Goh Keng Swee was Singapore's first Minister of Finance. The prudent approach to fiscal management and a commitment to sound money by Singapore's founding fathers was one of the cornerstones of their success. To quote:
Contrast that with our rulers who run massive deficits year after year, all funded by debt.
"Dr Goh soon discovered that the government was almost broke, and expected a budget deficit of $14 million that year. Prudent and thrifty by nature, Dr Goh immediately introduced drastic measures to cut spending, including cutting civil service salaries. This was obviously unpopular, but Dr Goh stood firm. When he delivered the Budget at the end of the year, he proudly declared that the government had achieved a small surplus of $1 million."
"Dr Goh next turned his attention to jump-starting the stagnant economy. He decided on a strategy of rapid industrialisation, attracting investments from MNCs to create jobs and exports. This was a radical and untested approach. It was contrary to the conventional wisdom then, that poor countries could achieve economic development through import substitution, and that MNCs were new colonial powers out to exploit impoverished workers in the Third World."What are out leaders saying? They want to achieve self sufficiency, in milk, sugar, soybeans, maize, footwear, canned fish and whatnot. No longer is the term "import substitution" used, instead it is "self sufficiency" and support for "Sri Lankan entrepreneurs"; who are mostly cronies, the least enterprising lot who simply look for hefty taxes and subsidies that come at the cost of the consumer and tax payer.
Apart from fiscal prudence, another of the principles that drove the founding fathers of Singapore was clean government. The PAP campaigned in white, to symbolise purity, and on being elected put in measures to stamp out corruption at all levels.
On March 7, 2013, during a congress session, Member of Parliament (MP) Sylvia Lim expressed her concern when Singapore ranked 5th on Transparency International (TI)’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2012 and the year before. Singapore was rated joint number one in 2010. Read the story here.
Sri Lanka has been ranked No.79 and while the ministers in Singapore are concerned about the decline in their ranking and seeking ways to improve it Sri Lanka launches virulent attacks on the body and on NGO's in general.
Another overlooked factor is the importance of the rule of law. A vignette that illustrates this well is the way Lee Kuan Yew, a Cambridge educated Barrister, agonised over the appointment of a new Chief Justice when Sir Alan Rose was due to retire in 1953. The Chief Justice, he wrote, sets the tone for the whole judiciary, therefore it is is of utmost importance to select the right candidate. Interestingly, Sir Alan served as Chief Justice of Ceylon (1952-56)immediately after he retired from Singapore. The current incumbent of this office in Sri Lanka speaks volumes for the state of the rule of law in this country.
It is true that infrastructure is necessary, but it is not the most important thing. The rule of law and a functioning legal system, sound policy and an efficient and clean bureaucracy matter a lot more. They are much harder to create and sustain than big, grandiose infrastructure or smartening up the streets.
Trying to imitate Singapore is fine, but when it is done, imitate the real substance; not the obvious forms.