Singaporean model

August 01, 2019

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The writer, a former ambassador, is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies National University of Singapore.
The writer, a former ambassador, is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies National University of Singapore.

THE Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew is a fascinating book on the rise of that country. The phenomenal rise impressed the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping so much that he visited Lee Kuan Yew and wanted to learn from him.

Recalling this passage from the book on my recent arrival in Singapore I asked myself why so many of us write articles from time to time suggesting that Pakistan learn from other countries how they achieved their miraculous economic progress. China, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore are the most cited examples.

What was it that Singapore was doing and not doing for its economic success? The lessons I learnt were simple and familiar. Singapore shows that economic progress was part of the overall advancement and well-being of a nation, and did not stand alone. Economy was not just about economics.

Basically, a country needs to invest in its people so that they can invest in the country so that it serves them well. Equality of opportunity and recognition of merit were critical to achieving this mutually productive relationship.

Good governance is central to a nation’s rise.

Economic progress and political stability are co-dependent; both need a strong foundation of national unity and purpose and an inclusive and progressive organising idea. On this foundation stands an edifice of educated and disciplined human resources and the uncompromising rule of law. Human resource development was most critical to superior levels of progress for which quality education that provided a platform for higher learning in science and technology was key.

Finally, good governance is central to a nation’s rise and affects as well as reflects other means of progress. On the World Bank’s 2017 Government Effectiveness index, the highest value was Singapore’s at 2.21 points whereas Pakistan at 129th position had a value of -0.58. So where did Pakistan’s poor governance come from?

There are powerful groups or institutions that have long dominated Pakistan’s body politic by taking advantage of its security issues, place of religion in its national makeup and feudal social structure. Overemphasis on security, the legitimacy and sincerity of security concerns notwithstanding, has skewed national priorities and resource allocation. And feudalism supported by religious institutions has created self-sustaining disparities in society by resisting education, women’s rights and socioeconomic emancipation.

The political system that emerges from this body politic is designed to empower only the powerful and the privileged and does not foster the rule of law. It remains ‘unscathed’ by democracy which has succumbed to the system, becoming complicit in sustaining the power imbalances and disparities in political power, social structure, income distribution and the dispensation of justice.

So you can imagine the personalised and non-institutionalised policymaking emerging from this system and enabling the elite to seek advantage at the expense of the country with remarkable ease. They get away with it since there is little accountability or fear of loss of power. If power is lost it will be restored to you by the system if you have helped maintain it.

No wonder Pakistan has been living dangerously and beyond its means. And surviving by serving other countries’ strategic purposes, even sometimes at the expense of its own national interest, and by borrowing with reckless abandon. Aid and massive borrowing have long become an incentive for poor governance and corruption. Look at the horrific con­­sequen­ces. Pakis­­tan’s ranking is at the bottom or lower end of the Human Develop­ment Ranking, Glo­bal Gender Inequa­lity Index and the Global Corruption Index.

For all its failings, the PTI government is doing the country no small service, whatever its own motives, in highlighting the unconscionable misdeeds of the previous rulers in creating a Pakistan for their own benefit. Look at the government expenditure over the last 10 years. It has gone up by 500 per cent. It is time to put a stop to this colossal moral failure. In a country that has not seen a revolution, national resistance, protracted conflict, social movement or an extraordinary leader, which are the usual levers of historic changes in a society, this accountability and tax drive may be a poor substitute but a good beginning.

We do not need to go to other countries to learn. There exists within the country enormous talent and extraordinary knowledge of what ails us. The question is not what to do but how to do it. And the challenge we face is not economic but existential.

The writer, a former ambassador, is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies National University of Singapore.

Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2019