Learning from Lee
One of the case studies in the course of political economy at Columbia University during my degree programme was about the city-state of Singapore. This study primarily focused on the policies of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding leader of Singapore who breathed his last on March 23 this year at
One of the case studies in the course of political economy at Columbia University during my degree programme was about the city-state of Singapore. This study primarily focused on the policies of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding leader of Singapore who breathed his last on March 23 this year at the age of 91.
According to our professor, the miraculous economic growth of Singapore was the motivating factor to include the case study in the course. During the 31 years of his premiership, Lee created immense prosperity for his people. In 1965 Singapore’s per capita income was about $500 which has now grown to $55,000.
Singapore is consistently at the top or near to top since decades in the global indicators like competitiveness, innovation, liveability or clean governance published by various international organisations. Hardly anybody can dispute the fact that the spectacular progress Singapore witnessed under Lee became possible due to his leadership and vision. What policies were adopted by Lee to make Singapore a miracle and what lessons we can learn from them is the subject of this article.
Singapore was carved out of Malaysia in 1965 in an atmosphere of vulnerability and ethnic conflict. Singapore is inhabited by three races – the Chinese, the Malay and the Indians – who now live together in perfect harmony, each trying to live up to the ideals and standards of behaviour decreed by the state. So the first lesson the Singaporean miracle offers is that in a multiethnic and multiracial country, rising standards of living are the key for stability and harmony. If people have stakes and hope in the system, then ethnic, racial, and linguistic differences do not matter much and are relegated to a secondary position. Identities of ethnicity become a source of instability and keep haunting you if the size of the cake does not increase.
Second, meritocracy and rule of law should reign supreme in all walks of life. In Lee’s Singapore, advancement is purely on merit, be it in civil service or business. You cannot grow by bending the rules. Adherence to rules and code of conduct is important. The civil service of Singapore has become a role model. Salaries and perks are equal to those offered by the private sector. “Singapore’s civil service is like a spiral staircase: on each rung, civil servants manage a different portfolio in a different agency, building a broad knowledge base and gaining firsthand experience”, Parag Khanna recently wrote in an article on Lee Kuan Yew.
There is zero tolerance for corruption, nepotism, and favouritism. The integrity of those who exercise power is ensured by the Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau which is tasked to investigate all allegations of corruption both in the private and public sectors. Nobody enjoys immunity. When a journalist asked Lee to brush aside allegations of nepotism levelled against him in a column on his family, Lee replied, “In Singapore, allegations of favoritism and corruption are no laughing matter. Everyone knows that if you impugn our integrity, we must clear our name. How can it be otherwise?”
Lee emphasised the eastern values and thought that culture is deep-rooted. So you need to factor in cultural values in your development model to make it a success. “If you have a culture that does not place much value in learning and scholarship and hard work and thrift and deferment of present enjoyment for future gain, the going will be slower”, Lee once told Fareed Zakaria.
A significant number of Pakistanis have migrated to countries like Canada and Australia in search of better future for their children. Many are vying for migration and many have sent their children for education to these countries. While talking about a similar situation with Fareed Zakaria, Lee said “It is not just mindsets that would have to change but value systems. Let me give an anecdotal evidence of this. Many Chinese families in Malaysia migrated in periods of stress, when there race riots in Malaysia in the 1960s and they settled in Australia and Canada. They did this for the sake of their children so that they would get a better education in the English language. The children grew up, reached their late teens and left home. And suddenly the parents discovered the emptiness of the whole exercise. They had given their children a modern education in English but in the process lost their children altogether”.
But Lee did not mean that the value system is static. What he meant was that values are important and any action, policy, or development model that is divorced from the value system of that society will not produce optimum results. Thus a well ordered society based on the principles of meritocracy and rule of law, an efficient civil service, discipline, and economic policies factoring in norms and values of said society were some of the most important elements that guaranteed progress. But this does complete the story of Lee and his Singapore.
Singapore under Lee was perhaps the only country in the world where the trickledown theory of economics seems to have worked. When Lee became prime minister, the unemployment rate was high and economic growth was sluggish. People lived in shanty dwellings and space for living was very limited. Initially he encouraged labour-intensive industries to relieve unemployment and revive economic growth. And Singapore produced goods like nails, textile, footwear and paint.
When industrial employment expanded, Singapore shifted towards more skill-intensive enterprises like chemicals, petroleum products and machinery. Lee initiated schemes like affordable public housing and robust pension systems so that the benefits of economic growth trickle down to the ordinary Singaporeans. Today, the majority of them live in government-built houses. Though inequality is high, Singaporeans born in the bottom quintile of income are twice as likely as Americans to rise to the top income quintile.
The question, however, can be raised whether the Singaporean development model can turn out to be successful in countries like Pakistan where several of its cities have more population than the whole of Singapore. The answer is simple yes. Are meritocracy and rule of law not relevant for growth? Are political stability and order in society not required for prosperity? Is a well-paid and well-trained bureaucracy not necessary to improve governance and public service delivery? Are corruption, favouritism, and nepotism not halting our advancement?
But the interesting point is: was the miraculous progress of Singapore possible without Lee? Perhaps it would not have been possible. After all it is the leadership that gives vision and rules of conduct to a nation. Lee himself led an ascetic life. Reportedly, he visited his mother only once in a year when she was alive because each visit required security police to sweep the area which Lee thought was a waste of public money. He remained distant from his brothers and sisters and did not extend favours to them. He abhorred cults of personality. “There are no statutes of Lee in Singapore, no portraits on billboards, no sycophantic paeans in the newspapers”.
Henry A Kissinger is perhaps right when he says, while writing the obituary of Lee, that great men become great through visions beyond material calculations. Leaders do not grow out of corruption. Big palatial houses, business empires and fiefdoms do not make a great leader. What matters the most are vision, integrity, competence, austerity, and selfless service to the people. Lee does not need statutes, billboards or paeans in the newspapers to become a great leader. Our leaders need to learn from him.
The writer is a graduate of Columbia University.
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