August 11, 2015

Singapore Turns 50


Paul Conton

"We are amazed at our success...We did it on our own." The quote is from a BBC interview with an elderly Singaporean on the occasion, on August 9, 2015, of her nation celebrating its 50th year of independence. If the interview had been with one of any number of African nationals whose countries have similarly recently turned 50 (and whose countries would have been roughly at a par with Singapore fifty years ago), the comments might well have been reversed: "We are astonished by our failure...We did it despite the help of many, many others."

I had the opportunity to visit Singapore in 1993 for a conference of writers. As part of our visit we were addressed by a young Singaporean government minister, I think of culture. I was most highly impressed by the clarity of his expression and the sureness of his direction and vision. One was left with the conviction that his positions had been hammered out in many a thoughtful strategy session and planning meeting. Speaking in a langruage not his own (yes, I know you can argue English is not our own either, but with all due respect to Mende, Temne, Krio etc, Chinese is a far more global language), he came across as extremely serious, disciplined and knowledgeable. The city itself I remember as well ordered, the people, focused and serious. Compared with Europe or America, there was nothing particularly memorable, but the important point was that it could be compared with Europe or America even then. When one examines the statistics today, they are nothing short of miraculous. Singapore has a GNP per capita that is ONE HUNDRED times that of many of those African countries with whom it was at a par in 1965. And this, without any natural resources.

The best I can do to explain this phenomenon is to reproduce part of the best encapsulation marking Singapore's 50th anniversary I could find on the internet, from Kishore Mahbubani  writing in The World Post

"So why did Singapore succeed so comprehensively? The simple answer is exceptional leadership. Many in the world have heard of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister who passed away in March this year. Far fewer have heard of Dr. Goh Keng Swee, the architect of Singapore's economic miracle, and Mr. S. Rajaratnam, Singapore's philosopher par excellence.

Together, they made a great team.

This exceptional team also implemented three exceptional policies: Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Honesty. Indeed, I share this "secret" MPH formula with every foreign student at the Lee Kuan Yew School, and I assure them that if they implement it, their country will succeed as well as Singapore. Meritocracy means a country picks its best citizens, not the relatives of the ruling class, to run a country. Pragmatism means that a country does not try to reinvent the wheel. As Dr. Goh Keng Swee would say to me, "Kishore, no matter what problem Singapore encounters, somebody, somewhere, has solved it. Let us copy the solution and adapt it to Singapore." Copying best practices is something any country can do. However, implementing "Honesty" is the hardest thing to do. Corruption is the single biggest reason why most Third World countries have failed. The greatest strength of Singapore's founding fathers was that they were ruthlessly honest. It also helped that they were exceptionally shrewd and cunning.

Singapore's success is due to MPH: Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Honesty"