What India can learn from Singapore

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Updated: Apr 25, 2015 1:34 AM

Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore into a global centre for public excellence, India can do the same.

Lee Kuan Yew, the founder, leader, mentor of Singapore, passed away last month at the age of 91. He founded a first-world city-state in a third-world setting when few gave it much of a chance. Both Asia and the world learnt much from his achievements and he gave his advice freely, if asked. He visited India three times, in 1966, 1970 and 1971, but felt that India was let down by its leadership. One of his ardent admirers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his eulogy to Singapore’s formidable leader, said that he had more faith in India’s potential than many of India’s own leaders.

Mrs Indira Gandhi paid her one and only visit to Singapore in 1968 when Lee Kuan Yew was the Prime Minister. Mrs Gandhi was shown the city-state’s enormous development—a world-class port and an airport, and well-planned housing and gleaming hospitals. At her departing press conference, a pesky Indian journalist, with a grin, had asked, “Madam, are you not impressed with what Singapore has achieved?”. To which, Mrs Gandhi haughtily replied, “India is a huge country. I can build 20 Singapores any time.” The journalist quipped, “Madam, why don’t you, it might transform our country.”

The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, also like Mrs Gandhi, saw Singapore as a small city-state. He once compared Lee Kuan Yew to an efficient mayor of a large Chinese city, but nevertheless took many of his ideas and adapted and scaled them up in China. Many Chinese cities, ports and infrastructure facilities were built around the Singapore model.

The idea of a modern Singapore started, according to Singaporean officials, with a Dutch economist hired by the UNDP in the 1960s to provide Singapore a blueprint for development. He looked at Singapore’s natural geography and suggested Singapore become the Rotterdam of the Far East—the breaker port where large ships from the US and Europe would dock to supply all of Asia. The practical Lee Kuan Yew grabbed the idea and ran with it. He started to build Asia’s Rotterdam—the breaker port—but ended up building one of the most efficient ports in the world. He soon realised that if Singapore could become the major port for Asia, it could also build its biggest and most admired airport, with arguably the world’s best airline.

Lee Kuan Yew saw that becoming an efficient transport and trade hub required much more than physical infrastructure. It needed efficient public services to match the infrastructure and finance. He started by modernising a corruption-ridden customs department—and then went on to create the world’s most efficient and well-paid civil services. Trade required finance, so he made Singapore into one of Asia’s premier financial centres. Housing and hospitals followed and Singapore came to be known around the world for not only its business acumen but even more for its public service excellence.

Lee Kuan Yew placed enormous emphasis on education—and not only gave all its citizens a world-class education, but also gradually built Singapore into a major education hub for the region. Today, students, civil servants and professionals form all over Asia come to Singaporean universities for education and training. Soon after the civil war was over, the Jaffna Governor asked that his staff be sent to Singapore for training. Myanmar’s civil service had the same desire to get trained in Singapore as do officials in many emerging economies. He built a multi-ethnic meritocracy in which your race, ethnicity or religion did not matter—what mattered was your aptitude and capability.

Under his leadership, Singapore became not just an economic and transport hub but also a place for global leaders to come for ideas and solutions. He played a key role in building the ASEAN community. He encouraged the entry of former communist countries—Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos—into the community and subsequently played a major role in Myanmar’s engagement within the ASEAN and with the US and the EU. Malaysia expelled Singapore from the Malay Union but later, under Mahathir Mohamad, copied many of Singapore’s ideas for its own development.

In his later years, Lee Kuan Yew was known as the Mentor Minister or just Senior Minister, and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, now runs Singapore as the Prime Minister. Many feel he was too tough and dealt harshly with the opposition. How Singapore handles Lee Kuan Yew’s departure will be a testimony to his mentoring and to the resilience of the institutions he left behind. Will Singapore continue to be the beacon of global excellence in the region, now that the mentor is no longer there? This remains to be seen.

India did not learn enough from Singapore’s experience in the past when Lee Kuan Yew was alive, but there is plenty to learn from what he has left behind. First, we could begin with Air India, which should be privatised back to the Tatas, who could bring Singapore Airlines into a joint venture to restore Air India to its pre-nationalised glory. Second, we could hand over the running of just one or two ports to the Singapore Ports Authority to show us how it’s done. Third, we should create a Temasek-type public holding company and use it to subject our famous Navratnas and Ratnas to the commercial test. Finally, we should learn how to reform our bloated bureaucracy and create a well-paid meritocracy to run government and deliver public services efficiently.

If we could do this, it would be the best legacy to the practical and tough Lee Kuan Yew who always hoped India would get its act together and play a leading role in the new emerging Asian century. His best legacy would be a Sagar Mala of Singapore around India’s long coastline. India exported its expertise and culture to South East Asia long ago, it can now learn from what Lee built in tiny Singapore.

Ajay Chhibber

The author is visiting scholar, Institute for International Economic Policy, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.

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