Education About Asia: Online Archives

Facts About Asia: South Korea and Singapore: Economic and Political Freedom

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Editor’s Introduction: By the 1990s, the dynamic economic growth of four polities—Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan—earned them the nickname “Four Little Dragons.” Each of the “Little Dragons” also obtained moderate to significant levels of political freedom (Freedom House ranks South Korea and Taiwan as free and Hong Kong and Singapore as partly free). Please see our column from fall 2019 on the other two “Little Dragons”: Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Economic Freedom

Despite their relatively small sizes geographically, South Korea and Singapore both possess very strong economies, ranking twelfth and thirty-fourth in GDP (the market value of all goods and services) in a ranking of the top fifty world leaders in 2019. The major sectors of South Korea’s economy include shipbuilding, electronics, and automobiles, where several large, family-run conglomerates called chaebŏls dominate. Examples of these conglomerates include Hyundai, Samsung, and LG. Singapore is a major global financial hub with world-class banks as well as major electronics, biotechnology, and energy (primarily oil and gas) industries. Private and state-owned enterprises play a significant role in Singapore’s economy.

Since 1996, the Fraser Institute, a top Canadian think tank, has annually published the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) Report, which measures the degree to which the policies and institutions of countries are supportive of economic freedom. The cornerstones of economic freedom according to the institute are personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to enter markets and compete, security of the person, and privately owned property. Forty-two data points are used to compile a summary index in the publication for each country to measure the degree of economic freedom in five broad areas: size of government, legal system and property rights, sound money, freedom to trade internationally, and regulation. For 2019, 162 countries and territories received a score in each category, where zero is the lowest possible rating and ten the highest.

For 2019, South Korea ranked thirty-third of the 162 countries and territories included in the EFW Report. Singapore was the world’s second-freest economy, trailing only perennial world leader Hong Kong. Since the early years of the twenty-first century, Singapore has been ranked lower than second only three times in EFW Reports.

Sources for South Korea and Singapore: “What Type of Government Does South Korea Have?,” World Atlas, accessed November 19, 2019,; Donald N. Clark, Key Issues in Asian Studies: Korea in World History (Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, 2012); “News and Commentary: South Korea,” The New York Times, accessed November 19, 2019,; “About Us: Structure,” Parliament of Singapore, accessed November 19, 2019,; “Singapore: Government,” GlobalEDGE Michigan State University, accessed November 19, 2019,; Charles Chao Rong Phua, “Top Ten Things to Know About Singapore,” Education About Asia 22, no. 2 (2017): 62–64.

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