Singapore: Secret of success

Singapore: Secret of success


Girija Prasad Koirala, the late prime minister, had the habit of asking his counterparts from successful countries about the secret of their success. On his way back from the SAARC summit in Colombo in 1998, he had a meeting with Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in which I was present. Koirala pointedly asked Goh what the city-state’s secret of success was.

Evidently, Singapore has been one of the most spectacular success stories in socio-economic transformation in a very short time. When it obtained independence in 1963, the island state was a dirty and poor shipping village, as Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister, has described in his autobiography. That poor shipping village had turned by the 1990s into, as Westerners called it, one of the economic tigers of Southeast Asia. Now Singapore, which means a lion city, has become a real economic lion.

In 2009, Singapore’s per capita income, according to UNICEF, was 37,220 US dollars. For reference, the per capita income of its colonial master, United Kingdom, was 41,370 dollars and of Nepal was 440 dollars. The island state’s social indicators are better than the United Kingdom’s. Its longevity is 81 years; under-5 mortality is only 3 per thousand; and literacy rate is 95 percent. What is more, Transparency International’s corruption perception index of 2010 puts Singapore as the third corruption-free country in the world while the UK is 20th.

When the British left, Singapore and Malaysia were parts of the same federation. However, Malaysia, again in Lee’s word, expelled the island from the union in 1965. Although Lee was very upset by it, the separation perhaps came as a boon, as it energized Singapore to stand on its own feet and do better than Malaysia. As years went by, Prime Minister Lee was able to provide his country stable, effective and visionary leadership. He has demonstrated what a leader could accomplish in his own lifetime.

Awestruck by Singapore’s spectacular progress, Girija Koirala was eager to know what made this tiny state such a vibrant and prosperous economy. Goh, Lee’s successor, looked at Koirala as if he was expecting that question and said: His country’s secret of success was education.

After independence from the British and separation from Malaysia, Goh added, Singapore invested heavily in education and provided the best possible education to its citizens, particularly in science, technology and management. Academic excellence was encouraged vigorously and rewarded handsomely. Singapore sits near the top of the education table still.

As the workforce became educated, Singapore used its strategic location on the main corridor of global trade and commerce and market-oriented economic policies to attract investment and promote trade and industry. The government, Goh continued, provided good wages to workers and strictly controlled corruption. Indeed, Singapore’s employees are some of the highest paid in the world today.

Awestruck by Singapore’s spectacular progress, Girija Prasad Koirala was eager to know what made this tiny state such a vibrant and prosperous economy. Goh Chok Tong, Lee Kuan Yew’s successor, looked at Koirala as if he was expecting that question and said: His country’s secret of success was education.

Nepal, Goh said, could also develop very quickly by educating its people and using their energy to develop tourism and water resources in which Nepal enjoyed comparative advantage. Specifically, he asked Koirala to develop tourism packages tailored to the specific needs of Buddhist tourists from China, Japan and other Asian countries, who often travelled in large groups and stuck to their food and social behavior, in order to boost up cultural tourism.

One area where Singapore has been criticized in the past decades is the lack of political freedom. The government and courts do not take it kindly if someone criticizes the country or the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been in power since its independence. Many Singaporeans and foreigners have been thrown behind bars for such criticism. That now seems to be changing as well, slowly but surely.

In Singapore’s history, the May 7, 2011 elections were the freest and the opposition Workers Party won the largest number of seats in the parliament. Wary of the demonstration effect of the Arab spring, the Singapore government marginally relaxed the country’s constitution and tolerated cyber criticism of the PAP. The Workers Party won 6 seats out of 87 in the house. It might take many years for Singapore’s citizens to enjoy the right to free speech as we know it, but the journey toward it has already started.

To transform Singapore from a poor fishing village to a first-world city, Lee Kuan Yew had the right combination of such critical factors as vision, policy, strategy, time and honesty. His vision was to make his country as prosperous as America and better than Malaysia. He pursued market-oriented policies to unleash people’s energies and educated his people in science, technology and management to reap the country’s comparative advantages. He had 3 decades to realize his vision and he had honesty to keep his country free of corruption.

Why has not any Nepali leader been able to emulate Lee? Obsessed with their own power and privileges, Shah kings and Rana rulers did not, and could not, do much for Nepal’s progress. Panchayati prime ministers, the kings’ shadows, were no different. So let us focus on democratic prime ministers. Among Congress prime ministers, BP Koirala had the right vision, policy and strategy as well as honesty on his side, but he did not have the time. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai had the vision and honesty, but he did not have the policy, strategy and time.

Girija Koirala, who had more time than any other democratic prime minister, adopted market-oriented policy and developed long-term strategy in the first three years of his premiership. However, he did not have the vision – though he had curiosity – and honesty. Too obsessed with remaining in power and promoting his daughter in politics, he could not do much for the country’s progress. Sher Bahadur Deuba did not have any of those critical factors, though he did not deviate from market-oriented policies.
Among communist prime ministers, Pushpa Kamal Dahal talked about the vision of transforming Nepal into Singapore, but he did not have much time as prime minister. Everything he had was wrong. His communist economic model, which only teaches how to destroy trade and industry, his revolutionary education, which only tells how to kill class enemies, and his dishonesty, which only glorifies mendacity and corruption, are a recipe for disaster, not for prosperity. Manmohan Adhikari had honesty, but he did not have time and his ideology clouded everything else. Madhav Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal, the fickle shadows of Girija Koirala and Pushpa Kamal Dahal respectively, lacked Adhikari’s honesty as well.

Therefore, Singapore’s progress will remain a dream for the Nepalis in this generation. Let us see if Nepal turns out to be luckier with the next crop of political leaders. I do hope that, someday, foreign leaders would be curious to know what the secret behind Nepal’s transformation was and Nepali leaders would be able to share their insight and wisdom with confidence.

Published on 2011-05-15 01:10:14

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