The only reason that anyone could be induced to take part in such a dangerous business was the fabulous profit that could be made. Gideon Allen & Sons, a whaling syndicate based in New Bedford, Massachusetts, made returns of 60% a year during much of the 19th century by financing whaling voyages—perhaps the best performance of any firm in American history. It was the most successful of a very successful bunch. Overall returns in the whaling business in New Bedford between 1817 and 1892 averaged 14% a year—an impressive record by any standard. New Bedford was not the only whaling port in America; nor was America the only whaling nation. Yet according to a study published in 1859, of the 900-odd active whaling ships around the world in 1850, 700 were American, and 70% of those came from New Bedford.
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But Mr Lee’s party has left nothing to chance. The traditional media are toothless; opposition politicians have been hounded into bankruptcy by the fierce application of defamation laws inherited from Britain; voters have face the threat that, if they elect opposition candidates, their constituencies will suffer in the allocation of public funds; constituency boundaries have been manipulated by the government. The advantage of Mr Lee’s system, its proponents say, is that it introduced just enough electoral competition to keep the government honest, but not so much that it actually risks losing power. So it can look around corners on behalf of its people, plan for the long term and resist the temptation to pander to populist pressures. Mr Lee was a firm believer in meritocracy. “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think,” as he put it bluntly in 1987. His government’s ministers were the world’s best-paid, to attract talent from the private sector and curb corruption. Corruption did indeed become rare in Singapore. Like other crime, it was deterred in part by harsh punishments ranging from brutal caning for vandalism to hanging for murder or drug-smuggling. As Mr Lee also said: “Between being loved and feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.” As a police state, however, Singapore was such a success that you rarely see a cop.