False lessons from Singapore’s success story

I refer to the 26 Apr 2013 Straits Times report of Mr Richard Lambert’s speech to University of Warwick alumni.

Mr Lambert set out to find the qualities that differentiate successful nations from potential failure ones and ended up holding Singapore up as the success story to learn from. He gave the example of how tiny Singapore has two universities in the top 12 in Asia compared to gigantic India with only three in the top 100. But should Singapore feel proud that it is better than India or some other poor, populous Third World country? Is success simply about being better than the poorest of nations?

Why not Hong Kong?
Within Asia, both Hong Kong and Israel have done better than Singapore in number of ranked universities per 5 million people [2]. Hong Kong’s score is so much higher than Singapore’s yet is not chosen to be the success story to learn from.

Asian country No. of ranked universities Population Ratio
Hong Kong 6 7,071,600 4.242
Israel 3 7,765,900 1.932
Singapore 2 5,183,700 1.929
Taiwan 7 23,293,593 1.503
South Korea 6 49,779,000 0.603
Japan 13 127,817,277 0.509
Turkey 5 73,639,596 0.339
Saudi Arabia 1 28,082,541 0.178
Thailand 1 69,518,555 0.072
Iran 1 74,798,599 0.067
China 9 1,344,130,000 0.033
India 3 1,241,491,960 0.012

Across the world, many nations have done better than Singapore in number of ranked universities per 5 million people [3], yet none is being held up as a success story to learn from.

Country No. ranked universities Population No. ranked universities per 5 million people Remarks [4]
Iceland 1 319,014 15.7 English widely used
New Zealand 6 4,405,200 6.8 English speaking
Ireland 5 4,576,317 5.5 English speaking
Sweden 10 9,449,213 5.3 86% know English
Switzerland 8 7,912,398 5.1 English widely used
Finland 5 5,388,272 4.6 70% know English
Denmark 5 5,570,572 4.5 86% know English
Australia 19 22,323,900 4.3 English speaking
Hong Kong 6 7,071,600 4.2 English speaking
Norway 4 4,953,088 4 English widely used
Netherlands 13 16,693,074 3.9 90% know English
United Kingdom 48 62,744,081 3.8 English speaking
Estonia 1 1,339,928 3.7 50% know English
Austria 6 8,423,635 3.6 73% know English
Belgium 7 11,020,952 3.2 38% know English
Canada 19 34,483,975 2.8 English speaking
Israel 3 7,765,900 1.9 English usage lower
Singapore 2 5,183,700 1.9 English speaking
United States 111 311,591,917 1.8 English speaking
Germany 25 81,797,673 1.5 56% know English
Taiwan 7 23,293,593 1.5 English usage lower
Portugal 3 10,556,999 1.4 27% know English
Italy 14 60,723,603 1.2 34% know English
France 12 65,433,714 0.9 39% know English
Spain 7 46,174,601 0.8 22% know English
South Korea 6 49,779,000 0.6 English usage lower
Japan 13 127,817,277 0.5 English usage lower
Czech Republic 1 10,496,088 0.5 27% know English
Greece 1 11,300,410 0.4 51% know English
South Africa 4 50,586,757 0.4 English speaking
Turkey 5 73,639,596 0.3 English usage lower
Poland 2 38,534,157 0.3 33% know English
Saudi Arabia 1 28,082,541 0.2 English usage lower
Colombia 1 46,927,125 0.1 English usage lower
Thailand 1 69,518,555 0.1 English usage lower
Russia 2 142,960,000 0.1 English usage lower
Iran 1 74,798,599 0.1 English usage lower
Brazil 2 196,655,014 0.1 English usage lower
Mexico 1 114,793,341 0 English usage lower
China 9 1,344,130,000 0 English usage lower
India 3 1,241,491,960 0 English widely used

Mr Lambert also highlighted Singapore’s superior test scores for 15-year-olds compared to Germany and the US but forgot to consider our inferior Human Development Index compared to Germany and the US. Similarly, Mr Lambert pointed to our superior Human Development Index over France and the UK but forgot to consider that the UK has more ranked universities per 5 million people than Singapore. Mr Lambert’s selective comparison is thus meaningless because any specific example he gave can be countered by other examples that point to the contrary.

