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Inside Asia

Kishore Mahbubani

Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Singapore: Next 50 Years

Singapore marked its 50th year of independence in August, celebrating its remarkable economic growth and prosperity.

Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's former ambassador to the United Nations and former Permanent Secretary to the Foreign Ministry, lived and witnessed the country's transformation.

Currently the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, named after Singapore's late founding father, he is also know as an influential and provocative writer, and is often referred to as one of the top global thinkers.

He spoke to NHK Singapore on how the small nation arrived at its place today and on the challenges it faces in the future.

Below are excerpts from the interview:

Evaluating Singapore's progress and achievements of past 50 years

One of the most outrageous claims I make is that not since human history began, has any society been as successful as Singapore has been. By that I mean that no society has improved the living standards of its people as quickly and as comprehensively as Singapore has done in 50 years. So it's not just about economic development. Everyone knows how Singapore's per capita income went from 500 dollars in 1965 to 55,000 dollars today. It's an amazing increase but it's also about the social conditions of Singaporeans, about how 90% of Singaporeans have lived in homes that they own.

We have one of the world's best education systems in the world. We have one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. We have wonderful healthcare systems. So you know overall, if you are looking for a place to live in, it's hard to find a better place than Singapore to live in and that kind of remarkable kind of achievement on a comprehensive basis, virtually no other society can match what Singapore has done.

Late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's contribution to the country's success

I think his contribution to the success of Singapore was phenomenal. Absolutely. One reason why Singapore was exceptionally successful is that our founding fathers were probably as brilliant as the founding fathers of the United States of America. So you had this remarkable team of leaders including Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Dr. Goh Keng Swee ... and by the way Dr. Goh Keng Swee who was the architect of Singapore's economic miracle studied the Japanese Meji Restoration intensely, so that Singapore could learn lessons from Japan and that other third man, a key leader was Mr. Rajaratnam, the foreign minister. So you had an A-team of Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam and others that explains the success of Singapore.

The secret formula of Singapore's success

Well you know every student who comes to study at the Lee Kuan Yew school of public policy where I'm the dean, is given the secrets of Singapore's success. I give them away free of charge and I say that if you follow the secret formula of Singapore you will succeed.

I call it the MPH formula. M stands for meritocracy and meritocracy means that you pick the best people to run the country, to run the public service, to run the leading organizations. So you don't choose your relatives for example, to become the Economic Minister or the Finance Minister of the country.

The second principle is pragmatism and the pragmatism that Singapore implemented was learned from Japan. Dr. Goh Keng Swee saw that Japan succeeded because Japan went round the world in the Meji Restoration to learn best practices from the rest of the world. So Dr.Goh Keng Swee said, "OK! If Japan can succeed by learning from the rest of the world, so can Singapore!" So that's pragmatism.

H is for honesty and that's the hardest because the reason why most third world countries have failed is because of corruption and Singapore's leaders were ruthless in terms of eliminating corruption. They led by example. So they didn't accept a penny as a bribe and the Minister who accepts a gift goes to jail. So when you set very high standards, then clearly corruption was killed in Singapore and that's one of the reasons why Singapore's success was so phenomenal.

Singapore can be the capital of the Asian century

I think some of principles that led to Singapore's success in the first 50 years must carry on. So MPH, meritocracy, pragmatism, honesty must carry on but how you implement them, has got to change.

The biggest mistake that Singapore will make will be to say "Hey! All these policies made us exceptionally successful in the first 50 years, let's just carry on in the next 50 years, let's switch to autopilot and carry on ..." and that will be a disaster for Singapore because the world is changing so fast. So, all the things that you did in the first 50 years you cannot repeat in the next 50 years.

To give you a simple example: one reason why Singapore succeeded in the 60s and 70s is because we welcomed foreign direct investment, we welcome manufacturing, the wages were low in Singapore and we got lots of investments ... but there was no competition then from China, India, Vietnam or Indonesia.

Today, all these countries are competing with us, so you cannot get the same kind of foreign investment that we got in the first 50 years. You've got to change. Technology is another major challenge. Jobs are disappearing because of technology. So you have to anticipate the new challenges and craft new policies to meet the new challenges because if Singapore doesn't do that, then Singapore can go down.

I've just published a book called "Can Singapore Survive?" I gave 3 scenarios because you can never predict the future.

I gave: "Yes," Singapore can survive and thrive, "No" Singapore can fail, "Maybe" Singapore can succeed. 3 Scenarios. On balance I'm very optimistic for Singapore and I think the next 50 years for Singapore are likely to be even better years for Singapore because you know why ... ?

Just as London served the European 19th century as the capital of the European century and just as New York served as the capital of the 20th American century, Singapore has a wonderful opportunity to serve as the capital of the 21st Asian century.

That's because Singapore is the only modern city in Asia, where the 4 major civilizational streams: the Chinese civilizational stream, the Indian civilizaitonal stream, the Islamic civilizational stream and the western civilizational streams ... all these 4 streams co-mingle and live happily in Singapore. Now no other modern city has that advantage. So that's why we have a major competitive advantage today and we can clearly be the capital of the Asian century.

