Why the World Bank is Wrong About Singapore

December 8, 2014 7:40 pm

By Kevin Jennings, Arcus Foundation Executive Director

Kevin JenningsThe World Bank, in its recently published “Doing Business” report, has for the ninth consecutive year named Singapore the best country in the world in which to do business. The report “provides objective measures of business regulations for local firms in 189 economies and selected cities at the subnational level,” according to the financial institution. On the very same day, Singapore’s high court upheld the country’s law criminalizing same-sex relationships.

The conclusion? Singapore is a great place to do business – unless you happen to be gay.

How can two such discordant events be reconciled? How can a country that criminalizes private consensual behavior between two adults also be a so-called “great place to do business”?

The fact is, the two events cannot be reconciled – unless business is amoral. If all it takes to be a “great place for business” is the imposition of the fewest possible regulations, then Singapore might indeed be a great place to set up shop.

But if businesses take a more holistic view, then Singapore fails. First, Singapore’s insistence on criminalizing same-sex relationships flies in the face of business sense. As almost every major corporation knows, success in a competitive business environment requires attracting and retaining the best talent, and any law that discourages highly skilled people from working in a particular location is going to be, in the long run, bad for business there. You won’t attract talent if you inform some of your brightest employees they are risking prison time if they work in your country. It’s not rocket science.

Second, the narrow set of criteria considered in the World Bank’s ranking system implicitly ignores responsibility that businesses have, beyond making the easiest dollar around. They must have value systems that go beyond profit-making: They must uphold basic human rights and oppose the degradation of citizens of the countries where they operate. When they abdicate that responsibility, they start down the slippery slope of calculating just how much degradation is morally acceptable in the pursuit of profit. At the end of that slope, we arrive at the logic that led German company IG Farben and others to conclude it was acceptable to use slave labor during World War II. It would be hard to argue with their logic if “ease of doing business” or relative freedom from regulation were your only yardsticks. But they’re not. The World Bank would do well to update its “Doing Business” report with criteria assessing the human rights landscape, including  sexual orientation and gender identity. The result would be a more truthful and useful document.

Confronted with a similar moral dilemma during apartheid in South Africa, the Rev. Leon Sullivan promulgated the “Sullivan Principles.” The principles laid out basic commitments (like non-discrimination policies based on race and a refusal to segregate facilities) for businesses to follow. Perhaps it is time for a similar set of principles to be enacted for businesses to follow in the 78 countries (including Singapore) where it is still a criminal act to simply be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. To continue to do “business as usual” in places that violate basic human rights is not amoral – it’s immoral.

It’s time for the World Bank (and other entities) to wake up to a basic fact: A country cannot be a great place to do business as long as it systematically violates the rights of its citizens. When you factor in people, then countries like Singapore fail. It’s that simple.

Kevin Jennings is an educator, social justice activist, and author of six books. He is Executive Director of The Arcus Foundation, a private grantmaking institution dedicated to the idea that people can live in harmony with one another and the natural world.

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