Better insight can be gained if all nations are compared together. When all nations / economies are ranked according to the average of reading, mathematics and science scores of 15-year olds, 6 out of the top 9 are East Asian nations / economies. This suggests that Singapore’s excellent 15-year-old test scores is nothing out of the ordinary amongst East Asian societies and that East Asia almost without exception excels in 15-year-old test scores. Furthermore, Hong Kong once again does better than Singapore but is once again passed over as the success story to learn from.

Rank Country / economy Average of reading, math and science Overall reading Mathematics Science
1 Shanghai-China 577 556 600 575
2 Hong Kong-China 546 533 555 549
3 Finland 543 536 541 554
4 Singapore 543 526 562 542
5 Korea-South 541 539 546 538
6 Japan 529 520 529 539
7 Canada 527 524 527 529
8 New Zealand 524 521 519 532
9 Chinese Taipei 520 495 543 520

When it comes to Human Development Index, Hong Kong again scores better than Singapore but is again not held up as the success story to learn from.

Rank Nation / economy 2012 Human Development Index (HDI)
1 Norway 0.955
2 Australia 0.938
3 United States 0.937
4 Netherlands 0.921
5 Germany 0.92
6 New Zealand 0.919
7 Ireland 0.916
7 Sweden 0.916
9 Switzerland 0.913
10 Japan 0.912
11 Canada 0.911
12 South Korea 0.909
13 Hong Kong 0.906
13 Iceland 0.906
15 Denmark 0.901
16 Israel 0.9
17 Belgium 0.897
18 Austria 0.895
18 Singapore 0.895
20 France 0.893

For some reason, Mr Lambert consistently chooses Singapore over Hong Kong as the success story to learn from even though Hong Kong consistently outperforms Singapore in all three factors of university rankings, 15-year-old test scores and Human Development Index employed by Mr Lambert to support his argument.

Qualities for national success
To answer his important question on the qualities for national success, Mr Lambert simply quoted from Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s book “Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going” which mentioned amongst other things maximisation of human resources through training and education and strong governance and institutions. But Mr Lambert’s quest to prove Mr Lee right through selective comparison of university rankings, 15-year-old test scores and human development proved futile. Singapore better than Germany and US in 15-year-old test scores but worse than Germany and US in Human Development Index is like better education leading to lower national success. Similarly, Singapore better than UK in Human Development Index but worse than UK in number of ranked universities per 5 million people is like achieving greater national success despite worse education.

Mr Lambert didn’t even bother to prove Lee’s assertion about the importance of strong governance and institutions. But if strong governance is the key to Singapore’s success, how come Hong Kong’s laissez faire governance has given Hong Kong even greater success in all three areas of 15-year-old test scores, university rankings and human development? Hong Kong is living proof that strong governance is not necessary for success and that laissez faire governance can bring about even greater success.

Leapfrog and unparalleled international entrepot
Lee may have said that his team brought in the multinationals in order to leapfrog the region. The truth however was that it never occurred to Lee to leapfrog the region and that he actually wanted and actively pushed for a merger with Malaysia in order to realise import substitution for the Malaysian market. But fate has it that we were kicked out of Malaysia which scuttled Lee’s plans. But lucky for us we had Dr Winsemius’ leapfrogging plan which we dutifully followed in the absence of other alternative plans.

Singapore’s merchandise exports as a percentage of GDP is lower than that of Hong Kong’s and so cannot be more than twice its nearest rival.

2011 WTO data (Apr 2013) Singapore Hong Kong
Merchandise exports (million USD) $409,503 $455,573
Services exports (million USD) $128,891 $118,050
GDP (million USD) $239,700 $248,612
Merchandise exports as % GDP 1.71 1.83
Services exports as % GDP 0.54 0.47

Singapore was already a prosperous international entrepot back when we were a British colony [6]. It certainly wasn’t the strong governance of Lee but the combination of astute British colonial governance and local enterprise that gave us our unparalleled international entrepot [5].

Singapore’s period fertility may be 1.2 but our cohort fertilities for women aged 15 to 44 are much higher than 1.2. It is ultimately the cohort fertility that determines how much of our population gets replaced in the long run so we are getting all hyped up over the wrong figure.

