Letter to Ms Heffernan – the limts of lessons from Singapore

Dear Ms Heffernan,

I refer to your 28 Sept 2014 Huffington Post article “The Limits of Ideology: Lessons from Singapore”.

Next year is not the 50th anniversary of the creation of Singapore. Singapore was created in 1819 when it was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles. Next year will be the 196th year of Singapore’s founding and creation.

East Asian Tiger economies

Singapore is no more successful than the other three East Asian Tiger economies. According to the Penn World Tables, Singapore falls behind both South Korea in real per capita GDP growth since 1960.

Country 2011 over 1960 per capita real GDP (output) Country 2011 over 1960 per capita real GDP (expenditure)
Korea, Republic of 27.1 Korea, Republic of 25.6
Taiwan 14.7 Singapore 21.4
Singapore 9.4 Taiwan 15.1
China 8.8 Hong Kong 11.6
Hong Kong 6 China 8.7


Singapore didn’t just become one of the world’s most important ports under PAP or Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore was already the 5th most important port in the world by the early 1930s when Lee Kuan Yew was still a child and long before PAP was born.

• Singapore was already the estimated 5th or 6th most important port in the world by the early 1930s and the key port in the Straits region by the late 19th century
[Goh Kim Chuan, Environment and development in the Straits of Malacca, pages 107, 114]

Financial centre

Singapore’s financial centre roots can be traced back to colonial times when Singapore served as the banking and financial centre for the surrounding region.

• In the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century Singapore was the most important of the three British “Straits Settlements” functioning as trade entrepots on the Malayan Peninsula. The sizeable flows of goods channeled through Singapore supported a significant business in banking and trade finance. During its colonial period Singapore thus served to a limited degree as banking and financial centre for the immediately surrounding region.
[Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley, page 337]

Lack of natural resources

According to Dr Goh Keng Swee, Singaporeans’ No. 1 most respected post independence leader, Singapore’s lack of natural resources is more than made up for by our priceless geographical location.

• There are four reasons which enabled Singapore throughout her history as a British colony, and today as an independent republic, to survive and even prosper in the face of apparently insurmountable difficulties. First, there is the well-known fact of a superb central geographical location with a natural harbor swept by currents flowing between the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca.
[Goh Keng Swee, The Practice of Economic Growth, Chapter 1: Why Singapore succeeds, pages 6-7]

Complex ethnic composition

Whatever complexity in our ethnic composition could not prevent our three biggest races – the Chinese, the Malays and the Indians from co-existing happily for more than 100 years under British colonial rule. Racial tensions appeared only after Lee Kuan Yew came to power.

• Racial Harmony In Malaya
To those who know their Malaya from one end to the other, no less than to the casual visitor, it is a constant source of wonder how so many different races and communities live and work together in the utmost harmony … we repeat, that the different communities live and work in harmony because the British system of justice and administration enables them to obtain fair play. There are no discriminatory or repressive laws, there are few, if any race prejudices in the bazaars and counting houses, there is nothing to prevent the humblest coolie from rising to great wealth – many indeed have done so …
[The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 26 July 1935, Page 8]

“It is a pleasing feature of life in Malaya that there is not merely a complete absence of friction but much cordiality in the relations between the different races inhabiting it. It is quite common to find Malays, Chinese and Indian all living the same street in perfect harmony and apparently, with some degree of intimacy.” The Mui-Tsai Commission Report Chapter VIII.
[The Straits Times, 1 March 1937, Page 13]

It makes me happy to see the Chinese and other peoples here co-operating so well with each other.
[The Straits Times, 15 November 1940, Page 11]

• The Malayan Melting-Pot
The Sultan of Perak … “I wish to say to you that Chinese and Malay in the past eighty years before the coming of the Japanese lived side by side in absolute peace. The Chinese lived in the midst of Malays without any trace of fear, and the Chinese also fearlessly and peacefully pursued his vocation in any Malay settlement … Here in Singapore we are constantly impressed by the easy, natural and friendly relationships existing between Eurasians, Straits Chinese, Straits-born Indians and others who went to school together and now meet each other in adult life … Boys – and girls – of the local-born communities who sit side by side in the classrooms of Raffles Institution and St. Joseph’s and St. Andrew’s and the A.C.S., learn to become unconscious of racial differences, to meet on common ground, and to accept each other simply as Singaporeans – not as members of this racial community or that. Naturally this process is more penetrating in the secondary schools than in the elementary ones, because the influence of the school is exerted for a longer period and in years of higher mental awakening …
[The Straits Times, 25 May 1946, Page 4]

