THE SINGAPORE STORY
FROM THE THIRD WORLD TO FIRST
Tharindra Gooneratne cites valuable lessons from Singapore’s enviable journey to developed nation status under its founding father
“My first visit to Ceylon was in April 1956 on my way to London … Ceylon was Britain’s model Commonwealth country.” It’s fair to state that Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew was awed by Ceylon’s status in the 1950s. The facts back up his view: back in 1960, Ceylon’s GDP was double that of Singapore.
Fast forward to today and one witnesses a dramatic reversal of fortunes of the two countries.
Singapore’s GDP is almost four times that of Sri Lanka despite having less than a third of the latter’s population. Changi Airport consistently ranks as one of the top two airports in the world whereas Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) was recently cited as being among the 10 worst such hubs in Asia. Last year, Singapore managed to attract over US$ 50 billion in foreign direct investments; the corresponding figure for Sri Lanka was 300 million dollars.
Whilst this article by no means attempts to disparage the progress we have made as a nation, it would be ludicrous to assume that there’s no problem at hand. It is true that Sri Lanka does not need to replicate Singapore and that we should build our own identity as a nation. At the same time, it is beyond debate that Singapore has become the de facto benchmark for small countries attempting to attain regional and global economic dominance.
One of the most important drivers behind Singapore’s growth story is visionary leadership.
The Singaporean government is a benchmark for meritocracy. Each year, publicly funded scholarships are awarded to students to study at top universities around the world. These students are subsequently groomed to become public sector leaders such as permanent secretaries or cabinet ministers. Today, every cabinet minister in Singapore boasts an undergraduate degree and a large majority have master’s degrees mainly in the field of public administration.
In addition to being highly qualified, Singapore’s leaders are also among the least corrupt in the world. In 2016, Singapore ranked seventh in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (Sri Lanka was ranked 95th).
One reason for this could be Singapore’s notoriously tough anti-corruption laws that for example, mandate an average jail term of five years for anyone accused of corrupt activities. Another reason could be the fact that Singapore’s ministers are among the most well compensated in the world, which increases the opportunity cost of corruption. In 2012, a cabinet minister in Singapore received more than double the compensation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The presence of educated and honest visionaries at its helm helped transform Singapore from a colonial backwater into a global economic powerhouse within the span of one generation. Perhaps it is this secret sauce that Sri Lanka needs as well.
Another interesting feature of Singapore is that the country is governed as a meritocracy and not as a ‘welfare state.’ According to Forbes, “the least appreciated part of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy is his method of ensuring that one generation won’t bankrupt future generations by selfishly living beyond its means.”
All Singaporeans are expected to pay for their housing, education and healthcare; there are no ‘free lunches’ on offer. To assist individuals in doing so, the government implements mandatory savings rates. Laid-off workers are not offered handouts; instead, they join government training schemes to facilitate reentry into the workforce. University education is not free; however, the government offers conditional grants to low income students if required.
Such an extreme aversion to social welfare may not be appropriate in the Sri Lankan context. However, we live in a country where students who receive a free ride to public universities protest when ‘the government fails to find jobs’ for them. We need to acknowledge that as a country, we have grown far too dependent on welfare and handouts.
Another aspect of direct relevance to Sri Lanka is Singapore’s approach to the rest of the world. From a political standpoint, Singapore’s mantra has been that ‘small states cannot afford to make enemies.’ And from an economic standpoint, Singapore prioritises foreign investment in the country over aid with policies in place to ensure an environment that is conducive to offshore investors.
For example, Singapore ranked second in the world in the latest ‘Doing Business’ index published by the World Bank Group (Sri Lanka ranked 111th, below Bhutan, India and Nepal). Singapore’s aversion to foreign aid is in line with the views of Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton, who believes that it corrupts national governments, slows growth and often hurts rather than helps poor people in recipient countries.
Singapore is not a perfect country by any means. However, its transformation within a short time span has been nothing short of phenomenal. Whilst forging our own unique identity, we need to acknowledge that several invaluable lessons can be gleaned from the Singapore story.
This may be the only feasible path to becoming the next ‘economic miracle’ that we aspired to be.
Thanks for your comments everyone! I really appreciate the feedback you all have provided. I hope I can continue to write articles like this that generate discussion and debate among Sri Lankans!
A candid comparison. I would like to emphasise on “does not need to replicate,” “visionary leadership” and honesty.
Yes, Sri Lanka need not replicate, nor copy Singapore to achieve development. One of those notable blunders our nation is known for is replicating and copying another nation without knowing the economic and social impacts. Besides, Sri Lanka has many resources – many untapped – unlike Singapore which imports water from Malaysia.
Singapore did not suddenly rise like a phoenix from a marshy land to this developed status that we all aspire to reach. As a nation, they were committed to one vision, which was not changed in an ad-hoc manner; rather, their determination took priority. Unlike politicians here, when Singapore appoints ministers they are experts in the respective fields of the portfolios they hold.
Singapore was adamant in eliminating unwanted costs and one of their acts was to ban chewing gum due to the costs incurred for cleaning roads of the same. If Sri Lanka is to impose a similar ban on chewing betel leaf, people will go on strike, saying that it is not ‘democratic’. So this is how democracy prevails in Sri Lanka.
Honesty will soon be extinct in Sri Lanka and a thing of the past; it is one of those words that will be almost wiped out of the Sri Lankan vocabulary.
In Singapore, discipline powered by visionary leadership further set the foundation to sustain a society with morale. And what more does a country need? These are the key ingredients – no resource would not be worthwhile and not be directed on a productive path without the above mentioned three factors.
Certainly, this strong insightful message should be read by the present leaders and administrators of our country. We should take a cue from Singapore and mend our ways to transform our country to be the wonder of Asia. This is not impossible if good governance policies are implemented, along with the enforcement of anticorruption laws to the fullest for all and sundry, without leaving room for the VIPs who have been plundering our resources to get away scot free. All Sri Lankan citizens have a big role to play in this transformation process. The Sri Lankan people have been enjoying many benefits like free education, free health care facilities and so on but have taken matters for granted. We have to change our selfish mindset and give back to the country.
It was certainly something Singapore did which Sri Lanka did not. Not thinking in the long-term, divide and rule theory and no harmony among communities are some of the issues which are our fault. Sri Lanka desperately needs an unselfish and bold leader, and sensible citizens who can stand against corrupt politics.
One of the best articles 👍👍👍
These are important articles. All Sri Lankans must pay attention to their country.
Very insightful article. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka will be a developing country for a long time to come. We can’t just blame politicians; they have been appointed by us. Each and every Sri Lankan has a role to play in this.
I agree with Muditha. This is very insightful and there are lessons for Sri Lanka here.