28 Apr 2021


1 When I was a student at Columbia University in the US, a professor in a class on liberal democracies told us that there is no such thing as “national interests”. All policies result from interest groups lobbying for their own interests. He said this not in a judgmental way but as a matter of fact.  The litmus test for public policies in liberal democracies, according to him, is not social justice nor economic efficacy, but whether it is legal and constitutional.  Good governance, in other words, is government according to the law. There is no further test. Beyond the law, it is impossible to judge, by whom or by what criteria as to what is good.


2 I tell this story to emphasize that this is not how Singapore got to where it is today. The rule of law, and the democracy and human rights associated with it, are no less important to Singapore. We have regular elections every 4-5 years contested by a multitude of political parties since independence in 1965. As a small country without resources, Singapore has no luxury of the state doing nothing. The state or government has to play an active role in economic development. It has to intervene in the market to deal with market failures, grow the economy and redress inequalities. It is not just about picking winners. That Singapore’s per capita GDP has multiplied more than 10 times in the last 50 years reflects the success of its developmental strategy to some extent.


3 Let me first mention the principles behind Singapore’s governance, then elaborate on the institutions created around these principles, refer to a couple of successful outcomes, and finally reflect on the deeper lessons that may be relevant to other countries in my conclusion. Some of the key principles behind Singapore’s success are meritocracy, pragmatism, zero tolerance for corruption, racial and religious harmony, and the common law. I do not pretend that these are unambiguous, self-evident scientific principles. They are not, and can be contentious politically. There is room to quibble over how they should be defined and what they would look like in practice. We can debate them. But it may be more useful to first look at some of the institutions that are constructed around these principles.


4 First, government’s effectiveness is maximised by having the best person for each job at both the political and bureaucratic levels. The ruling party has a rigorous selection process that favours successful professionals, people who have excelled in their own fields, over professional politicians, hence Singapore’s reputation for its technocratic government. Bureaucrats are selected and promoted by the Public Service Commission, which is similar to your Chapter 9 institution with constitutional independence. While the process has evolved over time, the essence of attracting the best, giving them the best training, and evaluating them as objectively as possible remains the same. This is meritocracy in practice.


5 Second, pragmatism is embedded in government thinking and even in the national psyche. In a simplistic way, it is about maximising utilities, or the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Perhaps in a developing economy, what is good is obvious: to fill the people’s stomach, provide roof over their head, healthcare and education: things that are now known as economic and social rights. Naturally, as an open and democratic society like South Africa but admittedly not to the same degree, Singapore has its fair share of differing views on what is good for the country, and these are sorted out within the political system and constitution. At elections held to date, as many as up to 40% of voters had voted for opposition parties. It is however clear that a majority are happy or at least can live with the pragmatic mix of political, economic and social goods delivered by the government in the past 50 years.


6 Pragmatism also finds expression in various tripartite committees comprising government, union and employers federation. It is normal for their interests to clash.  Workers want a higher pay while employers want value for money. Their challenge is to set aside such zero-sum games or conflicting interests and build on their common interests and destiny as a country. With good leadership from government, they have succeeded in ensuring that Singapore remains an attractive investment destination. They eschew any ideology, other than pragmatism.  They look for win-win solutions in a fast changing world. 


7 Third is the anti-corruption agency, called the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). As you know, corruption undermines governance.  It is not just stealing from the poor. It is putting personal interests before public good. No government can be effective if it does not stop corruption. In Singapore, the CPIB reports direct to the Head of Government. It has extensive powers dating from the British colonial days. It has speedily and successfully prosecuted people in powerful positions. Its impartiality and credibility are not in doubt. But the CPIB is not a blunt instrument. Its powers are carefully defined and regulated to prevent it from meddling in domestic politics or infringing on individual freedom. The right definition of corruption is also important. Too broad, it may stifle legitimate and necessary interactions, and ironically hinder good governance. Too narrow, it would be ineffective in stopping behaviour that undermines good governance.


8 Fourth, a number of institutions have been introduced to ensure racial harmony. Singapore is a multi-racial society with roughly 75% Chinese, 15% Malays, 7.5% Indians and Others. As South Africans, you know well that race, language and religion can be fertile ground for divisive politics, especially in liberal democracies. So a key priority in Singapore has been to ensure that politics is inclusive of all races.  Singapore has a parliamentary form of democracy with MPs representing their districts or constituencies.  Given a majority of Chinese, it is not impossible that the parliament could one day be filled with only Chinese MPs. Then 25% of the population would not be represented, and would feel alienated and disenfranchised.  There is thus a real risk that the country could fall apart.  The electoral system was consequently updated to merge some single-member seats into multi-member seats called Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs). In these GRCs, currently comprising 3-5 members, each political party fields a slate of candidates that must include more than one ethnic representative. They win or lose as a team. In this way, every political party has to be multiracial and cannot afford to represent only a single race. Similar changes were made to the Elected Presidency, which has important ceremonial and trusteeship roles, so that elections will be limited to candidates from a particular community or ethnic group that has not been represented in that office for some time.


