Singapore showed us the way
Singapore’s quantum jump from the Third to the First World was possible only due to the able leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, who built not a ‘welfare' but a ‘workfare' society with social values of mutual respect, harmony and hard work. India needs to emulate him
Singapore has made a quantum jump in just five decades, thanks to the able leadership of its tallest politician, Lee Kuan Yew, who became the Prime Minister at a very young age of 35. He remained in that chair for 31 years (from 1959 to 1990) and later on continued as a Senior Minister in the Cabinet till he passed away in 2015.
From the day Singapore, along with Malaysia, gained independence from the British in 1963, it had not been a bed of roses for the country. Uneasy union with Malaysia proved to be troublesome and Singapore had to part company with it in 1965.
Protecting its territorial integrity was paramount, for which, Singapore had to post haste, create a standing Army, instead of just a couple of battalions which it then had. These battalions had been raised by the British and at the time of independence, were being commanded by a Malaysian brigadier.
Singapore has not one but two Muslim majority nations as its neighbors — Indonesia in the south and Malaysia in the north — waiting for the slightest opportunity to invade the tiny city state and seize power.
The British were reluctant to help in raising an Army since the Labour party in power under Harold Wilson in 1965, was busy drawing up plans to withdraw from all its bases east of Suez.
After much scouting around, including India and Egypt, it was ultimately Israel which came to Singapore’s rescue. Its Army instructors were flown in to Singapore as ‘Mexicans’ so as to not arouse much suspicion of its neighbours. Like Israel, Singapore too now has service in its defence forces mandatory for two years for all-boys completing 12+ schooling so that the three main ethnic groups bond with each other and develop a sense of pride and unity.
Moreover, in event of emergency, almost 250,000 soldiers could be mobilised in a short period of time, as it happens in Israel. While New Zealand helped train its Naval personnel, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and the US Defence department helped train Singapore’s Air force personnel.
With unemployment hovering at 14 per cent, the economy had to pick up fast so that the unemployed would not take to the streets. With a mix of 74 per cent of its population of Chinese decent, 13 per cent Malay, nine per cent Indian and rest a motley of other South east Asian origin, Singapore had a potential for race riots.
Singapore, at that time, was primarily dealing with raw materials from Malaysia and Indonesia, such as rubber sheets, copra, rattan and pepper etc, since large merchant ships could dock in its deep water port. This kind of economy had to change if it had to take its rightful place in the sun.
Hong Kong, which is a comparable island city, has the advantage of the massive Chinese hinterland, which it was serving to primarily deal with non-communist nations. Leave alone boasting of such a hinterland, Singapore had none, having walked out of its marriage with Malaysia.
With no raw materials for MNCs to buy nor a very large market to which they could sell their products, it was going to be quite difficult to attract Foreign Direct Investment. The strategy evolved was to make its education, health, public and personal security, telecommunications, transportation and services to same standard as a first world country.
Once the MNCs were convinced that their investment would be safe and there was an intelligent pool of engineers, managers, entrepreneurs, and other professionals, they would come in droves and establish industries. It was ‘Operation boot strap’ in which the nation had to rise above its neighbours creating an ‘Oasis’ of first world efficiency in their midst.
The Economic Development Board, set up in 1961, went about the task of planning but had a hard job since most of the MNCs they met had no idea of where Singapore was. Out of the 50 companies that visited the US and Europe, may be just one responded by an actual visit.
Ultimately, setting up 9,000 acre industrial estate on Jurong island with tax free incentive for five years, extendable to 10 years, resulted in a break through in 1968, when Texas Instruments decided to set up a semiconductor manufacturing line. This was followed by Hewlett Packard and other American companies which soon overtook the British, Dutch and Japanese investments.
Lee built not a ‘welfare’ but a ‘workfare’ society with social values of mutual respect, harmony and hard work. Subsidised health care and housing made up for low salaries which in any case was a livable wage. Singapore’s crowning glory was when its stock exchange opened on 1973 and by 1990, it had become the fourth largest stock trading center after New York, London and Tokyo.
(The writer is a former Member, Railway Board)
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