Monday, 6 April 2015

Singapore and the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew

I was in Singapore on the day of Lee Kuan Yew’s cremation. As the Founding Father of Singapore he was the longest serving Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990 in recent history. Till two years ago even at the age of 89 he was active in the policy domain. Narendra Modi has done India enormous service by participating in his funeral. We even had a national mourning on Sunday. These gestures have made an indelible imprint in the minds and hearts of Singaporeans. George Yeo the former Foreign Minister, with whom I spent some time, told me how deeply touched they were and how indebted they will remain for this symbolic act. Modi’s instinctive decision suggests the high leadership qualities. Leaders emerge not merely from experience but from leadership instincts. Choosing the right moments and the right occasion is what decisive leadership is about. Everyone knows that the relationship between Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew was not particularly warm. India remained contemptuous that a leader of a small city state, successful no doubt, should not preach economic liberalization to a complex country like ours. We viewed his advice with scepticism. Lee Kuan Yew himself regarded India to be a disappointment for not grasping the opportunity which could transform India. He somewhat changed his views following our liberalisation in the 1990s.

In the last 20 years, the India – Singapore partnership has deepened significantly. India for them represents a large demography, unsatiated demand and a market for managerial skills and technology within a functioning democratic framework.    

It is no secret that after Singapore’s partition from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has rapidly transited from a third world country to a developed economy. Its per capita income rose from US $ 540 in 1965 to US $ 54,040 in 2014. It has repeatedly topped the list of the Ease of Doing Business and is an example of successful Public Private Partnership. This is even though many regard Singapore as a family run concern.  Notwithstanding timely elections and a functioning Parliament it has suppressed individual liberties, curbed the media to enforce discipline and secure productivity gains. The younger segment has persistently resented these curbs. In a country with a total geographical area that does not exceed 700 square kilometers and a population of 5 million which is ageing, persistent immigration has caused social unease.

Broadly speaking, the Singapore success story has four lessons for India.

First, that it is possible to improve productivity and growth in a State run enterprise, if given autonomy, domain knowledge and best technology solutions.  Singapore Airlines, the Changi Airport and important infrastructure projects are owned by Temasek- a public sector company. Making public sector run efficiently and principles underlining their efficiency and productivity are worth replicating.

Second, Singapore stands out as the shining example of urban planning and water management systems.  Not a drop of water is wasted. All water which is consumed is recycled from sewage and effective treating of rain water.  Water conservation systems and urban planning are relevant for us as we grapple with problems of persistent water shortages and unplanned urbanisation. Singapore is the best Smart City one can think off. Chandra Babu Naidu has been quick to recognise this and ask Singapore to help in building its new capital at Amravati. We could do so for the cities and give more tangible content to SMART Cities.

Third, China is often quoted as an outstanding example of what may be called Controlled Capitalism. Fostering the private sector culture of innovation, technological upgradation, vastly superior managerial skills and combining them with public resources have created models of Public Private Partnership from which we need to learn. India is seeking to re-jig its Public Private Partnership model in terms of risk assignment, eliminating the odour of crony capitalism in exploiting natural resources and securing appropriate benefits to all stakeholders.

Fourth, the transparent administrative system in Singapore in framing its labour laws has lessons for India where reforms in Labour Laws have now rightly focused the attention of policy makers. Also, while collective bargaining power of Trade Unions in India detracts investments, the Trade Unions in Singapore instead   use the collective bargaining to improve education and other social services for its members.  

Finally, emphasis of Singapore and its overarching theme, investment in Human Resource Development, inculcation of skills, and payment of high wages to public servants to obviate temptations of corruption have significant lessons for us.   

True, Singapore is a city-state. Even more true, it neither has the demography nor the complex conflicts of language, caste and religion as in a polity like ours. Yes, small is not always beautiful but small city-states like Singapore have multiple lessons for us. The legacy of Lee Kuan Yew will be India’s constant reminder of its missed opportunities, more importantly of misplaced arrogance and decisive inability of our political leaders to readapt our economic and social strategies till compelled to do so by our economic crisis has been our decisive disadvantage. It is never too late to learn and we have successfully course corrected. In forging deeper partnership with Singapore we are drawing the right lessons from the legacy of Singapore’s Founding Father. 

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