The view from Singapore

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The view from Singapore

The Singaporean miracle is a well-known success story. Singapore is a city-state built on practical and pro-market capitalism. In just several decades after independence, the tiny former British colony off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula turned into one of the busiest ports and financial hubs in Asia with a clean government that is a rarity in this part of the continent and among rapidly growing economies. Its people are as wealthy as Americans, its economy one of the most cutting-edge, and its social system an epitome of unsentimental efficiency.

In Singapore last week, a forum on strengthening ties between South Korea and Singapore was held. Large cranes were busy building high-rises in many parts of downtown, scenes quite different from Korea where the construction industry is more or less dead. The roads were busy with preparations for this year’s Formula 1 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix on Sept. 13. Unlike its neighboring countries Indonesia and India, the country’s economy was alive and kicking, uninterrupted in its vibrant activity.

On Aug. 29, the opening day of the forum, newspapers carried on their front pages the profiles of new cabinet members following a reshuffle. They analyzed the new choices from three angles: Opportunities that trickled down to qualified candidates in various sectors; more women joining the cabinet; and aspiring bureaucrats in their 30s and 40s moving into cabinet posts. Former ambassador to South Korea Chua Thai Keong said the candidates were chosen to be trained for leadership a decade earlier.

Singapore spends that much time selecting, training and nurturing talent. It has a consistent incubating program for human resources unlike Korea, which is always swept up in controversy about political vendettas or favoritism in appointments every time a new government takes office every five years.

In Singapore, both political and economic trends last a long time. There is no confusion or transitional hiccups in the leadership because it pretty much stays the same. The global “Occupy” demonstrations had no appeal in Singapore. Despite its rigidness and excessive emphasis on discipline of the people, such strictness extends to government too, and it is corruption-free, stable and efficient, which many say is the secret to the city-state’s success.

Since 1980s, our politicians, bureaucrats, scholars and journalists rushed to Singapore to learn its rags-to-riches story. They all posed the same questions and received the same answers. Two decades have passed, but we have learned nothing. A clean and efficient government still remains a distant dream here. Being totally pro-business or pro-market isn’t possible in our environment, where conflicts of interest merrily reign. The idea of lengthy rule of a wise or competent leader or dynasty is out of the question as South Koreans have a knee-jerk abhorrence of anything that resembles a long, dictatorial regime. We know the recipe to Singapore’s success but cannot use it at home because it does not meet our inborn tastes.

Singapore also has its flaws. The popularity of the political opposition has slowly risen, while that of the long-standing ruling party is falling. For the first time in 26 years, the country experienced strikes last year. For the first time since its independence, a street rally of 4,000 people was held in February, enormous in the Singaporean context. Singapore’s taxis, known for their friendliness, have turned violent on the roads. Demands for greater equality in incomes are on the rise.

Gok Chok Tong, Emeritus Senior Minister and former Prime Minister, told the South Korean delegation to the forum that those signs are good as they harbinger changes needed for Singapore to move ahead. The Singaporean government is trying to meet the growing demands by reaching out to the general public and reforming politics. It cut salaries of senior officials, who are among the highest earners in the world of government employees. The payroll of the prime minister was cut by 28 percent and those of the president and assembly floor speaker were halved. These efforts were good publicity for the government.

Joseph Stiglitz, an economist at Columbia University, in March paid respects to Singapore in an opinion piece in the New York Times for its prioritization of social and economic equality, while achieving high rates of growth over the last 30 years. He listed Singapore’s strengths to draw a lesson about how political forces can shape economic forces in ways to ensure growth with equity.

It took effort to glance through Korean newspapers on my return flight home with headlines about pro-North Korean forces allegedly conspiring to pull down the government and the main opposition party rallying on the streets. Those scenes would have been unthinkable for Singaporeans. “About a decade ago, Singapore seemed within Korea’s league. Now it’s too far ahead for us to catch up,” one professor who attended the forum said. Ouch. It’s true.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

BY Nahm Yoon-ho
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