Lecture by H.E. Chua Thai-Keong, High Commissioner of Singapore to the Republic of South Africa, in Pretoria, Tshwane, South Africa, 10 Jul 2018

10 Jul 2018






1.      Thank you for the kind invitation.  I am privileged and delighted to be ambassador in a country with so much interest in Singapore.  I am doubly fortunate and honoured to represent Singapore in South Africa, a place where the oppressed have chosen to forgive, a land that gave birth to heroes like President Nelson Mandela and Mama Albertina Sisulu, whose centenary are being celebrated this year, and a country that seeks to create a better Africa in a better world.  I have been asked to talk about how Singapore had catapulted itself from underdevelopment to the front ranks of advanced countries in a short space of time while grappling with the challenges of a multiracial, multicultural and multireligious society.  I have also been asked to locate the Singapore Story in the context of South Africa’s challenges.



2.      Let me begin with a “health warning”.  Singapore is still work-in-progress.  We are only 53 years old this year.  In the history of nations, we are a toddler.  Singapore’s “success” is peculiar to a country without a common language or culture, and without natural resources or market, a nation born from an accident of history.  Nonetheless, in economic terms, per capita GDP has gone up more than 10 times in 50 years from US$5,000 at independence to over US$50,000 today.  In political terms, the success can be seen from the trust and confidence between the ruling party and the people, as they have returned the same political party to office at every general election, the last with a majority of 70%.  But these are just two indicators of success, and ultimately whether Singapore’s survival up to this point is a success or not is best left to others and history to judge.  More importantly, whether this success could endure into the future and for how long cannot be taken for granted.  I therefore use the word “success” in a tentative sense.



3.      Without doubt, Singapore’s success today would not be possible without the founding Prime Minister, the late Mr. LEE Kuan Yew.  He laid the foundation.  He stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, almost 30 years ago.  He was succeeded by Prime Minister GOH Chok Tong who served till 2004, for a total of 14 years.  Since then, we have Prime Minister LEE Hsien Loong.  In other words, there has been several political transitions over 12 general elections since independence in 1965.  Singapore today is more than just its founding father.  Mr Lee and his successors have put in place policies and institutions that underpin the country as it is known today.



4.      The Singapore Success Story can be understood at many levels and in different ways.  Let me list some of factors often mentioned: 1) Enlightened political leadership.  2) Excellent civil service. 3) Diligent people, disciplined by mandatory National Service.  4) World-class education. 5) High savings rate. 6) Anti-Corruption Agency.  7) E-government.  8) Racial Harmony.  9) Meritocracy.  10) Developmental state.  11) FDI, FTA, BIT, ASA (ie. pro-business).  12) Land reform, public housing and urban planning. 13) Strict laws.  14) Lady Luck, primarily the conducive external environment.  15) Colonial legacies!  Each of these factors has its merits.  But none by itself, save for the first factor, provides a complete and compelling explanation.  Some are even contradictory.  It is rather like a blind man trying to describe the elephant with its tail or trunk.  In my view, the real secret of Singapore’s success does not lie in this particular policy or that institution.  Rather it lies in our policy approach.  Our approach towards policy making is based on the philosophy of “pragmatism”.  Policy makers have to be pragmatic about their goals, the policy instruments and their implementation.






5.      Singapore is nothing if not pragmatic.  The first rule of pragmatism is to live in a world as we find it, and not as we wish it to be.  We cannot assume that people are saints.  Otherwise we would not need government, as one of the American Founding Fathers, James Madison, pointed out.  While leaders and governments can lead by example and exhort their citizens to contribute according to their ability and consume only what they need, moral suasion has its limits.  Ultimately, people would do what they want based on their altruistic instincts and selfish desires.  Pragmatism requires us to accept people for what they are. The second rule of pragmatism, which follows from the first, is to reject all ideologies.  We are neither pro-capitalism nor pro-socialism.  We are neither pro-state nor pro-market.  We use whatever works.  Or in the words of the wise and well-known statesman of China, Deng Xiaoping, “It does not matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches the mice.”



6.      Pragmatism means that we must take results as seriously as rights.  Rights are supreme once they are enshrined in law. However there are many so-called rights that fall short of either domestic or international law.  In these cases, the pragmatist would be ready to put results ahead of so-called rights.  The ideologue would not.  To them, a right is absolute and non-negotiable.  In so doing, they overlook this famous quote from the West:  “Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.”  This quote suggests that no right is absolute.  Every right has a context.  Freedom of speech for Peter may be defamation or hate speech for Paul.  If we take the right to life as absolute, then no one should be allowed to die, not just from the death penalty, but also high-risk jobs, crime and curable disease.  But how many countries that profess a right to life spare no expenses to prevent death?  I know of none.  Even the so-called rights against the state cannot be absolute, as the state is not inherently evil, but a necessary evil for the provision of public goods such as law and order.  Too many rights for individuals must mean a weaker state.  This may or may not be a good thing.  It is a trade-off between individuals and between them and the state.  Every country has to decide for itself what balance of trade-off is suitable given its stage of development and historical context.




7.      Pragmatism also means that we must not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.  Idealists and ideologues are always searching for utopia.  This is not a bad thing unless they take ideas to the extreme.  In Singapore, we do not start with a perfect model; we start with a working model, then experiment, finetune and pluck the low hanging fruits, before full-scale implementation.   We have combined both the redistribution of wealth and growing the economic pie.  The balance between them has to be struck based on evidence.  It cannot be decided a priori.  Too much redistribution too fast, there will be capital flight.   Too little too late, there will be political instability.



