According to this article Is Singapore the Perfect Country for Our Times?

Singapore's defining achievement is summed up in the title of its longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew's memoir, From Third World to First. When it split off from Malaysia a half-century ago to become a separate nation of dubious viability, Singapore had little going for it, other than a determination to become whatever it needed to be --

However, I have heard many opinions on the subject. Some people claim that Singapore was a complete backwater and its prosperity now was due to its leaders' competence, while others claim that it was already a wealthy and important port.

How wealthy was Singapore at the time of its independence in 1965? Wealth can be reflected in its GDP/capita (of course with some adjustment to make the number meaningful in today's terms), poverty rate, level of infrastructure, etc.

  • I have a friend who served in the British Royal Navy in the early 60's. He certainly doesn't describe Singapore as particularly poor. LKY did an amazing job with Singapore, and could just have easily have made a hash of it. However, I think people are wanting to praise him a bit too much when they describe Singers as "dirt-poor" at independence. (I just looked at an article where an Aussie describes it thus in'63) .
    – user12578
    Jun 8 '15 at 13:21

The following data are taken entirely from the Angus Maddison (GDP per capita) project database (Jan 2013 update).

In 1965, Singapore's GDP per capita was $2,667 (in 1990 dollars).

This put Singapore at a higher GDP per capita than every East and South Asian country, with the exceptions of Japan ($5,934) and Hong Kong ($4,825).

For comparison, countries whose 2010 GDP per capita were slightly lower than Singapore's in 1965 ($2,667) are: Cambodia ($2,450), Pakistan ($2,494), and Mozambique ($2,613). Countries whose 2010 GDP per capita were slightly higher are: Kyrgyzstan ($2,947), the Philippines ($3,024), and Bolivia ($3,064).

For further comparison, in 1965, Singapore's GDP per capita was also comparable to some Latin American and East European countries: Brazil ($2,448), Colombia ($2,689), Costa Rica ($3,127), Romania ($2,386), Yugoslavia ($3,125).

One might thus conclude that while 1965 Singapore was poor by today's standards, it was already significantly better off than most of its Asian neighbors.

  • not a bad chart you found, I would like to spot out that it can be slightly inaccurate. I found for example 2010 Hungary and Bulgaria have wrong relation in GDP per capita. However Singapore's ratio to neighbours is believabe, it was a trade center back in time, and people lived significantly better than in the surrounding area. Mar 1 '15 at 7:50
  • 1
    @CsBalazsHungary: If you look at any two lists of GDP per capita rankings, they will not exactly coincide, even if they are only for a single year. The Maddison database contains centuries (indeed millennia) worth of estimates. It would be remarkable if the rankings were always correct. Besides, the error you point out merely says that Bulgaria was a few hundred dollars richer than Hungary in 2010. If it had instead said that Bulgaria was twice as rich as Hungary, then you might be justified in being a bit skeptical about it.
    – user3521
    Mar 2 '15 at 19:47

Both views you've heard are somewhat right. Singapore was already an important port by the time of its independence, yet its growth accelerated so quickly after independence that the Singapore of forty years ago probably does seem like a backwater:

According to official statistics released since 1960, the economic indicators of Singapore show a sustained and relatively rapid economic growth over this period. For the period 1960–2000, real GDP (1990 prices) rose at an average annual rate of 7.7 percent. With population growth at 2.2 percent, real per capita GDP increased by 5.5 per- cent on average each year. In fact, real per capita GDP has increased 9.7 times within 40 years. Out of 107 countries, Singapore registered the highest growth performance during 1960–2000 (source)

Doubts about Singapore's viability as an independent nation probably had more to do with its size rather than level of development. Here is a table from Sugimoto's Economic Growth of Singapore in the Twentieth Century:

enter image description here

Those numbers are not per capita statistics. They show that the Malayan economy was almost three times larger than Singapore's at the time Singapore was expelled. Obviously, though, things worked out for Singapore. Using Maddison's data, we see that Singapore started out with a GDP per capita 1.5x as large as Malaysia. Singapore has only widened the gap to almost 3x since. Here's a table from Maddison, showing the ratio of Singapore's GDPpc to that of Malaysia, the UK, and the US:

enter image description here

So again, both views you've heard are somewhat correct. Singapore was always an important port in its region, and thus at independence it was wealthier than its nearest neighbors--but in 1965 it was a poor backwater compared to the U.S. and U.K: Singapore was 1/5 and 1/4 as wealthy (per capita) respectively. By 1993 it was as wealthy (per capita) as the U.K. and by 2010 it was approaching American levels.

PS - @KennyLJ's answer relies on the highly respected data series put together by Angus Maddison. Maddison's statistics post-independence are probably derived from official statistics (which begun in 1960, a year after Singapore achieved self-governance). So I think KennyLJ's answer more than qualifies for the bounty. The above is just for context.

  • Just to point out that this statement is false: "... Singapore chose to break away from a larger country ...". Instead, Singapore was forcibly expelled. Wikipedia: "on 9 August 1965, the Malaysian Parliament voted 126 to 0 to expel Singapore from Malaysia with Singaporean delegates not present."
    – user3521
    Aug 19 '15 at 5:47

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