10 Lessons From Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

10 Lessons From Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore


Few would disagree that Singapore has achieved remarkable success in transforming itself from a tiny third-world country into a first-world city state. As the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding, prepares to hold elections within the next year or so, and mourns the passing of its founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (which The Diplomat covered here), there have been some interesting attempts to look back at the country’s experience to date.

In that vein, last month, one of Singapore’s most renowned (and controversial) diplomats, Kishore Mahbubani, now dean and professor of practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, delivered a lecture in East Timor about what lessons other developing countries – including East Timor – might draw from the city-state’s success. Apart from the lessons themselves, the lecture is interesting because it reveals what Singaporean elites like Mahbubani choose to emphasize – and, equally important, not emphasize – when sieving out what others can learn from their country’s experience.

Mahbubani is a big fan of lists in his remarks, so he focused his attention on ten reasons why Singapore had succeeded.

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First, Mahbubani acknowledges, Singapore got lucky. By accident of fate, Singapore was blessed with good founding fathers like Lee Kuan Yew, S. Rajaratnam and Goh Keng Swee to guide the country just as it was starting out.

Second, the city-state cultivated a culture of meritocracy. Singapore ensured that officers were recruited and promoted by merit and were adequately paid. Mahbubani quotes Lee himself as saying, “A strong political leadership needs a neutral, efficient, honest civil service.”

Third, the country’s leaders used pragmatism as their guiding philosophy. Mahbubani notes that Goh Keng Swee had studied the Meiji Restoration very carefully, and that Japanese leaders had spent significant time trying to study, copy and adapt best practices into Japan from around the world. Singapore aimed to adopt a similar approach.

Fourth, Singapore maximized its maneuverability in its foreign policy. Realizing that small states cannot afford to make enemies, it managed its relationships adroitly in order to preserve peace and prosperity. Mahbubani quotes S. Rajaratnam as saying in 1965 in a UN speech that: “We want to live in peace with all our neighbors simply because we have a great deal to lose by being at war with them. All we therefore ask is to be left alone to reshape and build our country the way our people want it.”

Fifth, Singapore’s leaders focused on starting with small wins. Initially, Mahbubani says, achieving development might not mean sweeping reform, but smaller steps that have a huge impact on the everyday lives of the people such as getting a standing pipe in the village to provide water.

Sixth, Singapore relied not on foreign aid, but on trade and investment to achieve its development goals. Mahbubani argued that a large chunk of Western aid often goes back to the donor country in the form of administrative expenses, consultancy fees and contracts, such that there is actually very little actual transfer of aid to developing countries. He emphasized the success of the Economic Development Board of Singapore in helping bring in foreign direct investment.

Seventh, Singapore had an inclusive policy on ethnic groups. To accommodate the ethnic groups in the country – which include Chinese, Malays and Indians – the country has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. There is also a balance struck in school between having English as a common language of instruction to enable communication and allowing groups to learn their own ‘mother tongue.’

Eighth, Singapore’s leaders believed in thinking long-term. Here, Mahbubani uses the example of Singapore’s need to secure its water supply. Even though the city-state had signed a 100-year water agreement with Malaysia in 1961, its leaders acknowledged the inherent vulnerability of relying on its neighbor for such a critical resource. Therefore, they invested in ways to get their own sources of water, including through reservoirs, desalination plants and water reclamation facilities.

Ninth, Singapore avoided populist measures. For instance, Mahbubani notes the aversion of the country’s leaders to the welfare state, believing that ‘handouts’ undermined self-reliance and fostered a dependence on the state. Nonetheless, he says, the city-state has invested in the welfare of its people in other ways, including through high-quality education and healthcare, affordable public housing and public transportation, and a compulsory saving fund for workers.

Tenth, Singapore’s leaders were honest and not corrupt. Mahbubani acknowledges that this might be the most challenging thing to achieve in his list. Honesty in a country makes people feel confident in their leaders and gives investors the peace of mind they need to do business.

After going through his list, Mahbubani did acknowledge at the end of his lecture that some of these lessons might be difficult to replicate, and that any principles need to be adapted to the local context including in East Timor.

You can read the full text of his lecture, delivered at the Dili Convention Center, here.

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