The Singapore story Aziz Akhmad Thursday, March 31, 2011

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Recently, I happened to spend a month in Singapore. A first time visitor cannot help but be impressed by Singapore’s Changi Airport. Not only by its vast size and the amenities it provides, but also the ease and efficiency with which passengers are processed. On average, an incoming passenger is out of the airport and into the waiting car in 25 minutes minutes – alongalong with the luggage. The airport ranks as one of the world’s best airports.

It’s not just the airport that impresses the visitor. It is also the general cleanliness and orderliness of the city, its buses and the subway that run like clockwork, the gleaming shopping malls, its well maintained parks, civic services and other facilities. Economically, Singapore ranks ahead of many developed countries of the world. Its GDP growth last year was 14.5 percent and GDP per capita purchasing power parity (PPP) was US$62,000. (For comparison, the figures for the US, UK, China, India and Pakistan are 47,000, 35,000, 7,400, 3,400 and 2,600, respectively.

If you are one of those people who believe GDP is economic nonsense, take a look at Singapore’s other indicators: Unemployment is two percent; homeownership is nearly 90 percent, financed through a cleverly designed Central Provident Fund; and an affordable healthcare system is accessible to everyone. Corruption and crime are very low.

Literacy rate is 97 percent, and over 90 percent of the population aged 25 and above have secondary education. The quality of education is good. Singapore school students rank at the top in the international education scores in science and math. Two of its universities, Singapore National University (SNU) and Nanyang Technical University (NTU) rank among the top 100 universities in the world.

How did all this happen? How did this tiny island, a dot on the world map, with no hinterland or natural resources – not even water and construction sand, which have to be brought in from Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively – was able to transform itself from a colonial backwater to an economic powerhouse, and such a nice place to live in? How did a multi-racial and multi-religious society with a history of racial tensions, and even bloody racial riots, in 1964, transform into a peaceful, productive and politically and economically secure society?

Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister and the architect of modern Singapore, answers these questions in his memoirs, written some years ago. In spite of the size – two volumes and nearly 1400 pages – the books, titled The Singapore Story and From Third World to First, tell a gripping story. The memoirs, particularly the second volume, From Third World to First, can be a useful handbook for the leaders of developing countries in general and of Pakistan in particular, that is, if they were inclined to read.

Basically, what Lee Kuan Yew did was, he invested in and capitalised on the only natural resource he had. The people. (Singapore’s population at independence, in 1965, was 1.5 million. Today it is five million including the permanent residents.) Mr Lee writes in his memoirs: “I was gradually forced to conclude that the decisive factors were the people, their natural abilities, education and training. Knowledge and possession of technology were vital for the creation of wealth.” Therefore, he proceeded to create a system of education that provides quality education and training to all its citizens, both men and women. To ensure that no racial group feels excluded, four languages, English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil are taught in all schools. English remains the working language.

Elsewhere in the book, Lee Kuan Yew observes: “when misguided policies based on half digested theories of socialism and redistribution of wealth were compounded by less than competent government, societies formerly held together by colonial power splintered, with appalling consequences.” That belief seems to have guided his economic policies, which strived to create a fair state as opposed to a “welfare state”. Also, Mr Lee seems to believe that the age-old wisdom of keeping the expenses less than the income is not only good for individuals but also for states.

Lee Kuan Yew also talks about Pakistan in some detail, in his memoirs. He writes: “I spent a week in Pakistan from 28 February 1992. I had two meetings with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his key cabinet colleagues, including his finance and economic minister, Sartaj Aziz, an irrepressible optimist. After I returned I sent Nawaz Sharif a report together with a personal letter to summarise the actions he should take.

“It was soon obvious that they faced dire and intractable problems. They had a low tax base, with income tax yielding only two per cent of their GDP. Many transactions in land sales were not documented and tax evasion was widespread. They subsidised agriculture, railways and steel mills. Defence took 44 percent of the budget, debt servicing 35 percent, leaving 21 percent to administer the country. Hence their budget deficits were 8-10 percent of their GDP and inflation reaching double-digit figures. The IMF had drawn their attention to these parlous figures. The solutions were obvious but political will was difficult to exercise in a country without an educated electorate and with the legislature in the grip of landowners who controlled the votes of their uneducated tenant farmers. This made land and tax reforms near impossible. Corruption was rampant, with massive thievery of state property, including illegal tapping of electricity.” Pg 468

Mr Lee goes on to say: “[Nawaz Sharif] was a man of action with much energy ... He always believed that something could be done to make things better.” And then, as if in exasperation, Lee Kuan Yew writes: “The problem was often he had neither the time nor the patience to have a comprehensive study made before deciding on a solution.”

And, yes, one more thing that helped make Singapore what it is. While its constitution ensures that every person has the right to profess, practise and propagate his religion. It also ensures that religion is not used to disturb public order, public health or morality. In other words, any one using religion to create hatred and disorder will be processed through the Singapore’s justice system as efficiently as incoming passengers are processed at Changi Airport.

The writer has worked in the area of Human Resources with multinational companies. Email: azizakhmad@gmail. com

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