8.      On economic growth, international political discourse is rightly or wrongly dominated by the so-called “Washington Consensus”.  In Singapore, we do not blindly follow any paradigm.   Some things are better done by the state, while others better through the market.   There can be state failure just like market failure, especially in emerging economies.  It is impossible to know in advance the proper mix of state and market.  We have to experiment.  Besides, there are public goods that markets will under-provide.  It is not always easy to agree on what is a “public good” even though we know that it is non-exclusionary in nature.  Moreover, what is a public good in an emerging economy, such as developmental financing, may not be one in a developed economy.  In Singapore, some of our world-class achievements are in the public sector, such as education, housing, health care, airport and seaport.  At the same time, we also have a world-class private sector, in the areas of airlines, water management, deep-sea oil rigs, oil refineries, pharmaceutical and banking.



9.      Pragmatism is not a new idea.  We find it in 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s notion of utilitarianism: “the greatest good for the greatest number”.   But it is also much criticised.  How do we measure success in pragmatism?  How do we determine what constitutes the greatest good?  Should it be decided by the “state” or political elite or the masses?  These are legitimate and important questions, but there are no easy answers.  In Singapore, our attitude is that if we make tomorrow better than today, then it is a greater good than before.  That is good enough.  We don’t have to be perfect.  We don’t need a perfect measuring rod. Admittedly, as a society moves up the developmental ladder and becomes more diverse, both in its composition, needs and wants, it becomes more difficult to deliver the “greatest good for the greatest number”.  In other words, what works for Singapore in the past when it was a developing country may not work in the future when it becomes a developed state.      



Constructive Competition


10.    Pragmatism is easier said than done. There will be pressures to move away from it, either due to external influence or domestic populism.   To remain on the path of pragmatism, we need to create a healthy dynamic of “constructive competition”.  Competition prevents the lazy from becoming complacent and the ambitious from becoming oppressive.  (This is my non-scientific definition.) But competition cannot be unregulated or unethical.  Otherwise, it is nothing more than “the law of the jungle” by another name.



11.    In Singapore, it is this constructive competition within the public sector that explains why Singapore has the best schools, best housing and best medical care in the world provided by the public sector.  In education, students are ranked, teachers are ranked and schools are ranked and they are rewarded accordingly.  The winner does not take all.   The losers continue to have a place in the system and would be assisted through measures that do not undermine their work ethics or offend their dignity.  That said, we do not always get the balance right.  Pressures from constructive competition can also get out of hand, and policy makers have to be on their guard.



12.    No sector is spared from such constructive competition, including in politics.  While it may not be obvious to outside observers, politics in Singapore is highly competitive.  There were at least 9 political parties that participated in the last general election, where all the seats were contested.  In a young multiracial society, if the competition for votes were left to “market forces”, there would be a “race-to-the-bottom” type of racial chauvinism that we see in other countries.  In Singapore, this potentially perverse dynamic is channelled in a positive direction through various innovations.  One example is the Group Representation Constituencies, in which political parties have to field a multiracial team in order to contest that district.  In this way, all political parties must be multiracial and advocate multiracial policies.



A Word on South Africa



13.    If I have to relate the developmental trajectory of Singapore and South Africa, as requested, it would appear that we are converging from different directions.  Given its history of Colonialism and Apartheid, South Africa is perhaps more ideological in its policy approach.  As a larger country with many spheres of government and multiple separation of powers, it is also a lot less flexible.  Like the American version of democracy, it is difficult to separate money and politics.  As a result, policies sometimes reflect vested interests, which may not represent the “greatest good for the greatest number”.  South Africa has a weak state by design (in political science parlance), and so is unable to deliver as many public goods as required in a developing economy.  Indeed, if I may say so, South Africa’s ability to govern does not depend on the state, but on the state of the leading political party.






14.    Pragmatism does not mean that Singaporeans cannot dream and does not have idealism or ambitions.   They can, they do and they will.  Nothing can stop them.  They can import idealism into politics and everyday life.  It is just that, as they reach for the stars, pragmatism reminds them that there is no free lunch, that we cannot ignore facts, and that life is a series of trade-offs.  We have to live in the world as we find it even as we try to make it better.



15.    Constructive competition is not the same as privatisation.  The Civil Service cannot be privatised.  There is no private education in Singapore at the primary and secondary levels, except for limited special schools.  Excellence in these sectors comes from creating internal competition, if not an internal market.   The pragmatic state may even enjoy a monopoly in certain areas if it can create competitive dynamics within.



16.    The market does not always self-correct.  The pragmatic state is not all knowing.  Where market is likely to fail, the state must take the lead.  Where markets have a good chance of working, the state must get out of the way.  There is no predetermined formula to tell which is which.  Some of these issues would be decided by the political and economic elite.  Others will be resolved in public debate.



17.    In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, digitalisation, social media and blockchains have created entire new markets or disrupted old ones.  The role of the state has to be reinvented.  Rules and institutions have to be revised and updated.  But I would argue that the policy approach of pragmatism coupled with constructive competition would continue to be relevant.  Thank you very much.

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