• S’pore an ‘example’ of race harmony
Singapore has set an example to the world of racial harmony, said Mr. T. P. F. McNeice, President, in reply to Mr. C. F. J. Ess, at the meeting of the City Council yesterday.
[The Straits Times, 29 September 1951, Page 5]

• Duchess praises ‘one people’ idea
The Duchess of Kent, the first Royal Freeman of the City of Singapore, said yesterday that its people were engaged upon a project of far-reaching significance – the casting into one mould of elements derived from many different cultures. “This plan in itself testifies to the good will and good sense so characteristic of the people of this island,’ she said.
[The Straits Times, 2 October 1952, Page 1]

• Police help island troop to learn sailing
Singapore’s 84th Pulau Tekong Sea-Scout Troop is certainly helping to strengthen the bonds of friendship among Malays and Chinese on the island. It is undoubtedly a Sino-Malay affair for half of its 20 members are drawn from each race. Even the four patrol leaders in the troop are equally divided on a communal basis. Members of each patrol, however, are mixed.
[The Singapore Free Press, 17 July 1953, Page 12]

• Our racial harmony inspiration to bishop
An American Negro bishop said in Singapore yesterday that complete racial harmony among students and teachers in Colony schools was an inspiration to him. He said it proved his theory that if you get people of all races close enough together for them to smile at each other racial pride and prejudices will vanish quickly
[The Straits Times, 30 September 1954, Page 4]

• A Chinese bank to train Malay
The Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation has awarded a one-year scholarship to Inche Mohamed Yasin bin Abdul Rahman, a member of the Johore State Council, to study general banking with its head office in Singapore. This is the first time the bank has awarded such a scholarship to a Malay.
[The Straits Times, 3 February 1955, Page 4]

• ‘See yourselves as just one people’ Governor’s advice to teachers
The people of Singapore must not think of themselves in terms of their racial and language loyalties, but as Singaporeans, the Governor, Sir William Goode, said yesterday. Schools must be Singapore schools, not English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil schools … In 1953, he said, English was the only medium of instruction at the college, but today they worked in English, Malay and Chinese. “In this way too the different races in the Colony can be welded into a united people with a common loyalty and a common pride in Singapore and a united determination to work for the good of Singapore.”
[The Straits Times, 12 October 1958, Page 7]

Eighteen American teachers (above) from 11 states left for Bangkok by CPA this morning after a four-day stay here … Prof. Mulder said they were impressed by the racial harmony they had observed in Singapore and had come to know the state much better.
[The Singapore Free Press, 16 July 1959, Page 10]

So many races, but one nation
If a world list were compiled of countries enjoying high degree of inter-racial harmony Singapore would undoubtedly occupy a leading position. Here people of various races work, play and live together happily as one nation. They help each other in time of difficulty. They rejoice in each other’s happiness. And they share each other’s grief. Such is the respect, understanding and goodwill between the Malay, Chinese, Indian, European and other races living here that visitors in Singapore have often praised the State as an example for the rest of the world to follow. The latest visitor to express this view is Mrs. A. Qugley, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, who passed through the State during a tour of the Far East. She said that “the people here must be extremely proud of themselves for the “really great” racial harmony that was evident
[The Singapore Free Press, 6 July 1961, Page 6]

Founding father

Lee Kuan Yew is no founding father of Singapore in any sense of the phrase. Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles not Lee Kuan Yew. There has been no re-founding of Singapore ever since. Lee Kuan Yew did not fight for Singapore’s independence like your founding fathers did. He married us off into Malaysia instead and so caused us to lose our independence to Malaysia. Our independence in 1965 was due to Tungku Abdul Rahman kicking us out of Malaysia, not due to Lee Kuan Yew fighting for our independence. Lee Kuan Yew didn’t even want independence, he cried and cried in front of national television when we separated from Malaysia and ended up convalescing at Changi chalet for 6 weeks. You cannot credit someone who didn’t fight for our independence, who didn’t even want Singapore to be independent, who merely unwillingly received our independence as our founding father. That would be an insult to what founding father means and an insult to all honest Singaporeans.

