This is the printable version of an article from Infernal Ramblings ( The original web-optimised article is also available.

Singapore is A Nuanced Role Model

Malaysians shouldn't let our inferiority complex get in the way of good policy. Singapore has a lot to offer in the way of lessons for both good and bad policymaking.

Written by johnleemk on 12:57:54 am Mar 29, 2007.

As I have noted before, Malaysians have this inferiority complex when it comes to Singapore. We either believe that they are so great that we should ape everything they do, or we refuse to believe that they have anything to teach us that we refuse to ape anything they do. The truth, as I alluded to in that article, probably lies somewhere between these two extremes.

The merits of Singapore's policies should be obvious to most, although many Malaysians seem to be oddly blind to them. This is strange, when you consider that Singapore has avoided many problems that plague Malaysia.

After all, both countries started from almost the same base (although Singapore did cheat a little — it's hardly fair to expect an island state, which can be much more easily adminstrated, to be the equal to a much larger country). Yet one is world-renowned, while the other lives in the shadow of its neighbour. Surely one would expect the humbled party to be interested in the lessons it can learn.

One thing Singapore has done is it has averted corruption both in the public and private sectors. It works by cutting off both the supply and demand for favours — on the supply side, it pays its civil servants generous salaries, so that they have no need to earn money on the side. Tough law enforcement ensures that nobody will be stupid enough to demand a bribe.

Meanwhile, Singapore has produced a population of incredibly efficient and competitive workers. Even their public sector is incredibly streamlined and capable, which is odd for a bureaucracy. How did they achieve this? Meritocracy — or in other words, competition.

From young, Singaporeans are put through the wringer. At every stage of their lives, they are made to compete against their fellows, and the cream rise to the top. This cream ends up heading the largest Singaporean corporations and running the Singaporean government.

Singapore has also meshed the best of capitalism and socialism. Their welfare system is set up to ensure that all who need healthcare or a home can get it, but those who can afford to pay will pay for it. Its remarkable efficiency has ensured that even if there is a wide gap between rich and poor, at least even the poor have a respectable and decent life and chances for self-advancement.

These are the three most remarkable Singaporean policies which I think other countries, especially Malaysia, should pay attention to. Indeed, we should model our own policies after these, which have succeeded in creating the most developed country in Southeast Asia.

At the same time, we must be mindful of the nuances when it comes to policymaking. Not all Singaporean policies can be applied elsewhere, since some of them are only workable there due to the special nature of the country — it's just a small island (indeed, some political scientists have suggested that Lee Kuan Yew's ideas could only have come to their fruition in Singapore, and nowhere else, precisely because of this). Furthermore, there are many pitfalls that Singapore has failed to avoid — and again, there are lessons to be learned here, this time by not following their example.

The most famous example of such pitfalls is Singapore's "nanny state" nature. It goes beyond simple questions of civil and human rights — Singapore is essentially a regimented society with strict government-established norms that must be followed. Deviation from the norm often meets with heavy punishment — and a dynamic society needs to tolerate such deviations.

The best and brightest of every country always have their own quirks, after all. This lack of dynamism may be why Singapore has yet to make a mark on the scientific stage — it is busily importing foreign scientists to do its research — and may also explain why it isn't known for any effective and dynamic companies. There's simply no incentive to be different, to go against the herd, to take risks.

And of course, there's the human rights thing too. Malaysia is often as bad as Singapore in many aspects when it comes to human rights, but they have outdone us in other related areas. Remember, it is not Malaysia but Singapore where bloggers have been subject to criminal penalties for their writings.

I would also argue that Singapore has a rather unfair electoral system — it lacks the simple and cheap fraud that Malaysian elections have been subject to, but discriminates against political opposition in more subtle ways such as through group representative constituencies (GRCs). On the other hand, political rallies are banned in Malaysia — but not in Singapore.

On a related note, Singapore has a very odd way of dealing with racial minorities. I cannot think of a precise way to describe it, but I am not entirely sure one could describe the minorities as fully integrated into Singaporean society. Certainly, strange policies such as assuming all Indians have Tamil as their mother tongue cannot have helped with integration there, although Singaporean politics is thankfully free from the racial cards Malaysians love to play.

The competition Singapore has engendered also has its terrible downsides, encapsulated in the kiasu mentality Singaporeans are stereotyped as having. Singaporeans are often thought of as uncouth, disrespectful, impolite and far too competitive by their northern neighbours — and I think there is a point there. Any policies that attempt to create a more efficient country through competition must be mindful of the possibility of creating a kiasu mentality.

Another Singaporean policy that I think should be avoided is their education policy. It's highly centralised, but this is only good for a city-state — larger countries ought to decentralise their school administration system. The Singaporean curricula and syllabi also suffer from an emphasis on rote memorisation — and the kiasu mentality has also led to things like the creation of hotlines for students who want to commit suicide after scoring 94 out of 100 for their examinations.

With these pitfalls in mind, there is no reason policymakers should not look to Singapore when deciding what steps to take next. Singapore has its ups and downs, its good and bad, so what's wrong with taking what is good and avoiding what is bad? Malaysians should get over our inferiority complex and shamelessly copy what will make us better, while avoiding what will make us worse off.