Looking up to Singapore 


The Prime Minister was on an official visit to Singapore this week. He has signed up a few protocols between the two countries and has discussed with the Singapore authorities on varied subjects ranging from increased air landing rights to administration of prisons, with an intermediate stopover at the educational system. Many Mauritians are amazed at the success story that Singapore has become in almost all domains one can think of. It is therefore not out of place to try to link up with this country more closely in a bid to re-format the Mauritian model, the more so as cracks have appeared in various places in our system which need fixing rather than papering them over. We sense that unless there is a departure from several of our current practices, we risk being mired up in low growth areas and thus miss the next boat to higher performance.

Like Mauritius, Singapore is a multi-racial country. One’s first impression on landing in Singapore is that of a well-kept country; its infrastructure is superb; its cleanliness is in sharp contrast to what obtains in certain central parts of our own capital city; its strategic port functions like neat clockwork; its law and order situation looks even better than what one sees in some of the more advanced European cities; its street pavements are not littered, etc. All these are permanent features, not made up to impress some royal or other visitor to the place.

Look beyond the neat physical upkeep of the place and you are in for much bigger surprises. Valeur du jour, Singapore is the world’s fastest growing economy, its GDP having recorded a growth of 17.9% over the first half of 2010. This is not a freak outcome: Singapore’s real rate of economic growth averaged 8% over the long stretch from 1960 to 1999. Over 60% of its GDP is produced by firms which the government controls or owns directly. That does not mean the private sector is not significant; there are more than 3000 multinational companies based in Singapore of which no less than 1500 are US manufacturing firms. GDP per capita is one of the highest in the world despite the absence of any mineral or similar natural advantage. There is barely any unemployment; 90% or more of Singapore citizens own their homes.

There is surely a clever chemistry that produces this kind of excellence. In this regard, there will be little dispute about the fact that Singapore has the singular benefit of having a corruption-free government. Law is strictly enforced; there is no scope for bending rules, accommodating cronies who misbehave or escaping prescribed punishment for involvement in any misdeed by causing someone high-up to intervene. You cannot take the law into your hands over there, even if you are a high-up. Prisons are prisons, not accommodations to which you will invite yourself gladly again for the sheer comfort and entertainment they provide including use of cell phones from behind the bars or even drugs. There are lessons to be learnt here if we want to reduce issuing of visas, especially multiple-entry visas, to our own prisons in a bid to keep the prison population down to strict minimum.

The strict choice Singapore gives persons as to which side of the law you want to be on has often been equated with the exercise of power under an authoritarian regime which allows controlled dissent to be voiced, preferably within the four walls of the party that has been in power all the way, the PAP. Many claim that efficiency acquired at the price of sacrificing the freedom that obtains in other places is unacceptable. There are counter-views.

Singapore lawmakers claim that you have to strike a balance between individual liberties and achieving the common good by forcing people to adapt to the working of a clean, honest and meritocratic system focussed on the long-term good of the country. The upshot of this system is to keep the public discourse within responsible limits, adhering to the strict and intimidating application of the laws of libel and defamation. Some claim that the silence which such a strictly regimented system imposes on society almost deprives it of its soul and its essential joie de vivre.

The risk that one may drift to one extreme or the other by following or not the example of Singapore in this matter cautions us to pursue the bigger goal of ‘pragmatism’ but not at the cost of losing our soul. Mauritius is Mauritius because it is Mauritius and not Singapore. Even if we tried to tread the path of progress which Singapore has followed, we may not be able to do so because the environment which proved propitious for Singapore to propel itself as a top performer has to be created in our case under our own specific circumstances and cannot be replicated on the Singapore model.

For this to happen, we have to unlock the clues to our own future social and economic progress. While Singapore has unfalteringly followed a straight course and shown that it can recuperate very fast from its handicaps as it happened when its economy was struck down by the SARS epidemic, we, on our part, have limped our way to progress. Despite manufacturing, especially electronics, accounting for 26% of GDP and financial services for another 22%, Singapore is not content to remain here. It has been targeting high-tech, chemical and biotechnology sectors as its core prospective growth areas that will enable it to vie against established giants in these fields such as Japan and South Korea.

There is a base of talents Singapore has built through a rigorous and finely driven education system on which it has not been sparing any costs. It has in fact been constantly re-adapting the education system to face up to ever newer challenges.  This is what is making Singapore shoot at the stars. It has been spending the last years scouting for high-tech talents from other countries, such as South Asia and China, to support its further growth and economic diversification. It is by forging the way forward in this manner that Singapore is able to pose as the East Asia financial and high-tech centre of the future. Look, a lot of work has gone behind this and over several years. Unless we in Mauritius put in similar effort in whichever line of activity we want to excel in among the nations of the world, we will not rise to the occasion. This means that we have to do the groundwork more solidly. This is the fundamental and essential point we in Mauritius should learn from Singapore and apply it to our own circumstances, no matter which direction we are headed for. Only dogged perseverance gives results in such pursuits of constant re-orientation of economic activity. Of course, one would prefer that the goals we set out to achieve are realised without having to lose our souls. We only need the right sort of leadership that will convince us all the time that we are not going to miss out on our targets. The elementary thing is that we should know, like Singapore, what those targets are going to be substantively instead of chasing ghosts. 

* Published in print edition on 1 October 2010

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