Lessons from Singapore

K Rajeshwar Sharma *

 Singapore - 2007
Singapore as seen on 2007 :: Pix - Martin Haobam

After watching on YouTube a video on Singapore, a niece ofmine, who is reading in Class III, said to me the other day, 'Why is Manipur not Singapore?' Her question was a bolt out ofthe blue. It was impregnated with ambiguity. Although it needs to be explained, I replied in a simple sentence, .....because Manipuris are not Singaporeans.' for she is too young to be interested in my explanation why and how Singapore became a developed First World country.

There is hardly anyone who is not amazed by the unprmedentedandextraordinary economic success of Singapore. Ithas been an interesting subject for academics as well as specialists in comparative economics and for policy makers as well. Singapore transformed itself from a poverty-stricken slum dwelling tiny island-state into a prosperous developedFirst World country within a span of thirty years.

At the time of its independence in 1965, Singapore was a typical Third World country with high unemployment rate, per capita income of five hundred dollars and racial tensions that triggered communal riots more often than not After less than fifty years ofits independence, Singapore has managed to achieve a per capita income of fifty thousand dollars. This is a remarkable achievement that makes Singapore one of the "Asian tigers", an envy of every country in Asia.

The success story of Singapore provides the world with many important lessons. Many developing and Third World countries in Asia wonder whether they can replicate the Singapore model. According to Professor Kishore Mahbubani, former Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, the Singapore model can be replicated provided that the "MPH Formula" is applied.

The acronym MPH stands for Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Honesty. Singapore was founded on the three pillars of Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Honesty, which Professor Kishore Mahbubani called "MPH formula, the secret of Singapore's success." Meritocracy is the practice of selecting and electing the best people to run the country.

"And what brings many countries down, especially in the Third World is that when it comes to selecting they will give their jobs to their brothers, their cousins, their uncles, their relatives, and not to the best people. And Singapore did the exact opposite..." said Kishore Mahbubani. In Singapore, jobs are given to the best people. Pragmatism is an English concept.

It is "the quality of dealing with a problem in a sensible way that suits the conditions that really exist, rather than following fixed theories, ideas, or rules." Singapore in its effort to achieve economic success practises pragmatism rather than political dogma. It follows China's former Premier Deng Xiao Ping's dictum "It doesn't matter whether a cat catches red or green mice so long as it catches mice."

Some of its economic policies are capitalist and some are socialist. In other words, Singapore's economy is a mixed economy and it is not bound by any ideology. Professor Mahbubani said, "So it would take some policies that are capitalist and some policies that are socialist and even mix them up. And that's what pragmatism is about."

Honesty is one of the most important human values without which no one can be trusted. But it is also the most important pillar of the three that ensures a corruption-free nation. In most of the Third World countries corruption, an offshoot of dishonesty and greed has made them fail to achieve success in implementing their policies.

"And indeed what has brought most Third World countries down and what has led to their failures in development has been corruption" said Professor Mahbubani. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore and its founding father always made sure that there is no corruption in his country. In order to achieve this goal, Lee introduced harsh punishments and uncompromisingly enforced them to all Singaporeans no matter how high or low he might be.

He even made it a point to punish top bureaucrats as well as his ministers who indulged in corrupt practices. As a result, Singapore has become the 4th least corrupt country in the world. Singapore was an impoverished country with malnourished children and gangsters fighting in the neighbourhoods. Communal riots flared up now and then.

Speaking to Sohail Rahman of Al Jazeera, Jeya Ayadurani, a local historian said, "We didn't have electricity, we didn't have safety" It was the kind of life that Singaporeans went through at the time of their independence. With these challenging conditions coupled with lack of natural resources, there was even doubt at the beginning whether Singapore could even exist as an independent state.

Literally Singapore had to start all over again from scratch. However the political leadership led by its long-term Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew handled the challenges by strong government intervention and strict state control in almost all areas of life. First they made sure to create a national identity which would enable individuals to associate with the state in an ethnic-based society.

Their second task was to create an economic foundation for the country by creating jobs, providing housing and healthcare, building industrial infrastructure, and establishing state institutions. Singapore, a "small red dot on the map", as Singaporeans often call themselves, has a total area of 280 square miles, which is even less than half of the total area of Manipur Valley but its population is twice as much as that of Manipur. Similar to Manipur, which has three distinct communities Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis, Singapore's population is made up of Chinese, Malays and Tamils.

More than sixty percent of its total population is Chinese and the rest are Malays and Indians who speak different languages, pray to different gods, and have neither common culture nor history but they have a feeling of "belonging" to Singapore as their motherland. It all resulted from the relentless efforts of the political leadership particularly the Prime Minister Mr. Lee Kuan Yew to bring communal harmony by introducing religious and language policies to build a national identity.

For instance, the maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was passed to promote religious tolerance among its citizens, and English was adopted as an official state language and as a language of instruction in education. Not only does English help unite Chinese, Malays and Indians as Singaporeans but it also helps Singapore attract huge amounts of foreign investments. In 1965 when it became independent or rather it was forced to leave the Malaysian federation, Singapore had no manufacturing industries.

Nor did it have an adequate supply of drinking water let alone agriculture. Neither does Singapore have natural resources like oil, minerals and forest. The only natural resources that Singapore is gifted with are its people and location. Singapore had no choice but to capitalize on its only natural resources-people and location.

In order to provide a qualified workforce, the government of Singapore under the leadership of its Prime Minister Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, streamlined the national education system that emphasizes practical skills and programs in science and engineering. In Singapore, education is considered as the main tool for advancing the national economy and nation-building as well. The country soon increased the number of universities, some of which emphasized science and engineering on par with the best in America and Europe.

National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University are among the top ten universities of the world. Singapore's educational system is well known for its science and mathematical programs. It helps the students go for higher studies in science and technology. But emphasis on mathematics and engineering does not happen at the expense of language and communication skills.

Location of Singapore plays a very important role in developing its economy. It lies at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, and is separated from Malaysia by the Johor Strait and from Indonesia by the Singapore Strait. It is at the point where ships carrying crude oil from the Middle East, and ships from Far East countries pass through.

Capitalizing on this strategic location, the Singapore government invested heavily to establish Singapore as one of the largest centres of oil-refineries in the world. hi addition to establishing petro-chemical industries, Singapore managed to establish manufacturing industries as well. The manufacturing sectors are electronics and precision machinery, oil-drilling equipment, chemical industry, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology.

It also established itself as a global service centre of the world. Seventy percent of Singapore's GDP is created by the service sector. In the absence of a stable government, communal harmony and business-friendly environment, Singapore could not have transformed itself from a Third World country into an economic powerhouse of the world.

All the credits of these remarkable achievements go to its founding father Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.

* K Rajeshwar Sharma wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on August 21 2022.

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