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The miracle of Singapore

August 09, 2015

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Singapore River
Singapore River

The miracle of Singapore is a unique phenomenon in modern history. In 1959, Singapore got independence from Britain and in 1963 it joined Malaysia in a federation composed of north Borneo, Sarawak and other states. The union with Malaysia was short lived because of conflict between the ethnic Chinese majority of Singapore and the Malay dominated population of Malaysia.

On August 9, 1965, Singapore emerged as an independent state when it was expelled from the Federation of Malaysia, and within a span of three decades it transformed from an impoverished and weak state to a rich and successful one. When Lee Kuan Yew became the Prime Minister of Singapore five decades ago, the country’s per capita income was $400. When he stepped down in 1990 it had risen to $ 22,000 and in 2015 it is $38,000. The foreign exchange reserves of Singapore are $341 billion and its exports are $351bn per annum How did this happen? After all, Lee Kuan Yew himself once called an independent Singapore “a political, economic and geographic absurdity.”

Likewise, Tan Kong Yam, an economist in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy remarked, “when Singapore separated from Malaysia it was as if a brain had been deprived of its lungs and legs.”

As Singapore celebrates 50 years of its independence today, one need to examine how a city-state divided on ethnic, linguistic and religious lines and without mineral resources is now termed a role model for many developing countries.

The miracle of Singapore was made possible because of four main reasons. First, the dynamic leadership of Lee Kuan Yew who with his vision, perseverance, hard work and honesty transformed Singapore from a third to a first world country within one generation.

Second, the rule of law and good governance provided a source of attraction to foreign investors to do business in Singapore. Third, the practice of strong work ethics and professionalism which helped ensure a good quality of life for the people.

Singapore River in the 70s
Singapore River in the 70s

Fourth, there was a massive focus on human development, education, tolerance and multiculturalism. This was simply because, lacking natural resources, Singapore tapped into its human resources.

That doesn’t mean there are no challenges to be faced.

A July 18, 2015 article in IThe EconomistI titled “Happy 50th Birthday Singapore” correctly points out that, “Singapore...also faces problems like a rapidly ageing population that is insufficiently creative and startlingly reluctant to have babies.”

The population of Singapore at the time of its independence was one million; now it has reached more than 5.26m out of which 1.46m is composed of foreign nationals. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Leong, son of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who heads the government led by the People’s Action Party (PAP), is aware of the dwindling popularity of his party because of issues ranging from strict state control on political freedom and the rise in the population of immigrants. The Chinese account for 74 per cent of the population of Singapore, Malays 13pc and Indians 9pc.

Still, the pluses of Singapore outnumber the negatives because of good quality of life of the people, peace, security, modern infrastructure, excellent public transport system and state sponsored housing facilities. Planning, efficiency and accountability contribute to the success of Singapore against all odds and the concerned authorities do not compromise in order to maintain an excellent standard in the maintenance of infrastructure, cleanliness and the observance of rule of law.

Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew

Since 1965, Singapore has expanded by over one-fifth from 58,000 hectares of land (224.3 square miles) to nearly 72,000 hectares of land by reclaiming land from the sea. The government of Singapore is also trying to gain self-sufficiency in water resources by constructing water reservoirs in order to store rain water and use it for human consumption.

Singapore, despite its impressive developmental record, however, feels insecure and vulnerable because it lacks a hinterland and territorial depth. Its drive to reclaim land from the sea also has limitations. Yet, the focus and priority of the governments since 1965 till today is on economic and human development. From a historical standpoint, racial tension and riots in Singapore between Malays and Chinese in 1964 left a deep impact on the policies of the new state of Singapore. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the government strictly adhered to the policy of promoting religious and ethnic tolerance and effectively dealing with issues which may trigger unrest in society. It is this stability that allowed it to maintain its enormous economic growth.

Outram park, 1960
Outram park, 1960

But it comes at a price: An article published in IThe Guardian WeeklyI , “The Singapore grip” argues that “Singapore presents itself as a modern liberal democracy...but its authoritarian political culture is needlessly restrictive. The media is largely state-owned. Defamation and contempt laws threaten dissent. It is depressing that a country as successful as Singapore should feel the need for such restrictions on free speech. Singapore wants to be judged as a first-world nation. It must find the confidence to allow its citizens the freedoms that go with that status.” Perhaps the price paid for economic prosperity, peace, order and stability which one can see in Singapore is not difficult to gauge: it is in the form of state restrictions on the freedom of speech and press. The Internal Security Department (ISD) after 9/11 is more apprehensive about the threat of religious extremism and takes an immediate action when there is any indication or report of threats to security.

Bugis Street
Bugis Street

What lessons can we learn from Singapore? One is that selfless, dynamic, efficient and honest leadership can achieve wonders. Zero tolerance for corruption, nepotism, inefficiency, coupled with value for hard work, integrity, planning and perseverance tend to form the core of the success story of Singapore.

Singapore — before and now
Singapore — before and now

Furthermore, the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew made a lot of effort to study successful models of development in different parts of the world. Ironically, Singapore was inspired from the pace of industrialisation and development of Pakistan in 1960s and sought the services of Pakistani officials, particularly those associated with the planning commission and Pakistan International Airlines to train government officials of Singapore and those associated with Singapore Airlines. Clarity, dedication and adherence to strong work ethics by the leadership of Singapore caused a miracle within a span of three decades which can surely be a role model for many developing countries. Finally, another important lesson which one can learn from Singapore is that nations are not created by mere rhetoric or table talk but by rolling up their sleeves and getting down to work.

(The writer is the Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi. Email: amoonis@hotmail.com).

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 9th, 2015

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