“Kopi lah,” says the elderly Singaporean man, leaning against the counter of the café. The stall holder hands him a bag filled with thick, creamy coffee sweetened with condensed milk. “Do people ever ask for healthier options?” I ask the woman behind the counter. She laughs. “Getting better,” she says, suggesting that people are creatures of habit.

As I wander through the market, the air dense with the smells of noodle soup, barbequed pork and sweet satay, I notice red stickers dotted on various stalls. “Healthier options available here”, reads one. “We use healthier oil”, reads another. It’s part of the Health Promotion Board’s Healthy Dining Programme where food and beverage providers get a grant if they provide healthier options for diners. It’s an indication of the small but not insignificant ways the government ‘nudges’ the population to make better choices.

You might also like:

Ever since the city state on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula passed the ripe old age of 50, the administration has been keen to look outwards, to learn from and collaborate with other countries in order to shape its future. One such strategy has been to collaborate with the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team, nicknamed the “Nudge Unit”, which uses the Nobel Prize-winning concept of “nudge theory”. This is based around the idea that people can make better choices through simple discreet policies while still retaining their freedom of choice. Nudge theory is certainly de rigeur among policy makers across the world at the moment but Singapore has actually been using similar strategies long before it became fashionable. And to understand why, you have to look back at the country’s history.

It is known for being the epitome of order and efficiency and, more importantly, the place where chewing gum is banned. Today it is one of the financial centres of the world but this has been hard-won. Following its expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia and subsequent independence in 1965, Singapore was left riddled with many socio-economic problems. Along with unemployment, lack of education and sub-standard housing, it was also a country lacking natural resources and land.

The man who took on this gargantuan task was the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He recognised that Singapore had to change in order to thrive. "We knew that if we were just like our neighbours, we would die. Because we've got nothing to offer against what they have to offer. So we had to produce something which is different and better than what they have. It's incorrupt. It's efficient. It's meritocratic. It works,” he told the New York Times.

And in order to make it work, the government had to take control in order to develop a society in which people’s material needs were met. They built high-rise social housing called HDB’s, and industrialisation and inward foreign investment resulted in job creation. Slowly this infant nation started to take shape.

Numerous public campaigns were established in order to lay down foundations of as well as create a sense of social identity in a disparate and multicultural population. The early campaigns were about improving the cleanliness and hygiene of the environment. “Keep Singapore Clean” and “Plant Trees” were common slogans that spearheaded these campaigns. Other campaigns focussed on family planning urging people to “Stop at 2”. As Singapore became more affluent, the National Courtesy Campaign was implemented as well as one encouraging people to speak Mandarin to create a more cohesive, considerate and civilised society.

In 1986, Lee Kuan Yew said “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn't be here today… we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters - who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right."

Nudging the population isn’t uniquely Singaporean; more than 150 governments across the globe have tried nudging as a better choice

This strategy paid off within 50 years, and the economy has become one of the most innovative and business-friendly in the world. But while Singapore still loves a public campaign, it has moved toward a more nuanced approach of influencing the behaviours of its inhabitants.

Nudging the population isn’t uniquely Singaporean; more than 150 governments across the globe have tried nudging as a better choice. A medical centre in Qatar, for example, managed to increase the uptake of diabetes screening by offering to test people during Ramadan. People were fasting anyway so the hassle of having to not eat before your testing was removed. It was convenient and timely, two key components to a successful nudge.

Towns in Iceland, India and China have trialed ‘floating zebra crossings’ – 3D optical illusions which make the crossings look like they are floating above the ground designed to urge drivers to slow down. And in order to get people to pay their taxes in the UK, people were sent a letter saying that the majority of taxpayers pay their taxes on time which has had very positive results. Using social norms make people want to conform.

In Singapore some of the nudges you come across are remarkably simple. Rubbish bins are placed away from bus stops to separate smokers from other bus users. Utility bills display how your energy consumption compares to your neighbours. Outdoor gyms have been built near the entrances and exits of HDB estates so they are easy to use, available and prominent enough to consistently remind you. Train stations have green and red arrows on the platform indicating where you should stand so as to speed up the alighting process. If you opt to travel at off-peak times (before 0700), your fare is reduced.