Domestic and external challenges

I think Singapore will face both domestic challenges and external challenges. I think the domestic challenge it will face, I mean as I have said in my book, since Singapore has emerged as one of the richest countries in the world, with probably more foreign reserves per capita than any other country except for some oil kingdom in the gulf, it is possible that a populist politician could emerge and he could say "Hey, you vote for me, I will send each Singapore household 10,000 dollars a month ..." and that's only 17 billion dollars for 1.7 million households in Singapore. Now Singapore can afford that, but if you have that kind of populist leader, Singapore will go down very fast. So that's a big danger that we can face.

Then of course on the external front, what Singapore needs to worry about is that if things get bad between the United States and China, which could happen, it hasn't happened, let's hope it doesn't happen but it could happen, then Singapore will be put in a very difficult position if it has to choose between America, with whom it has a very very close relationship on defense, economics, education, culture and so and so forth ... and then China with whom Singapore has a very close ethnic, cultural, economic relationship, we have to maintain good ties with both. If you are asked to choose between the two, we'd be in deep trouble. So these are the kinds of challenges that Singapore could face in the years to come. So Singapore should not take its success for granted.

Productivity to drive future growth

Well I think the days of 7% growth, 6% growth 5% growth are over.

The future economic growth of Singapore will depend a lot on improving the productivity of its population. I mean as you know for a while Singapore is growing rapidly, because Singapore is importing a lot of foreign talent, foreign labor ... now that has created a tremendous political backlash in Singapore. So the government can no longer bring in a large amount of foreign talent, foreign labor and the Prime Minister has spoken about this quite candidly.

So future growth will depend on growth in productivity of the people. So I think if Singapore can grow at 2-3% a year that will be phenomenal and that's traditionally the rate of growth of most OECD countries.

I am afraid that many people in Singapore do not fully understand how difficult it is to improve productivity by 2-3% a year. That's something, that's an area where Singaporeans need a serious wake up call.

Singaporeans need to be paranoid and confident

One of Singapore's biggest challenges is that it has to remain paranoid because you know Singapore is an absurdly small state and it's quite easy for Singapore to lose its identity. So it's got to be paranoid about its future but it has got to be paranoid and yet remain confident and that's a big challenge because psychologically, paranoid people are not confident and confident people are not paranoid.

So maintaining both is an unusual challenge but that's part of the challenge of being a Singaporean and I think Singaporeans got to accept that, that we are a uniquely disadvantaged state, we have to accept the disadvantages, live with them and thrive despite the disadvantages.

On achieving happiness while constantly striving for excellence

I don't see a necessary contradiction between striving for excellence and remaining happy because let's say we strive to retain Changi Airport as the best airport in the world, I think we can do it and if we succeed, actually, people feel happy knowing that their airport is ranked number 1 in the world.

Similarly, if we strive to make the port of Singapore the most efficient port in the world and if we succeed, then people will say "ah, we are so happy we have the world's most efficient port." So success and happiness are not necessarily contradictory ... but of course if you have to really "kill" yourself right, to maintain something then obviously you may get into trouble.

I think fortunately with modern technology, with education, you can actually become very productive and yet not have to "kill" yourself so that's the balance that Singapore has to do and I think it can be done.

I honestly do not know whether Singaporeans will become happier in the next 50 years. I know that they can become happier in the next 50 years but it's very important, I have found from my experience in life that happiness comes from self-reflection. Happiness comes from self-understanding. Happiness comes from understanding not just what one's strengths are but what one's weaknesses are and to find that balance.

I think there hasn't been enough reflection in Singapore's society. So if we go and let's say after celebrating after 50 exceptional years, if we spent 5-10 years reflecting on who we are, what we are and what we can achieve, then I think we can achieve happiness.

The biggest risk for the future of Singapore is ... not to take risks

If you ask me what are the things that keep me awake at night when I worry about Singapore's future ... the one thing that keeps me awake at night is this culture of risk aversion that has developed in Singapore and that's the exact opposite of what our founding fathers were like.

I mentioned the 3 exceptional founding fathers. Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and Rajaratnam. They were remarkably brave and they would take big risks and Goh Keng Swee went ahead and built an Industrial estate in Jurong without having a single penny of investment upfront and everyone thought this was going to be Goh Keng Swee's folly. Instead it turned out to be one of his biggest success stories.

So in the same way, one bold policy that Singapore can try to do, is to become the first society in the world that has zero car ownership. That doesn't mean that there are no cars. It just that it means that with modern technology, you can take your smartphone and your smartphone can get a car to wherever you are within 5 minutes and it'll probably be a driverless car, it'll take you to your destination, drop you off, deduct the cost from your smart phone, and you don't have to worry about parking, road tax, purchasing a car, so that's a heaven. That's the kind of bold policy that you need the government to take the lead in and do in the same way as the founding fathers did in 1965.

It was easier in some ways for the founding fathers to take risk because they were all expected to fail and they had no choice. They had to take risk.

Now it's of course easier for the current generation to avoid taking risk because life is so comfortable, so why change. But that's the biggest risk of all, because if assume that if you go on autopilot and don't change anything, if you assume you can continue to succeed, then Singapore's headed for trouble. So it's important for the population and the leaders to agree that the riskiest thing that Singapore can do, is to not take any risks.

So that's what we got to speak about and that's what I speak about in my book "Can Singapore survive?" That's what I hope will be the big question that Singapore will try to answer in the next 50 years.

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