Cecilia Tortajada and Asit K. Biswas
China Daily | March 28, 2015
There is an old Japanese proverb: “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” Lee Kuan Yew was among the very few statesmen who not only were visionaries but also took action to turn their visions into reality.
He became the prime minister of Singapore in 1959 when it obtained full self-government from the British. At the time Singapore’s population was 1.59 million and per capita GDP less than $400. When he voluntarily stepped down in 1990, Singapore was a different country, with a population of 3.07 million and per capita GDP of $11,845, a 30-fold increase.
Lee was free of any political dogma. His philosophy was to look at a specific policy and determine if it would work. If it was likely to work, Singapore tried it. If it worked, it was continued. If it did not, “we tossed it out and tried another one”. This experimental ideology has served Singapore well.
Lee was a believer in good governance and strong laws, which were promptly and fairly implemented. On one occasion, he told us: “Once you have corruption, bad administration, fickle decision making which can be influenced by friendship or favors or bribes, then you have got a problem.” Corruption may become part of a political system. “You need money to win in politics. So, you promise people who provide you with this money favors, and when you get into office, whether it is the opposition of the governing party, you have to return those favors. So, the corruption goes on.”
Singapore has had anti-corruption laws for decades which transferred the burden of proof to individuals who had enriched themselves but were unable to explain how they had amassed the wealth. If the accumulation of wealth can be explained, there is no problem. If not, the presumption is, it was most likely amassed through illegal means. Concurrently, Lee ensured that the leadership at the center was “beyond reproach, or else the whole system would break down”.
The remarkable legacy of Lee is that, while corruption is rife in much of Asia, Singapore has remained free of corruption. This is because of strong laws and their prompt implementation.
Moreover, to reduce the temptation of corruption, Singapore indexed the salaries of ministers, top civil servants and judges to similar and comparable positions in the private sector. This has made them one of the world’s highest paid officials. Equally, quality and knowledge of these officials are significantly higher than their counterparts in most countries. As advisors to 19 governments, we have not seen a country that has such consistently high quality ministers, senior civil servants, and an enabling environment in which they work. These moves have enabled the government to attract the crème de la crème of Singapore, thus speeding up its development.
Lee paid great attention to education and growth of human capital. He said education is “a very arduous process. It is not just the education in school, it is education throughout your life”. He believed that “the quality of a nation’s manpower resources is the single-most important factor determining national competitiveness. It is people’s innovativeness, team work, and their work ethics that give them the sharp edge in competitiveness”.
He also encouraged scholars with good minds to be inventors, innovators, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. He believed scholars could live in ivory towers as long as it was not their only place of residence.
Lee said the most difficult challenge he faced in transforming Singapore from a “Third World” to a “First World” country was changing the mindset of Singaporeans who were very individualistic and often felt that they had God-given rights to do what they wanted, when they wanted and where they wanted, without proper consideration of social good, public health and environmental implications. And the only way such a mindset could be changed is by laws and their prompt implementation.
Probably the best assessment of Lee comes from his frequent critic, Catherine Lim. “His stature is immense. This man is a statesman. He is probably too big for Singapore.”
Cecilia Tortajada is a senior research fellow at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, and Asit K. Biswas is a distinguished visiting professor in the same school.