For years, Singapore has been known for its phenomenal economic growth. In finance, services, and transport Singapore has been a regional economic leader and has become a major investor in Southeast Asia and China. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) considers Singapore to be a "developed" country and World Bank statistics rank it as one of the richest countries in the world in terms of per capita gross national product (GNP). Singapore's surplus totaled nearly 13% of the total 1996 GDP-providing the government with a powerful tool to direct future economic development. Despite major disruption from the Asian Crisis in 1997 and 1998, Singapore's economy survived intact.
By 2000, the government was again projecting a budgetary surplus amidst modest tax cuts, and Singapore enjoyed virtually full employment. In the next two years, however, the economy declined, actually receding by 2.1% in 2001. Dependence on vulnerable high-tech manufacturing brought Singapore's economy down in the slump experienced by much of the developed world. In August 2002, Goh spoke of the need to restructure Singapore's economy to make it more competitive with China's. Any gains made in 2002 were to be cancelled out by a mysterious virus spreading through the region. The Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, appearing in early 2003, was a huge economic setback for Singapore, bringing tourism and related service industries to a grinding halt. SARS-related damage to the economies of major trading partners like China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan also threatened Singapore's trading and financial sectors. The Singapore government recommended wage cuts for companies affected by SARS as a way to ensure the survival of companies and slow down unemployment rates, which reached an unprecedented 5.5%. To control the spread of the virus, Singapore tried to enforce quarantines, with beach resort isolation locations as a reward for cooperating, and jail as punishment for failing to comply. They also have enacted pre-departure SARS-screening at their country's borders, a move that has won the respect of their neighbors.
Common social problems such as street crime, homelessness, poverty, and pollution have been almost nonexistent in Singapore. Some attribute this success to unique government policies. Many key aspects of life have been closely regulated. For example, the ownership and use of automobiles are discouraged, but an effective mass transit system provides an attractive alternative. The Housing Development Board spearheaded residential development which allows most citizens to own their own apartments in government-owned buildings. The upgrading policy which Goh used to spark his victory in the 1997 elections is a multi-billion dollar program to improve these buildings. In addition, Singapore has harsh criminal laws. Convicted drug dealers are executed, and even minor offenses such as chewing gum or feeding pigeons can lead to fines of hundreds of dollars. Hidden crime—particularly in the form of money laundering for narcotics operations from elsewhere in Asia, and transhipment of illegally harvested timber from Indonesian rainforests—does occur in Singapore, although Goh's government tends to downplay its existence.
One problem which concerns Goh's government is the aging of the population. Within the next 25 years, more than a quarter of the population is expected to be over 60. In 1996, a Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents was established to intervene when adult children are accused of neglecting their aging parents. This policy enforces the traditional value of respect for elders and seeks to ensure that a large part of the population does not become reliant on the government in their old age.
Singapore prides itself on being a multicultural state, but the Chinese majority is often dominant, as government programs encourage the use of the Chinese language. With Goh's government an enthusiastic participant in the U.S.-led War on Terror, Singapore has become increasingly unfriendly to shows of Muslim identity or other types of overt dissent. Recently, female Muslim students (who are usually of Malay ethnicity) have been forbidden to wear religious headcoverings in Singapore's public schools.