Singapore: From Third World to First World

S Madhusudhana Rao

It’s no secret that the two Telugu Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana look to Singapore for inspiration to develop their respective states. AP Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu has gone to the extent of seeking Singapore help in preparing the master plan for the new capital city Amaravati. The blueprint is ready and AP is in the process of starting work on its capital city modeled on the lines of Singapore.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Singapore’s success story in a span of 50 years is legendary. While other city states like Dubai and Kuwait have developed on the strength of oil, Singapore has grown into a model country on skills development, discipline, hard work and intelligent leadership. Without any natural resources – it gets water from neighbouring Malaysia – and skilled manpower, the small island state has emerged as an important East-West trading point and a global financial centre in half a century.

If we look at its achievements and accomplishments in every sphere of life, its success is phenomenal and stands high in world socio-economic rankings. Singapore is the world’s fourth largest financial centre; the only Asian country to enjoy AAA credit rating from all the major agencies; the greenest with the highest number of millionaires per capita in Asia; the only country to legislate green building norms; has one of the highest living standards among developed countries with per capita GDP of $56, 284 (2014 figure); and operates one of the busiest container ports in the world.

Singapore is also credited with being the cleanest city, having best public transport system and it is one of the most livable places. Indians can argue that the 750 sq.km island with just about 55 lakh population is easy to manage and govern compared to any big city in this country. But the point not to be missed, and often glossed over, is how Singapore has been able to achieve a mission that is seemingly impossible to accomplish in half a century.

The often cited reason for Singapore’s rise is its draconian laws that curtail personal freedoms, including freedom of expression that encompasses media and politics. While the People’s Action Party (PAP), co-founded by the “Father of Singapore” Lee Kuan Yew, dominates politics, Singapore’s press freedom record is pathetic (it ranks 153 among 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index). There is no opposition party worth its salt to PAP which has won every election since Singapore got Independence (limited self-rule) in 1959 and became a republic on August 9, 1965.

Lee, came to power in 1959 and continued as the undisputed leader until 1990 when he handed over power to his deputy Goh Chok Tong, who stepped down in favour Lee’s son Lee Hsien Loong in 2004. Even after handing over power to Goh, Lee the helmsman had continued to exercise power and guided the nation until his death in March this year at the age of 91. His contribution to Singapore’s nation-building as a regional powerhouse from colonial backwaters was duly acknowledged at the golden jubilee celebrations of Singapore on Sunday, August 9.

Despite the highest regard Singaporeans have for the founding-father, his authoritarian rule and the principles of his governance continue to attract criticism from outside and human rights activists. Once one young Singaporean professional told this writer in a tongue-in-cheek manner that the government thinks for the people! Then, that’s the price they have to pay for being among those who rub shoulders with the rich and powerful nations in the West. But they too admire Singapore for the business opportunities it creates and the competitive edge they provide to entrepreneurs. Low corporate tax structure, world class infrastructure – national carrier Singapore Airlines is one of the best global carriers — and transparency in business deals have earned that country laurels.

As Singapore marked its golden era of economic development, the big question being raised is will it continue to grow as aggressively as it had been in the coming years. Experts see the growth getting stabilized around 2.5 per cent-3 per cent which is the average in most of the developed countries. At the same time, Singapore has embarked on a 10-year economic restructuring plan to adopt itself to new realities of a changing world. Under the plan, Singapore wants to reduce dependency on foreign labour and boost productivity in innovative ways. And, a significant shift will be, according to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to transform the island into a global centre for research and innovation.

Without entering into a debate whether Singapore model is good for a big diverse country like India or not, we can learn a lot from that island nation. Lee Kuan Yew’s three mantras for Singapore’s success hold good for any developing country. They are three Ds: Dedication, Decision and Development. Can our leaders chant these for a change?

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