Singapore succeeded by being reliable, and well-educated, in a flaky world

Singapore, the Asian city-state of 5.5 million people crammed on to several islands of not much more land area than metropolitan Winnipeg, has a decidedly illiberal streak. Travelers entering the country at Changi Airport must turn their chewing gum, a prohibited good,  over to Customs officers, and submit any foreign newspapers, books or magazines, which are considered controlled goods, for inspection. Journalists, filmmakers and bloggers who irritate the government can easily find themselves being sued for libel, and the domestic servants who made up four percent of the Singaporean population in 2012 had to wait until 2013 to get the legal right to a one-day weekend despite their employers’ collective fury.

Yet amid this heavy-handedness, Singapore has made strides matched by few nations in the world to secure a higher quality of life for its citizens. When it obtained its independence in 1965 — unusually, by being expelled from Malaysia — it was an impoverished country with a GDP per capita of $500 U.S.

Nearly fifty years later, in 2013, Singapore’s GDP per capita was equivalent to $55,000 U.S. It is unequally distributed wealth, to be sure. But just a kilometre away, across the narrow strait that separates the two countries, Malaysia’s per capita GDP was just $10,000 U.S. that same year.

The gap between Singapore and Indonesia, just 10 kilometres away in the opposite direction, is even more extreme: at $3,475 U.S. per capita, Indonesia was as poor in 2013 as Singapore was at independence in inflation-adjusted terms.

Much of this will be credited to Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister who ruled Singapore directly from 1959 to 1990, and then indirectly as “Senior Minister” and then “Minister Mentor” until 2011, who died at age 91 today.

What was so special about Lee’s rule that allowed a tiny island country that seemed to have everything going against it in 1965 to achieve a level of success that eluded its neighbours just a few kilometres away?

A 2013 op-ed by Prof. Calestous Juma of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University noted that Singapore’s success largely came down to focusing on the right priorities. Most important among these were the fact that Singapore offered a far more honest and reliable system of government than its neighbours, and a well-educated and largely bilingual English- and Mandarin Chinese-speaking workforce. As Juma wrote:

In fact, governance distinguished Singapore from its neighbors. As Lee Kuan Yew says: “They are not clean systems; we run clean systems. Their rule of law is wonky; we stick to it. We become reliable and credible to investors.”

His key message on the driving force behind Singapore’s success is simple: “The quality of a nation’s manpower resources is the single most important factor determining national competitiveness. It is the people’s innovativeness, entrepreneurship, team work, and their work ethic that gives them that sharp keen edge in competitiveness.”

He emphasizes the importance of knowledge in economic transformation but also rejects the classical separation between scholarship and entrepreneurship. “Those with good minds to be scholars should also be inventors, innovators, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs; they must bring new products and services to the market to enrich the lives of people everywhere.”

This lesson from the evolution of Singapore’s educational system poses great challenges for most developing countries. They run outmoded educational systems that do not reflect the entrepreneurial demands of modern times.

Juma also notes that Singapore succeeded by having transportation and communications links to the rest of the world that not only worked reliably, but would not have been possible without the rule of law:

One of the critical areas that require tough decisions include large infrastructure investments that lay the foundations for economic growth. Singapore built “world-class infrastructure…good communications by air, by sea, by cable, by satellite, and now over the Internet.”  But such long-term investments demand not only having long-term economic vision, but consistence and predictability in the rule of law.

That offering reliability — reliable administration, reliable rule of law, reliable education, reliable communication, and reliable transportation, among other things — is the key to national success should be a surprise to no one. It is by the same formula that Denmark, Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland and Norway came to make the Top Five in this blog’s World’s 10 Best-Managed Countries list in December, 2014.

And they did so without Singaporean-style illiberalism: in fact, those top-five countries are about as small-l liberal as they come.

The Singaporean lesson offers ideas for consideration here in Manitoba, a province that perceives itself to be an economic under-performer.

Manitoba already benefits from some of the same attributes that allowed Singapore to grow: reliable communications links to the rest of the world and the rule of law most of all.

But Manitoba lags most in producing healthy, well-educated people —  the “single most important factor” in building a competitive economy, as noted above.

Manitoba regularly ranks lower than almost every other province in terms of educational outcomes. While 68 percent of the Canadian labour force aged 25 years and over had a college diploma, trades certification or university degree in 2014, Manitoba’s 60 percent was not only well below the national average, it was the worst of the 10 provinces.

The 11 percent of the age-25-plus labour force who never finished high school was the second highest rate in Canada, just below Prince Edward Island’s 12 percent and somewhat higher than the Canadian average of eight percent.

To be fair, improving Manitoba’s performance in this area is something that Manitoba governments have been working away at for the past 20 years or so, recognizing not just that poor educational outcomes condemn not just the living to a lower quality of life, but that a parent’s educational outcome is one of the best predictors of their children’s eventual outcome.

This has also been helped by Manitoba’s eager intake of immigrants, whose children “were much more likely to participate in postsecondary education than students with [Canadian]-born parents”, as Statistics Canada noted in 2013. This suggests that in addition to meeting current labour market needs, immigration could also change Manitoba’s core culture from one that until the ’50s largely disregarded higher education to one that eagerly embraces it.

While it won’t necessarily produce an economic miracle of Singaporean proportions, sticking diligently to improving educational attainment rates among those born here and bringing in as many newcomers with great ambitions for their children as we can accommodate would serve Manitoba well.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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