Learning from Singapore

What we can learn from Singapore

By Roopen Roy Mar 31 2015

Tags: Op-ed

Lee Kuan Yew passed away at the age of 91 on March 23. When he became prime minister, Singapore had a per capita income of about $400. When he stepped down, it was $12,000. Today, it is pushing $62,000, compared with the United States of America’s $55,000. By any measure or benchmark, this is a spectacular achievement.

Can India replicate the success by adopting the Singapore model? The honest answer is: doubtful. Singapore is a tiny city-state covering 718 sq km. It has a population of only 5.5 million. On the other hand, India is spread over 3.3 million sq km with a population in excess of 1.2 billion people and unmatched bio-diversity. She has many languages, ethnic groups and political parties. She celebrates her unity in her magnificent diversity. Not only is the scale of her problems humongous, the complexities of the issues encountered are manifold that of a city-state. The prescriptions and solutions that have worked in Singapore may not be successful if they are simply transplanted to India, which has its own unique form of democracy.

But there are lessons that we can learn from Singapore. Singapore was built on certain defining principles and values. The first and the simplest one that Lee evangelised was: Singapore must be neat and clean. Symbolically, he banned the chewing gum. When a western journalist suggested that chewing gum stimulated thinking and creativity, Lee retorted, “Putting chewing gum on our subway train doors so they don’t open, I don’t call that creativity. I call that mischief-making. If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana.” The country has legislation against litter, graffiti, jaywalking, spitting, expelling “mucous from the nose” and urinating anywhere but in a toilet. Hygiene and cleanliness have always been at the core of many social and economic transformation movements. Even Mahatma Gandhi exhorted his followers to adopt hygienic practices and embrace cleanliness.

It is not a coincidence that Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, began by including cleanliness and sanitation as an important agenda of his bank although hygiene had no direct connection with a bank for the poor. But Grameen was not just another bank or micro-credit institution. It was a powerful social reform movement. Without the campaign for hygiene, it would not have been the success it is.The Grameen system even today pays a lot of attention to monitoring of sanitation and access to clean drinking water.

While physical cleanliness is important, Lee believed that rooting out corruption and transparency were equally vital. In order to build a transparent government, he relied on the twin principles of meritocracy and clean administration. Singapore ministers and civil servants today are drawn from the best talent pool. They typically have received education in excellent universities in Singapore and around the world. They are also among the best paid. Lee, for instance, earned $1.7 million a year. President Obama earns $450,000, chancellor Merkel $234,000 and the British PM around $214,000. In contrast, the Indian prime minister earns about $30,000 a year while the Chinese president earns about $22,000 a year. Civil servants in Singapore are also paid at par with their private sector counter-parts. The bureaucracy in Singapore attracts the brightest and the best. It is not a surprise then that the nation has one of the cleanest and most efficient administrations anywhere.

Singapore has also some of the most profitable and high-performing state-owned enterprises (SOEs) on the planet. Singapore Airlines, Temasek, Changi Airport Authority, SingTel and the Development Bank of Singapore are all SOEs. Our Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) would truly succeed if we combine our passion for improving sanitation and cleanliness with our zeal to remove the filth of corruption from public life and deliver a clean and transparent administration. The twin missions are actually inter-twined and inter-dependent.

Another defining principle of Lee’s Singapore was an obsession to do away with red tape and procrastination by government agencies and regulators. To achieve this, his government took advantage of the high tech without forgetting the high touch. In the World Bank’s report of 2015 on Ease of Doing Business, Singapore is perched at the very top with a #1 rank. India ranks # 142 out of 189. In the foreward, Kaushik Basu, now the chief economist of World Bank, explains what he believes is the greatest strength of this widely consulted Bank report. “The laws that determine how easily a business can be started and closed, the efficiency with which contracts are enforced, the rules of administration pertaining to a variety of activities — such as getting permits for electricity and doing paperwork for exports and imports-are all examples of the nuts and bolts that are rarely visible and in the limelight but play a critical role.”

A small country like Singapore, with few natural resources, comes on top because it has worked very hard to make it extremely easy for foreigners and nationals alike to do business in a hassle-free manner.

Finally, Singapore is a safe, cosmopolitan and multi-cultural city-state. It has not only integrated its majority ethnic Chinese population with the ethnic Malays and Tamils, it makes it easy for expatriates from all over the world to come, work, enjoy, eat, love and pray. On the March 29, as the skies poured down tears in Singapore, as if in sorrow for their dear, departed founder, the present prime minister delivered a powerful eulogy: “To those who seek Lee Kuan Yew’s monument, Singaporeans can reply proudly: Look around you.” The lesson: be remembered in deeds, not in words.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India)