Singapore’s path to success worth studying

Dear Mr Lu Pin Qiang,

I refer to your article which first appeared in the Malaysian newspaper, Sin Chew Jit Poh and subsequently reproduced by the Straits Times on 27 Aug 2010.

You said many people would agree that MM Lee is one of the most successful politicians in recent times and that ‘his methods of governance’ are worth studying. The four ‘methods’ you refer to are:

1. Having leaders of integrity who have the trust of the people

The PAP consistently scores about 60% in popular votes in recent times. In other words, as much as 40% of the electorate do not trust the PAP. That’s a huge proportion and it shows that our leaders do not really have the trust of the people. Yet Singapore succeeds just the same. Similarly in Taiwan, the people are sick of their leaders’ corruption be it the KMT or the DPP. Yet Taiwan succeeds just the same. Thus, having the trust of the people is not a critical factor that explains Singapore’s success.

2. Having meritocracy

The Singapore meritocracy is based on examinations with scholars who top examinations becoming top bureaucrats. It is no different from the examination system for Mandarin scholars in olden day China. The same exam-based meritocracy is also at work in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. If meritocracy is one of the pillars of Singapore’s success, it is a pillar rooted in Confucian ethics, not MM Lee.

3. Having a level playing field and no discrimination

The Chinese are discriminated against in Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. Yet in all these countries, the Chinese turned out to be the most successful. Thus, being discriminated against has not led to poorer outcomes. On the other hand, the privileged position of the Bumiputras and of the native Indonesians did not lead to their greater success. Hence, discrimination does not explain failure nor does the lack of discrimination explain success.

4. Use of English

The extensive use of English in Singapore is a legacy from our British colonial past rather than a method attributable to MM Lee. The use of English to varying degrees in Hong Kong, India and Malaysia is also a consequence of our shared colonial past.

Taiwan and South Korea are two examples where success is not rooted in the extensive use of English. Similarly, China’s meteoric rise in recent times is despite the fact that it does not make extensive use of English. Also, if we were to look at the Philippines and to a lesser extent at India and Malaysia, the greater use of English did not translate to greater success for these countries compared to other countries with absolutely no English legacy. Thus, the use of English is also not a critical success factor for nations.

You lament and attribute Malaysia’s lagging behind Singapore to the absence of the four aforementioned factors. Yet, three of the four factors have been shown to be without basis. Only meritocracy remains valid as an explanation to Singapore’s success. But that factor exists in all Confucian societies, not just Singapore.

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One Response to “Singapore’s path to success worth studying”

  1. My Brain Bank Says:

    To some extent, I agreed.

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