lagged behind on measures of freedom, many of which are calculated based on the results of surveys and questionnaires.
For instance, Singapore was ranked 13 out of 126 countries in the World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index. Its score was dragged down in areas such as the civic participation section, where participants were asked how much they agreed with statements like: "In practice, people in Singapore can freely hold public non-violent demonstrations without fear of reprisal."
One generalisation to be drawn from such results could be that Singapore does better on "hard" aspects and less so on "soft" ones, said writer Koh Buck Song, who authored Brand Singapore.
But he also pointed out that on the whole, Singapore tends to rank well among Asian countries. This means that the Singapore brand still emerges well "because investors, tourists and immigrants make comparisons regionally".
"Reputable indices should all be taken seriously," Mr Koh added. "The power they have to shape opinion is undeniable on people without first-hand experience."
No report is perfect. But to be taken seriously, an index must at least have methodology that is sound. A sample that is biased or too small, for example, can cast doubt on the validity of results.
A country's performance on such indices also invariably depends on what questions are asked.
In some cases, reports draw their conclusions based on both hard data and large-scale surveys with thousands of individuals.
Mr Koh noted that such polls are aggregations of people's opinions which are sometimes subjective, and may be uninformed or misinformed. "But, as they say, perception is reality," he said.
His point was echoed by Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, a National University of Singapore sociologist.
He said that whether or not such reports are robust, they do leave an impression on people's minds.
"Impressions are important. And impressions can be thought of as reality, if they resonate with people's prejudices and, in turn, decisions."
In Singapore, the Government has made it a point to refute the findings of reports that it deems unfair or inaccurate.
In one case, a report on retirement security drew the ire of the Manpower Ministry (MOM).
The Global Retirement Index by private asset management firm Natixis Investment Managers had ranked Singapore 28 out of 44 countries, with especially poor scores for retirees' quality of life and material well-being.
But MOM pointed out that the report's authors did not adequately take into account each country's unique circumstances, and had included indicators such as biodiversity in their calculations.
"It is hard to see the link between retirement adequacy and biodiversity," the ministry wrote in a letter to the ST forum page in October, in response to an article on the index. "In the Singapore context, it clearly makes no sense."
In another instance last year, the Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index ranked Singapore 149 out of 157 countries - below Ethiopia and Afghanistan. It criticised Singapore for not taxing the wealthy enough and for spending relatively little on healthcare, education and social protection.
The report, by non-profit organisations Oxfam and Development Finance International, drew a sharp rebuttal from Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee, who pointed out that the authors assumed high taxation and high public expenditure reflected commitment to combating inequality.
But it is more important to look at outcomes achieved, Mr Lee said, noting that Singapore has achieved better outcomes than most countries with its existing system.
The experts also pointed out that such reports tend to draw comparisons either among cities, or among countries. Singapore, as a city-state, is unique in that it falls into both categories.
Country indices tend to have a broader scope, taking in factors of national interest such as defence, foreign policy and trade, said Mr Sree Kumar, an adjunct senior fellow at the Singapore University of Technology and Design's Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities.
In comparison, city-level indices have a tighter focus. They are less likely to be a good reflection of the overall quality of life in a country, especially in places with uneven levels of development.
But Mr Kumar pointed out that quality of life is best addressed at the city level. "Many of the parameters used have a municipal imprint, and are more reflective of the urban environment," he said.
These often go beyond basic needs, looking at indicators such as air quality, availability of green space and mobility.
Despite their blind spots, such rankings taken together can provide a good overview of where Singapore stands, and where there is room for further improvement.
Prof Tan added that such rankings can also give Singaporeans pause for thought.
"If they put us way down when we are not, we would need to give a rebuttal. If they somehow hit it right, we should reflect," he said.
"And if they rank us high, we should rejoice but not be carried away, and be prepared to respond to naysayers."