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.
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.”