Singapore is an example of what a team of visionaries with strong determination, will, and dedication can accomplish. In his book From Third World to First, Lee Kuan Yew, the long serving first Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore, recounts how Singapore was not built in a day. Like Nepal, Singapore was plagued by inept bureaucracy, stronger-than-state trade unions, riots, high risk business environment, formidable neighbors, and many other problems. The planned approach Yew took to tackle these problems is pivotal to Singapore’s rise from a low-income country to high-income one.
Lee Kuan Yew was thoughtful enough to set priorities early. One of his first concerns was the security of Singapore, in light of its many big neighbors and withdrawal of British forces from the peninsula. So, he strengthened ties with powerful nations like Britain, Australia, and the United States, and also some Middle Eastern countries to gain support in building an Army. Next, he further smoothed out relations with his neighbors in an attempt to balance power in the region, which would ultimately secure Singapore’s sovereignty. An example of such friendship was a mutual undertaking of Taiwan and Singapore where Taiwan offered her land for the training of Singaporean Army. Such methodical planning and execution over the years explains how Singapore caught up with the world over a short period of less than four decades.
The magic recipe of Singapore’s rise and good governance during Yew’s time lies not only in implementing excellent policies, but also in recognizing their timely needs. To give substance to his governing team, Yew gave utmost priority to efficiency, vision, credibility and trustworthiness while recruiting people for civil service or even his People’s Action Party (PAP). The need to select such people was high, as Singaporeans had grown up under different styles of governance (Yew himself sang four National Anthems: British, Japanese, Malaysian, and Singaporean). Yew did not hesitate to appoint cabinets in which 75 percent of the members were foreign born, because he couldn’t compromise with the best fit for any post.
Soon after coming into office, the cabinet allocated considerable resources to revamp the education system, because they recognized children as the future of Singapore. How Yew brought in the best values from both the Chinese and British education systems into his education system gives an idea of his remarkable analysis of issues before implementation. He made sure that children learned, were creative and confident, and also imbibed an abundance of social values from classrooms.
His next big move was selecting English as Singapore’s working language. Being a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country, this move didn’t come easy. It faced substantial protests and apprehension from students and parents in general, risking Yew’s popularity and a percentage of his votes in subsequent general election. But ultimately, it not only produced world-class graduates from Singaporean Universities, but also increased ethnic cohesion among Singaporeans and the world. Many such well calculated moves helped turn the odds for Singapore, transforming a small country with limited resources into a force that challenged and surprised the world.
The other move that changed the course of Singapore came when Yew realized the downfalls of adhering to “-isms” rather than being guided by reason and reality. With the majority of population from Chinese ethnicity, there was a popular sentiment for communism in Singapore. While it played an important role in bringing him to power, Yew quickly dismissed his affiliation to communism and worked to clean the trade unions of this –ism. During the tumultuous years soon after independence, many riots arose, many defaulters in public service exploited benefits to their end, and much of it happened, as Yew analyzed, due to the penetration of communism and influence of big northern neighbors.
But these glitches never discouraged him. He instead improvised housing, sanitation, infrastructure, and attracted foreign investment to create jobs and engage people. Prospects of a better and more affluent life led people away from shouting slogans, rioting, and creating civic disobediences that hindered growth. These approaches also oriented Singaporeans against unquestioning obedience to state and authority—like in the then communist states of China and Russia. In a way, this made the citizens rightfully own their government.
From clever and cost effective policies of cleaning and greening Singapore to allure multinationals, to expensive defense policies to guard its borders; from long-term friendship with Britain to cautious engagement with Soviet Russia (before 1990); from open economy to vibrant schools; from minimizing nepotism, favoritism and corruption to promoting basic principles of governance—every single brick built up Singapore. Being discriminating while choosing successors for PAP speaks volume about what it means to them to have Singapore ruled by crème de la crème leaders who are young, able, honest and upright. Being able to step down after 31 solid years as prime minister, like Yew did, is the greatest attribute a leader can possess. Singapore didn’t build itself—it was built meticulously, thoroughly, and thoughtfully, because making history takes time, effort, thought, and great leaders.
Singapore began changing when PM Yew discarded “-isms” and chose to learn from reason and reality.
Despite the exemplary rise of Singapore, it is just one of several models available for national development, and may not be the best in all cases. Singapore had some specific conditions that made it possible for Yew to do things the way he did. It is a city state strategically located in South China Sea, giving it ample opportunities for trading and establishing diplomatic relations. Having been a colonial nation came with both pros and cons. Good infrastructure and connectivity to the world came at the cost of brutal suffering of the people and a hurt national pride. This explains why Yew prepared a strong and modern army to defend national sovereignty, if need be.
Yew’s tenure was at a time when dictatorship was the norm rather than exception. The world was still learning about democracy, and most countries out of Western Europe and America were not democracies. Yew himself writes in the book that concepts of democracy, freedom and human rights can never be absolute and abstract, and that they are closely linked to a country’s culture, economic development, literacy, growing middle class, and political institutions that support free speech and human rights. Instead of giving priority to filling his own coffers, Yew provided economic freedom and opportunities to his citizens and respected their right to property and entrepreneurship.
He used the state’s resources to build infrastructure and business climate, but did not interfere in economic affairs, and let citizens participate in free market economy. While dictators of the opposite nature—those who believe in state control of economy, like communists and socialists—have mostly failed, Yew’s timely recognition and facilitation of state resources for free and open market economy with an engaged and educated civic society made him and his state a success.
The author is Program Manager at Janaki Technology Pvt. Ltd