From Birth to Prosperity

It’s wrong to use the phrase “a nation from birth to prosperity” to describe Singapore post independence because Singapore wasn’t born in 1965 but in 1819 instead.

Singapore was already quite prosperous in 1959. The Penn World Tables puts our 1960 per capita GDP as 3rd in Asia after Iran and Hong Kong. Ours isn’t a rags-to-riches story but a middle income to rich story.

Most importantly, it was our Dutch advisor from the United Nations, Dr Albert Winsemius, not Lee Kuan Yew, who masterminded Singapore’s post independence economic progress.

Discrediting Western principles

Singapore’s inability to solve its problems is not a discredit to Western principles but evidence that it deviates from them. The Western principle of social democracy practiced by Northern and Central European nations has largely resolved the problems you have described – rising inequality, declining social mobility, widening gulf between haves and have-nots, self-entitlement and self-reference of those in power, longest working hours, least happy workers, over half of population wishing to emigrate. The fact of the matter is that for every dollar the Singapore government spends, it takes two back. No matter how it spends, it will always squeeze even more back from the populace. Singapore under the present government will never solve its current problems because it is fundamentally against the Western principle of social democracy.

Excerpts from “The Limits of Ideology: Lessons from Singapore” by Margaret Heffernan, CEO and Author, 28 Sept 2014

Next year will see the 50th anniversary of the creating of Singapore, widely hailed as one of the most successful of the Asian tigers. In that short space of time, the tiny nation state has grown into one of the world’s largest financial cities and most important ports. It has done so by becoming the partner every nation wants to work with: efficient, trustworthy and stable. In education, healthcare and economic competitiveness, Singapore routinely occupies a high position in global rankings. So it’s not surprising that commentators like Thomas Friedman often point to Singapore as doing well what the west does badly.

Competitive Meritocracy but Rising Inequality

Commentators routinely praise the competitive nature of Singapore’s schools and civil service. Slavish devotion to exams and credentials, they like to believe, is what bring the best to the top. In the early days of Singapore’s independence, this principle was coupled with the belief that everyone should have a fair shot at success. But as inequality has risen and social mobility has declined, those values look more like a justification for elitism. Does preserving this meritocracy does more to protect those in power than enable those who aspire to it?

Without social mobility and the continuing expansion of choices to the multi-ethnic population, meritocracy can come to feel like intrinsic, existential superiority: the sense that some are intrinsically more deserving than others. The bubble of money and power is isolating, severing the connections between governors and the governed. The surprise that greeted the 2011 election, in which the opposition to the governing PAP made significant gains, illustrated just how self-referential many in power had become.

With some of the longest working hours in the developed world, some of the least happy workers in the world and a population over half of which would emigrate if they could, Singapore’s society represents a more than statistical challenge. That trickle-down is now widely discredited as an economic defense for inequality only further exposes it to challenge. That a few are so wealthy and so powerful is no longer seen as providing a wider social benefit; indeed the rich may pose a bigger social threat than the poor.

Security requires trade-offs
The physical vulnerability of tiny Singapore, wedged between Malaysia and Indonesia, coupled with its lack of natural resources and its complex ethnic composition, has been used in the past as an argument for restricted freedoms: only a very strong and unquestioned government can protect such a fragile state. Safety demanded the abdication of personal freedoms.

Poetry or Money?
Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, once insisted that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford” but few still believe that that is still true.

US – or THEM?
Seen in this light, the early success of Singapore represents a triumphant validation of principles that the west holds dear. Imitation may be a sincere form of flattery but in holding a mirror up to our values, we may not like what we see; the country’s current challenges and frustrations show us limitations we all need to see. Meritocracies, powerful central states and transactional social modes, in other words, may be enough to get a nation from birth to prosperity – but not nearly enough to keep it there. In that respect, the United States and Europe have far more in common with Singapore than perhaps their governments recognize.
What Singapore holds in reserve, however, is an asset western leaders would give their eye teeth for: a national surplus accrued over many years of fastidious economic management. How will this wealth be used? While western leaders use insolvency as a perennial alibi for their failure to make coherent strategic choices, Singapore’s government has the money and the power to effect real change. Should it fail to do so, after this incisive an analysis of its opportunities, no politicians in Singapore will be able to claim they didn’t see their chance. If, with the freedom to spend that most western leaders lack, Singapore cannot address its problems, then the principles it espouses – principles still broadly accepted by western governments – will be discredited for good.


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