Learning from Singapore

Wednesday / Sep 06 2017

Newspaper : The News

Pakistan is in a dire economic state, brought to its knees by successive governments that have looted and plundered freely while the powerful dacoits go unpunished. A weak legal system coupled with corrupt investigation agencies and equally corrupt financial agencies have turned the dream of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah into a nightmare.

In my previous article, I emphasised on the need for a technocrat government that can set us on the course of establishing a knowledge economy. This will require the introduction of key governance reforms that can help establish a genuine democracy. We do not have to look far as to what needs to be done – Singapore represents an excellent model to follow.

Singapore is the greatest success story on our planet, transforming itself from a poor developing country to one of the most advanced countries of the world. This was done with little or no natural resources but purely on the strength of a clear vision of the importance of education in socio-economic development and investments in science, technology and innovation for inclusive growth. The most important element of this success was Lee Kwan Yew, a visionary leader who understood the importance of highly trained and qualified human resources in developing a strong knowledge economy.

In 1965, when Singapore became independent it was a small poor island covering an area of only about 700 km2. It had many religious groups with no common language. It had few natural resources, rapid population growth, little fresh water, poor housing facilities and ethnic conflicts. At independence, most of the two million population of Singapore was illiterate and unskilled. This was a huge challenge for development, much greater than that faced by Pakistan today. A highly educated technocrat cabinet was formed under the visionary Lee Kwan Yew. Right from the beginning, there was a determination not to attract foreign business investment that would take advantage of the low-cost labour available in Singapore, as that would have taken Singapore down the wrong path. Instead, the objective was to raise the incomes of the average workers as rapidly and as widely as possible so that Singapore could target medium and high technology industries to achieve rapid growth in high tech areas.

To achieve this, Singapore decided to give top national priority to high quality education and training at all levels. The phenomenal achievements in education are unparalleled by any other country in the world. Singapore has aggressively pursued a policy of advancement in education and other arenas by systematically benchmarking the world’s best performance. This is reflected from the fact that during the last decade Singapore’s education system has remained consistently among top of most major world education ranking systems. The objective was to create human capital that would serve as a powerful engine for economic growth in selected areas, such as electronics, biotechnology and engineering goods.

There was realisation that, in order to progress harmoniously, it was important to have ethnic harmony. Therefore, government housing was allocated in a manner that all groups were mixed and ethnic segregation avoided. The result has been that the ethnic disharmony seen in many developing countries such as India, Myanmar and many Islamic countries does not exist in Singapore.

Human resource has always been considered as the most precious asset of Singapore, in sharp contrast to the policies of successive governments of Pakistan where education has been the accorded the lowest priority by corrupt governments operating under feudal strangle-holds. Basic values instilled into the society at all levels included honesty, commitment to excellence, a culture of meritocracy, discipline, humility, teamwork, loyalty, national pride and a sense of social responsibility to the society as a whole. In the 1959 to 1978 period (‘Survival-Driven Phase’) the focus was to rapidly expand education and increase literacy levels.

In the next period, from 1979 to 1996 (‘Efficiency-Driven Phase’) the strategy shifted to moving Singapore from a third tier labour-intensive economy to a second-tier capital and skill-intensive economy. This required major school reforms starting from the elementary schools which recognised and adapted to the fact that children grow at different pace. Three types of high school education was established: i) academic high schools, which prepared students for college; ii) polytechnic high schools that focused on advanced technical training that could also lead to college levels, and iii) technical institutes that focused on occupational and technical training for the lowest fifth of students. Since Singapore focused on establishing a strong computer industry (silicon wafers, chips) a major aim of school level education in this period was to improves the quality of science and maths so that good quality technical workers could be produced in order to attract foreign industry.

With the establishment of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) with a number of campuses and with facilities that are comparable to good technical universities anywhere, Singapore became a shining hub for industrial development, attracting many multinational industries to establish their manufacturing plants there. The new Education Vision of Singapore brought in the concept of “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” that helped transform Singapore into one of the most powerful economies of the world. The system encouraged creative thinking, and life-long learning was encouraged. Two years of compulsory national service was introduced and education was tailored to the interests and aptitudes of the students. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) was given top priority as an enabler.

In the third phase between 1997 and the present day (‘Ability-based Aspiration-Driven’) the focus has been to make Singapore a world leader in the global knowledge economy. This has been promoted through the government Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A* Star), which provides major funding for research and attract top world scientists and scientific companies to Singapore. As a result, over a million foreign nationals with scientific, technical or managerial skills have been attracted to Singapore to work in international corporations, industries, research institutions and in higher education. The National University of Singapore is constantly ranked among the top 30 world universities and, along with Nanyang Technological University, research partnerships have been developed with leading universities around the world with a focus in bioinformatics, information sciences, medical technologies and other important fields. Singapore today has exports about 17 times those of Pakistan

Pakistan must change its system of governance, establish a technocrat cabinet, root out corruption through military courts, and drastically change the direction of its development programmes as done by Singapore to transition to a knowledge economy. However to do all this we must find our own Lee Kwan Yew.


The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).