Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away this year, belonged to the bricks and mortar generation. Lee and his People’s Action Party, who navigated Singapore’s incredible journey from third world to first, could not have been more different from Silicon Valley’s brash tech entrepreneurs.
Yet, as Singapore celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this week, with pomp, pride and global attention, I see striking parallels in the ethos and approach of Singapore’s founders in the 1960s and the Silicon Valley pioneers that followed a decade later.
Singapore’s independence in August 1965 was not planned. Forced to separate from a federation with Malaysia, Singapore’s leaders faced some incredibly difficult choices. The political, social and economic viability of a tiny city state in South East Asia was not so obvious.
“Singapore’s emergence as an economic powerhouse followed an unconventional path”
Singapore came of age when its much bigger Asian neighbours were also newly independent, but with significantly larger populations and natural resources to draw sustenance from. Faced with impossible odds, Singapore’s leaders did what pundits today describe when a tech upstart successfully takes on well-entrenched incumbents – they disrupted the status quo.
Singapore’s eventual emergence as an economic powerhouse followed an unconventional path. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the burst of decolonisation that followed, new nation states turned inward and shut their doors to outside investment and influences. Singapore’s disruptive model called for a different approach:
Role of government
Like their counterparts elsewhere, Singapore’s leaders believed in the role of the state, but with two crucial differences: they modernised governance to ensure clear accountability, and they focused on execution, ensuring that the vision of the founders was translated into tangible policy action that impacted the lives of Singaporeans.
Free trade and foreign investment
For many newly independent nations in the 1960s, conventional wisdom held that policies built on self reliance and state control of the economy would deliver better results than free trade, foreign investment and the private sector. Singapore’s leaders challenged this view, opening up the country to trade and investment at a time when many doors in the region were firmly shut. The result was buoyant economic growth in the 1970s and 1980s, valuable lead time before competitors in the region realised their policy mistakes.
Pragmatism versus emotion
John Maynard Keynes once remarked that when his information changed, he altered his conclusions. Like Keynes, Singapore’s leaders injected a strong dose of pragmatism into their public policies. This helped Singapore through good times and bad, as policymakers were not wedded to ideological preferences. To use the parlance of Silicon Valley, Singapore leaders ‘debugged’ policies which were not working and ‘rebooted’ the system when needed. Singapore’s ever-evolving cityscape – urecognisable compared to when I first moved there in 1990 – embodies its willingness to constantly adapt and change.
A firm focus on the future
In Singapore, as much time is devoted to discussion about the future as policies needed to address the here and now. I saw this first-hand when I worked as a journalist in Singapore in the 1990s, and for the central bank between 2001 and 2003. There is a sense of urgency about Singapore’s future competitiveness, which drives robust internal debates. This vision and determination to succeed is the hallmark of any good start-up entrepreneur.
“Singapore policymakers like to say that no one owes the country a living … but come 9 August, Singaporeans should pause and celebrate”
Singapore policymakers like to say that no one owes the country a living, and such positive anxiety has fuelled the country’s remarkable growth since 1965. But come 9 August, Singaporeans should pause and celebrate. The ‘little red dot of a nation’, as the Indonesian President described Singapore in 1999, has turned 50 – not bad for an exceptional start-up which has vaulted to the first world but never forgotten its scrappy beginnings.
A version of this article was published in the Straits Times on 7 August 2015