Why is Singapore a model nation?
A visionary leadership along with a multilayer development planning has been the integral mantra to build a modern Singapore that proudly celebrates 50 years of independence. A benevolent dictatorship emerging from a democratic mandate empowered the regime to ensure the fastest judiciary that shepherded all economic endeavours into a quickest takeoff within 20 years of independence and the country became the brightest success story of the free market economy. Singapore is a model not only because of its high per capita income (more than $56,000), which is also high in many oil rich countries, but because of its sustainable growth path that has been consistently inspirational to any developing nation. Nothing in Singapore happened by chance: "Everything we achieved was planned and engineered," a new generation entrepreneur told me in a meeting.
The model of irresistible growth that Singapore displayed surpassed that of Japan since the 1990s when Japan entered a new era of economic slump. Singapore ventured the risky path of trade openness when any move for liberalisation was viewed as desperate and dangerous. But Singapore understood that it will not be able to survive by closing its doors to the external world. The courage paid off and the country soon rose to be a paragon of globalisation and a business paradise for the world.
Within 50 years since its independence, Singapore set a bar which many countries cannot achieve in a hundred years. Inheriting a tiny piece of land and a poor community of inhabitants, the leadership under Lee Kuan Yew, understood that the nation would need to make the best use of its geographic advantage. And to make it happen, the resource-scarce island welcomed skilled foreigners and ignored conservative feelings of the natives. Long term economic interests reigned supreme. We got a modern Singapore, whose trade-GDP ratio - the highest in the world - exceeds 250 percent, indicating how Singaporeans embraced David Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage more than anyone else.
Some critics reject the Singaporean model: it cannot be a paradigm of development for others because of its dictatorial ingredients. These critics fail to realise that the Singaporean rule is different from the multiple examples of military dictatorship that eventually engendered social conflicts and poor economic performances in both Asia and Africa. A government needs some degree of command to carry out its development projects in line with its long term objectives. If a leader can create that sense of patriotism, people remain engaged and supportive to the leader's directives even though the journey may often be bumpy and painstaking.
The Singapore government never succumbed to any chaotic demonstration that they deemed counterproductive to the economy. The authority turned a deaf ear to even China, and deported a union of Chinese bus drivers when their demand for a wage hike disrupted transport services. Any street gathering that may impede the normal flow of traffic is strictly banned in the urban vicinity, no matter which party is organising the procession. In Singapore city, a small group of Bangladeshis walked to the mission office in a jubilant mood after receiving some good news from Bangladesh. After closely examining the street cameras, the police caught the leader of the small procession and indicated the judicial possibility of a 12-year imprisonment. However, the Bengali leader was extremely apologetic with an undertaking of not doing any such activity in the future. In another example, a group of Bangladeshi workers remained unpaid by their company for quite some time. The workers did not choose to rally on streets. Instead, they sat in silence in a local park to draw the attention of the police, who finally took corrective actions against the company and sent the non-violent workers back to work.
Singapore showed that it does not matter how much you crave development, it matters how much you are ready to sacrifice other political luxuries for the sake of growth and development. Independent surveys run a parallel picture of democracy, suggesting robust popularity of the ruling party mainly because the regime accomplished multiple mega projects even before the citizens dreamed of them. Skyscrapers were erected from the bottom of the sea. A vast piece of land has been reclaimed by filling the sea with soil from Malaysia. Modern architecture and engineering excelled progressively. Singapore proved that infrastructure expenditure never ends. The country constantly infused new blood in the vein of the economy to keep it vibrant when the western world went to sleep. That is how a developed nation can bury the prospects of dullness and recession. That is how a developed Singapore can be a world-class model of efficient pricing by not being scared of liberalisation, but by further embracing integration with global partners.
Some development economists theorised that the farther away from the equator the country is, the higher the level of development it is likely to have. Singapore, being closer to the equator line, disproved that hypothesis. Singapore's open market policy came under criticism during the Asian crisis of 1997, but the country overcame the turbulence because of its institutions and quality investment in education. Singapore is a global forerunner in the knowledge economy index and social security. It's easy to do business in the country; the country is also very efficient in law enforcement. It welcomes tourists, but the first warning the city economy gives to them is written in red bold and capital letters in the immigration form: "Death for drug traffickers under Singapore law." The law is strictly enforced in the fastest possible way and thus law escorts the economy. If a political leadership understands the value of quality education and dynamic justice, it can strategise economic openness to turn a hopeless village state into a dreamland of development.
That is how Singapore has become a model to many in the world.
The writer is chief economist of Bangladesh Bank.