Saturday May 10, 2008
City-state a role model for the world
INSIGHT DOWN SOUTH
By SEAH CHIANG NEE
The most recent topic of global interest is Singapore’s breakthrough on the technology to produce reasonably cheap desalinated and recycled water.
DESPITE a growing disenchantment at home, tiny Singapore has attracted scattered admiration in countries keen to follow its way of solving problems.
These involve mostly economic and management systems that were well crafted and implemented by a purposeful and hard-working population – rather than its form of politics.
To the less-developed world, Singapore’s most admired quality is its economic success and rapid transformation from a backward to a First World city.
Others want to learn from its successes in education, city planning, corruption control, public housing (HBD), port management or its old-age savings (CPF) scheme.
Many were designed during the first 20 years of its history by a set of visionary leaders.
A diplomat told me when he arrived many years ago he noticed counter staff – whether at immigration, hospital or airport, etc – were using a simple numbering system to prevent chaotic scenes.
“People come in, go straight to a small machine, press for a number and take a seat to wait for their number to be called,” he said. Elsewhere, people would crowd a hassled civil servant, each demanding to be served first.
He suggested his government send people here to learn from it. “It’s not just the system, it’s the work culture of the people that makes it work,” he added.
This then is the way of a global world. Singapore has flourished all these years by copying – and readapting – systems from older and more successful nations.
It is not a one-way traffic. In recent years the opposite has been happening. More of the world is nowadays taking a hard look and learning from its achievements.
The most recent topic of global interest is Singapore’s breakthrough on the technology to produce reasonably cheap desalinated and recycled water, which meets some 25% its needs and sharply reduces the dependency on imports.
This has sparked off interest in several countries from West Asia to China, which are desperately suffering from water shortage.
Many years and US$3.5bil (RM11.3bil) later, the island has desalination firms that produce 10% of this need. Meanwhile, four water-recycling plants produce another 15% (to rise to 30% within four years).
“Singapore has led the world in water re-use,” Christopher Gasson, publisher of the journal Global Water Intelligence, told BBC. “Other countries will surely follow its footprints.”
A government executive said: “We have solved our problems. Now we want to create a platform where people from all over the world can share the solutions.”
Sovereign wealth fund
The region’s first Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) – the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) – has spawned a widespread practice in Asia.
One of the world’s biggest, with funds of US$330bil (RM1.06 trillion), GIC was created in 1981 by channelling budgetary surpluses for global investment.
Two years later, Brunei followed, and in 1993, Malaysia. Similar funds sprouted up in Taiwan, Australia, Iran, Dubai and, more recently, China, Russia and South Korea – 13 nations in all.
Singapore wasn’t the first with the concept (that credit goes to Kuwait, which was the pioneer in 1953) but several newcomers had studied and followed the city’s module and practice.
Other adopted concepts include:
> Math teaching – For several years, the United States has implemented the Singapore method of teaching mathematics based on textbooks from its national curriculum.
> Electronic road pricing – Central London imposed a congestion charge in 2003 after officials studied Singapore’s unique electronic road pricing system to control traffic congestion and raise revenue. Hong Kong tried – and abandoned – this measure following public resentment.
> Floating rate – Singapore’s new floating exchange rate system, replacing a fixed currency peg against the US dollar, has been adopted by China and Malaysia. The model allows the exchange rate to float within a set policy band to let the currency crawl up or down and avoid sharp fluctuations.
> Suzhou – China’s enthusiasm to learn about Singapore’s management and governance led to the creation of the jointly operated Suzhou Industrial Park. More than 1,000 Chinese have received training on Singapore’s urban planning, social security and medical insurance and industry development. Similar townships have sprouted in Indonesia, Vietnam and India.
While many countries, east to west, are interested to learn bits and pieces of Singapore’s practices, none has transplanted its top-down political system.
One exception could be China, and maybe other non-democracies like Vietnam or Burma. That is for the future.
It is no secret that the Chinese Communist Party has been studying the Singaporean model.
Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist Long Hua wrote: “Chinese leaders are quite in favour of adopting the political model employed by Singapore.
“In fact, it would not be unexpected for future political reforms in China to follow the paths (Singapore) set out.”
Long Hua said the Chinese saw Singapore as being ruled by a patriarchal government using elitist politics, and yet had developed faster than other Asian nations.
Well-known author Catherine Lim painted this possible scenario for Singapore in 2030: “China rises to superpower status as the US declines and is in a position to offer an alternative to the discredited Western liberal democracy.
“In its skilful blend of authoritarianism and capitalism, its (China's) system is not unlike Singapore’s.
“If Singapore and China become thus twinned on the world stage, the Lee Kuan Yew model of governance will have achieved an international acceptance that the PAP could never have dreamed of.”
There’s a strong caveat to this, of course. The younger generation of voters may have a different idea of what Singapore should be.