23 February 2016

Nation building 101: lessons from Singapore


Singapore is a nation born out of chaos. And traces of its less than auspicious beginning still remain, more than 50 years later, alongside a legacy left behind by one man who had a vision to take Singapore from being a third-world country to a first.

It has been nearly a year since the passing of Singapore’s first Prime Minister and founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. The national outpouring of grief was unprecedented. In the immediate days following the news of his death, social media and news sites alike were flooded with messages and tributes from all over the world.

It was all the more poignant as the small city-state was due to celebrate 50 years of independence a few months later. While the annual National Day Parade was exuberant, there was no hiding the tears as Lee was commemorated by a short video segment, and a single orchid placed on the chair left otherwise empty in his memory.

The year of independence was 1965. It was the ninth day of August. In a national broadcast, a tearful Lee announced the separation between Malaysia and Singapore: “The whole of my adult life… I have believed in Malaysia, in merger and the unity of these two characters, you know, it’s a people connected by geography, economics and ties of kinship.”

It was a difficult period in the nation’s history, a time of deadly racial riots and an increasing Communist presence inciting armed revolution. These were among the reasons routinely trotted out by way of explanation for the heavy-handed policies introduced by Lee and enforced by the government. How does one unite a multicultural society that has nothing in common? Lee’s solution to set Singapore on the path ensuring the “welfare and happiness of her people” was to create a political system that curbed free speech and punished dissenters severely.

“Just trust us” could be the government’s mantra, then and now. It echoes one of Lee’s rebuttals in 1988: “I have been in office for now 29 years; I have won 7 general elections since my first in 1959. I think that qualifies me at least to be able to say I know Singapore better than the questioner.” But now without Lee, will that be enough for the generation of Singapore’s youth who grew up knowing war only through the pages of a history textbook?

It is no secret that Singapore’s success is largely due to government intervention. Intensely pragmatic, Lee left no aspect of the country’s development, from overseeing the building of Singapore’s port, banning the sale of chewing gum, or deciding the exact species of flora and fauna to be cultivated, to luck or chance, which led to widespread criticism of an overly paternalistic ‘nanny state’.

Yet Singapore has come a long way in 50 years, shaped by policies arising from the tumultuous circumstances of the country’s naissance. Does a nation’s past dictate its future? It doesn’t have to.

Survival drove Lee and survival is foremost in the minds of Singapore’s present crop of politicians in power, including Lee’s eldest son and the third Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong.  The elder Lee left behind divided opinions of his tactics and stratagems and merely delayed the question of succession. An uncertain future faced the People’s Action Party (PAP), co-founded by Lee, in power since Singapore’s inception and for the first time not under his watchful gaze. Were the citizens of Singapore willing to continue building upon the foundation of his legacy? It would seem so. The PAP won by nearly 70% of the votes in the country’s most recent elections in September 2015.

Lee was a part of the pioneer generation, a term meant as a mark of respect to acknowledge the contributions of those aged 65 years and above who helped build Singapore. According to Chan Chun Sing, an MP for Lee’s former constituency, honouring the pioneer generation and Lee’s legacy means making sure that Singapore continues to succeed, striving to do better and having the spirit and guts to dream big as they did. “Our aim is to lend our shoulders for the next generation of Singaporeans and leaders to stand even taller.”

In a panel discussion hosted by DBS, economist Irvin Seah argued that businesses need to recognise that Singapore’s future does not necessarily have to be state-led. Institute of Policy Studies deputy director for research Gillian Koh encourages firms to be “trailblazers and pathfinders” rather than relying on top-down policies to dictate their direction.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat used to be Lee’s Principal Private Secretary. He was privy to the inner workings of the government and gleaned many lessons from the late Prime Minister. “So” was one of Lee’s favourite words, says Heng. “Say I would report some facts to him. He would say: ‘So?’ I would talk about the implications of the facts, and he would say again: ‘So?’ It would go on like that until we got to: ‘So what does this mean for Singapore and Singaporeans? So, what must we do differently to ensure the success of Singapore and Singaporeans?’”

The answer according to Heng therefore lies in creating value that impacts the world and also has benefits for Singapore. By remaining open, innovative and adaptive to change, Singapore will be able to remain at the forefront of development. Continuing Lee’s dedication to investment in human capital and encouraging foreign investment will set Singapore in good stead for the future.

But a new generation of young Singaporeans, some educated overseas, have come back with fundamentally different opinions and views that could change the course of the nation. In Lee’s own words: “The ones under 30, who’ve just grown up in stability and growth year by year, I think they think that I’m selling them a line just to make them work harder but they are wrong.” The ensuing generation of Singapore’s leaders should continue facing challenges with Lee’s typical pragmatism but combine it with the ability to adapt to the changing expectations of the electorate.

There has been a hike in awareness in government circles of these changes in attitudes. Focus has increasingly shifted to helping students make their own choices based on their strengths, interests and passions instead of forcing them to blindly follow the expectations of others. Greater flexibility will hopefully allow them to develop their own understanding of resilient growth and enable them to build on the foundations laid for them and flourish, in turn.

Adding to the rumblings of change at home, Singapore must also negotiate the turbulent geopolitics of the region. Singapore has good ties with the USA in defence, trade and investment, and also with China, due to its predominantly ethnic Chinese population. Should there be a breakdown of good relations between the US and China, it will be a difficult choice for Singapore to decide between the two.

In five decades, modern Singapore has grown from a sleepy, malaria-infested swamp into an economic powerhouse, unprecedented in the history of the world. In Lee’s own words: “Survival requires you to change; if you don’t change, you become marginalised and you become extinct.” So how will her people write the next chapter of the Singapore story? The next 50 years will tell.

Wei Tien Sng is a CapX contributor.