What Singapore Does Right Part 2: Competent Governance

Singapore skyline at sunrise.

On this day 56 years ago, the tiny city-state of Singapore was given independence. Since then, it has become the envy of the world by defying the odds and going from one strength to another. It is considered by many who study global trends a complete fluke, in that a country with no natural resources, farmland, or natural economic hinterland of any sort could go from a Third World backwater to a First World oasis with a standard of living that leaves even America in the dust.

Having said this, a more detailed observer would have noticed that the Singapore miracle of the past six decades was made possible by the sheer force of will and determination her founding generation had, in particular the founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the first batch of national leaders that followed him. From the beginning, it was recognized that a clean and competent government would serve as Singapore’s main competitive advantage in the region, and standards of conduct were set up with this goal in mind.

Singapore employs a system of carrots and sticks in order to more effectively achieve the goals the government wishes to achieve, and her politicians are not exempt from this. In fact, politicians are subject to a completely different legal standard than everyone else in Singapore. Should a civil servant be found to have assets in his name that cannot be explained by his salary alone is presumed guilty and the onus is on him to prove his innocence. This high stake was seen as necessary to prevent the endemic corruption so commonly found in Third World countries from ever gaining a foothold in Singapore.

And if that was not enough, Singapore is very careful of who gets selected for high-profile public service. Members of the ruling party search far and wide for any man of exceptional capability, whether that be in a profession, business, civil service, or even the military, and invite them to be put through the selection process. This is done for every 15-20-year cohort to ensure that each generation of leaders is of the best possible quality in order to keep the country going.

With all of that said, this might not be very effective without a big carrot at the end of it, i.e. the right incentives. While it is difficult to become a politician in Singapore, the compensation package is commensurate with the rigors of the position. Indeed, Singapore’s politicians are the highest paid in the world bar none. The pay of Ministers and Parliamentarians is tied to that of executives in the private sector, the justification being that the best and brightest were best placed in public service positions and therefore had to be compensated accordingly to incentivize them to stay long-term.

This winning combination has produced generation after generation of leaders that have been able to keep Singapore on the right track and raise the standard of life of the average Singaporean orders of magnitude over what it was when the country first became independent. Most countries would do well to learn a thing or two from the Singaporeans on who should be in the national driver’s seat.