[1] Straits Times, Lessons from S’pore’s success story, 26 Apr 2013, Richard Lambert

[2] Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-2013, Asian region

[3] Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-2013, World rankings

It is worth noting that nations with high level of English usage tend to be ranked higher than nations with lower levels of English usage. For example, South Korea is ranked in the bottom half, yet there is no reason why South Korean universities are of lower quality than say much higher ranked British universities since their graduates produce such world beating products like Samsung Galaxy while their British counterparts don’t. This anomaly suggests some deep issues with the Times Higher Education university rankings:

• Within Asia, the two Singapore universities scored the highest in international outlook because we have the highest percentage of foreigner students and professors. This in turn is due to our excellent English environment which is easier for most foreigners to immerse in than say a Japanese, Mandarin or Korean environment. The international outlook criterion is unfair to universities in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and other non-English medium universities.

• The teaching / learning environment criterion is a popularity contest dependent on the impression of academics being surveyed. English again plays an important role here because countries with mostly non-English medium universities will not be as popular or as well known to academics.

• The industry income criterion is marred by purchasing power parity which, in the case of Singapore, is notoriously wrong. According to purchasing power parity, Singapore is deemed low cost compared to the US even though most recent international surveys put Singapore as being more costly than the US.

• Derek Thiam Soon Heng, Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, Singapore in Global History, page 57
By the time the Suez Canal opened in 1869 and with the advent of the steamship revolution in the latter half of the nineteenth century, this small settlement and outpost of British imperialism had become a global port that could rival any other in the world.

• Goh Kim Chuan, Environment and development in the Straits of Malacca
page 107
The growth of Singapore to its position not only as the key port of the Straits region by the late nineteenth century but also to a position as a major global port is perhaps the most exciting aspect of economic change in the Straits in this period.
page 114
By the early 1930s, Singapore was estimated to be the fifth or sixth most important port in the world.

• Peggy Teo and Kalyani Mehta and Thang Leng Leng and Angelique Chan, Ageing in Singapore: Service needs and the state, page 43
Singapore’s economy has a long record of being ‘plugged in’ to the global economy. As a major entrepot trading centre in Southeast Asia in colonial times, Singapore has always been connected to international trade and economic trends.

• Abu Talib Ahmad and Liok Ee Tan, New terrains in Southeast Asian history, page 152
Singapore’s entrepot trade was global in character, and the two sides of the entrepot trade were complementary, manufactures being paid for by the Straits produce. Thus, Singapore thrived as the intermediary for the trade between the advanced industrial economies and countries with lower levels of achievement… Singapore was the example par excellence of a colonial port that had prospered on global trade because its overlord had the wisdom not to confine its trade for narrow imperial gain.

• Yeo Kim Wah, Political Development in Singapore, 1945-55, page 14
Since its foundation, Singapore had rapidly developed into a prosperous international free port. Its success was due to joint Sino-British expertise, capital and labour. By the 1930s Singapore had become a trade focus for an immense and wealthy area stretching from the Bay of Bengal to China and embracing the whole of Southeast Asia. This entrepot trade in tropical produce of the surrounding regions and imported manufacturing goods from the West was the backbone of the Colony’s economy

• Sin Kiong Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition: Business, Politics, and Socio-Economic Change, 1945-1965, page 231
This entrepot economy was a combined product of Singapore;s geographical location and the deliberate policies of the British policies after 1819. The international free trade policy of the Straits Settlements Government has also done much to attract the trade of the nearby countries to Singapore and to make the city a clearing house for the products of the area known as south eastern Asia. In 1926 Singapore’s total trade peaked at $1,886.7 million. The international trade of Singapore formed about 1.33% of the total international trade of “the free world” in 1956

• Betts, Raymond F, Uncertain dimensions: Western overseas empires in the twentieth century, page 126
Singapore’s unique role as international entrepot is reflected in its occupational ratios: 66.6 percent of the population was gainfully employed in the tertiary sector in 1921.


One Response to “False lessons from Singapore’s success story”

  1. John Says:

    How can you compare a tiny country like singapore to India…India is a big country and among top countries of the world…its insult to compare it with singapore

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