[FORUM]Why Singapore has succeededMore than a few people say that it is inappropriate to compare South Korea with Singapore. They say it does not make sense to compare South Korea with a country that is only 685 square kilometers ― a little bigger than Seoul (607 square kilometers) and a little smaller than Busan (750 square kilometers) ― and has a population of around 4.2 million.
However, land size and population cannot be the standards for measuring the economic development and national management of a country. South Korea has a lot to learn from Singapore’s “miracle of the equator.” This country had a per capita income of a few hundred dollars in 1965, which increased to $10,546 in 1989, and $21,096 in 1994.
Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of Singapore’s independence ― not the first, but the second independence of the country. The prime minister of Singapore at the time of independence, Lee Kwan Yew, was not happy with the nation’s independence at all. He writes in his autobiography, “Actually we did not want independence. ... It seemed impossible for Singapore to survive as an independent state.”
In 1959, Singapore became independent from the British rule as a self-governing state. However, when Malaysia chose a trade policy that detoured around Singapore, the Singaporean economy, which relied heavily on its role as a transit trading port, fell into a serious slump.
In the end, Singapore became a member of the Malaysian federation in 1963, on condition that Singapore entrusted its diplomacy and national defense to Malaysia. However, Singapore was expelled from the federation in 1965, after going through much political strife with Malaysia. The second independence of Singapore was not something that Singapore could afford to celebrate with joy.
It is under such difficult conditions that Singapore created the miracle of the equator. Singapore is the only country situated near the equator that has succeeded in industrialization.
It is not easy at all to work hard under the hot sun all year round; that is why they say Singapore could not have developed so much if it were not for the invention of air conditioning. This is why it is also called the “air-conditioned nation.”
The secret of Singapore’s success, which ranks at least 20 or so steps above Korea in national competitiveness, is political stability, a clean and effective government, peaceful labor-management relations, skilled labor and modern infrastructure. Korea does not lag behind Singapore in skilled labor and infrastructure, but we are very much behind in other areas.
As South Korea’s per capita income has crossed over the $10,000 mark despite adversity, we can say that the potential power of Koreans and the Korean businesses are great. But in the current global competition, the competitiveness of political circles, government and the labor-management relations are all important factors that decide our national competitiveness.
We cannot compete with the rest of the world with weak political, government and labor-management sectors. The system in Singapore that puts an emphasis on training gifted students and the policy of giving special privileges to civil servants are also strong points of the country.
But what South Korea should learn most from Singapore is the utilitarianism and rationalism that make it able to react flexibly to changing situations. At the beginning of the year, the Singaporean government gave up its 40-year-old policy that prohibited gambling and gave a permit to a casino. Former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew said about the decision, “I personally know the bad effects of gambling better than anyone because my father was a gambler, but prohibiting the gambling business on a national level would bring about even bigger problems.”
The news that the Raffles Hotel, with 118 years of history, is being sold to an American fund is also shocking. the Raffles Hotel is where the famous cocktail “Singapore Sling” was born. It is the symbolic hotel of Singapore where famous people of the world like Somerset Maugham and Charlie Chaplin stayed.
The hotel is actually owned by a state-owned company called Temasek. Its reason for the sale is simple: It is difficult for the company to expand the hotel onto a scale that will survive international competition. I wonder if Korean public enterprises could make such a decision.
Contrasting with the clean image of Singapore, there is a district for prostitutes in the outer area of Singapore called Geylang. This place is said to have been created for laborers from third world countries and is strictly managed by the government.
What a contrast from the situation in Korea, where the problem was left unattended until prostitution spread all over the country, but people couldn’t even discuss the issue of licensed prostitution in public. A special law that not only punishes prostitutes but also customers was enacted in September last year, an extreme measure that caused quite a stir.
Korea has been busy taking care of immediate problems instead of looking for long-term practical solutions. It makes me feel uneasy to think that Singapore will run to a far away place where we can’t catch up, while we cling to the past instead of looking to the future.
* The writer is a deputy head of the policy planning team of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Se-jung