9 Finally, Singapore retains the “common law” introduced by the British colonial power. Under common law, everything is allowed unless forbidden. This is different from civil law, where everything is disallowed unless it is authorised by a law. Of course in reality, the difference between them is not so stark. The spirit of the common law nevertheless is to empower individuals, unleash their entrepreneurial talent and encourage individual responsibility. The common law has the further virtue of channelling disputes towards private resolution rather than socialising them. One aspect of governance after all is about solving and anticipating disputes. In my personal view, the least governed is best governed.  I believe this is also the Singapore experience although it is somehow not often understood in this way. Most people like to emphasise the strong state. They overlook the space that government has created for a responsible and constructive citizenry to grow. Now the institutions I have listed are not exhaustive.  Around them are woven other institutions, sub-institutions, rules both formal and informal, and values and expectations that reinforce the fundamental principles at the heart of Singapore’s governance.


10 Next, let me turn to a couple of examples of actual achievements which could be useful case studies for you. It is widely acknowledged that Singapore has the best public housing programme in the world. Some 80% of Singaporeans live in these public housing.  Far from being slums for the poor, typical of public housing in many countries, our public housing is actually well-designed apartments occupied by the middle class and valued by them as retirement assets that appreciate in value. Some occupants are in fact millionaires. Visit the car parks at such housing estates and you would find Lexus and Benzes. The state provides the town planning, design and financing, and even determine the supply.  But it also makes use of the market for price discovery and to deliver efficiencies. Not everything is left to the market however. For instance, to balance the natural instinct of any ethnic group to gravitate towards a particular precinct or block of flat, quotas on races for each block and area are fixed to reflect the national population make-up. In this way, people of different races have to live next to each other and learn about each other’s custom, habit, festivities and peculiarities. So there are no ghettos. 


11 Another area of excellence is our education. Singapore is ranked world No. 1 in OECD surveys of the educational attainments of 15-year olds. Again, basic education in Singapore is run by the state. There are no private schools like in South Africa. The founding fathers of Singapore realised that public education was necessary for nation building and to avoid inequalities where the rich can afford private education that in turn bring more opportunities and wealth to the rich. Public schools allow children from different racial groups and diverse backgrounds to socialise and make friends for life. This choice of public over private education involves difficult trade-offs. Public education, without the dynamism of market forces, tends towards mediocrity. However, Singapore managed to find a way around it by creating an internal competitive market in the public sector.


12 The American professor I mentioned at the start of my talk, as some of you would recognise, is a libertarian like Robert Nozick who argues for a minimalist state with strong personal property rights. That view could well describe the political economy in countries where the economy has arrived, where the engines of growth are self-regulating, or are rich enough such that further growth is no longer an imperative. But it is only one view, for in America there are other philosophers like John Rawls whose argument favours a bigger role for the state. So there could very well be a trade-off between politics and economics. The Singapore experience does suggest that free-wheeling politics is a luxury that not every country can afford. Singapore leaders did not set out to test any theory or conduct an experiment. They were simply responding to challenges in the context of their history. Governance Singapore style is primarily good leadership that continually earns the trust of the people over many years. I avoid the word “strong” leadership, as it suggests an elite going against the wishes of the people. I prefer the word “good” to describe a leadership that places people and country above self, is courageous, ready to risk losing office and power to do the right thing, farsighted and competent. There may be other qualities needed in different contexts. The Greek philosopher Plato discusses some of them in his “philosopher kings”. The Chinese thinker Confucius talks about other qualities in his ideal rulers, “junzi” or “gentlemen”. Singapore was fortunate to be led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team of able colleagues for many years. But in today’s world, distrustful of state power, we talk mostly about the separation of power, checks and balances, the rule of law and individual rights in absolute terms, essentially around the question of who is to guard the guardians. These theories are really about preventing bad governance. They are not theories of good governance. What I have done is to offer a glimpse into how Singapore has fashioned its perhaps unique style of governance in the last 50 years, based on its domestic, external and historical imperatives, while learning from the rest of the world, East and West. Indeed, my Prime Minister once cited an African proverb in his national day address: To go fast, go alone; to go far, go together. Governance Singapore style is about the rule of law, but it is also about the rule by good ethical men and women who place public good above personal interests.


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