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.