And with six out of 10 Singaporeans eating at food courts four or more times a week, getting people to eat healthier is also a priority. As well as the Healthier Dining Programme, some places make it cheaper to take the healthy option. If you’re determined to eat that Fried Bee Hoon at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, for example, you’re going to have to pay more for it.

The National Steps Challenge, which encourages participants to get exercising using free step counters in exchange for cash and prizes, has been so successful that the programme name has been trademarked. This form of gamifying is one of the more successful ways of engaging users in achieving objectives. Massive queues to collect the free fitness tracker demonstrated the programme’s popularity.

And it’s not just in tangible ways that nudges are being rolled out. Citizens pay into a mandatory savings programme called the Central Provident Fund at a high rate. This can be accessed for healthcare, housing and pensions as a way to get people to save long-term because evidence has shown that people are too short-sighted when it comes to financing their future.

Research from Europe and the United States suggests that people are largely approving as long as it fits in with their values and interests

And as the government looks to increase the population 30% by 2030, the city-state’s ageing population and declining birth rate is a problem. The Baby Bonus Scheme goes some way to encouraging parents to have more children by offering cash incentives. Introduced in 2001, the scheme means that all Singapore citizens who have a baby get a cash gift as well as a money into a Child Development Account (CDA) which can be used to pay for childcare and healthcare. The more children you have, the more money you get – since March 2016 you get a cash gift of $8,000 SGD (£4,340) for your first child and up to $10,000 (£5,430) for the third and any subsequent children, as well as money into your CDA.

So do people like being nudged? Is there any cultural difference in the way people react to being swayed toward a ‘better’ choice or behaviour? Given the breadth of the international use of behavioural insights, there is relatively little research done into whether people are happy about it. What research is available from Europe and the United States suggests that people are largely approving as long as it fits in with their values and interests. For example, when it comes to making calorie content more readily available in fast food restaurants or being asked whether you want to be an organ donor when you get your driving licence, people are largely supportive.

In a study that looked at how people in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, Russia, South Africa, and South Korea reacted, the results largely correlated to European and United States results with a few exceptions. China and South Korea showed “spectacularly high approval rates” while Japan showed “significantly lower approval ratings” in line with results from Denmark and Hungary in a European study.

Although there is no definitive research into why this is the case, it is suggested that support for nudges are higher in countries where the issues addressed are of direct concern to the citizens – air pollution in China for example. A potential correlation also has been drawn between support for nudges and the level of trust in government. Hungary, which had one of the lowest levels of support for nudges, also has a low level of trust in its government – only 28% according to the OECD. China, on the other hand, had overwhelmingly positive attitudes to nudges and also a high level in trust in the government.

The way in which we engage with the world is becoming faster, more hi-tech and arguably more removed from the real world

Although Singapore was not included in the worldwide study, the level of trust in government is high and could possibly indicate that support for nudges is then also high.

So what is the future for nudges in Singapore? According to the Innovation Lab – a multi-disciplinary team within the Public Service Division that designs public policies and services from the viewpoint of citizens and stakeholders – the future is digital.

A spokesperson says that citizens expect public services to catch up or do better than the private sector when they go digital. People already use devices such as chat bots and virtual or augmented reality interfaces in the private sector. They want the public sector to follow suit. 

There is a sense that public services are benchmarked against people’s experiences with the commercial sector. The way in which we engage with the world is becoming faster, more hi-tech and arguably more removed from the real world. You only have to look at the popularity of the game Pokemon Go to see the buzz around virtual reality. And so the Singaporean government doesn’t want to get left behind.

As I step back into the shiny metropolis surrounded by the glinting metal and glass of 30-storey high rises, it’s easy to forget that just over 50 years ago none of this would have been here, not even the land in some areas. And while not everyone is a fan of such an intimate social contract between state and citizen, there’s no denying that Singapore has been master of its own destiny. Through nudges and careful ‘choice architecture’, this Little Red Dot has ploughed its own path.


Join 800,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.