Singapore at 50: What can other countries learn from its path?

Singapore's economic success has surprised many: Its GDP per capita has shot up from $500 to $55,000 in the last 50 years. Political constraints sometimes pose challenges to residents, but a lack of corruption has kept good governance intact.

Edgar Su/Reuters
Fireworks explode during a Golden Jubilee celebration parade rehearsal in Singapore August 1, 2015.

Fifty years ago, Singapore was a typical Third World country. Today, it’s emblematic of immense economic success.  

How did it get here?

Singapore was forced into independence in 1965 after being expelled from Malaysia. Its GDP per capita income at the time was $500, but today it's $55,000 notes Kishore Mahbubani, dean of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, writing for The Huffington Post.

Many say this miraculous growth was made possible by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who has been said to have left behind a “legacy of authoritarian pragmatism.” Lee, who ruled Singapore for 31 years, passed away earlier this year.

Economic welfare indicators depict unequivocal success.

Singapore’s GDP per capita is among the highest in the world, according to Bloomberg, and it also has among the highest proportions of millionaire households.

According to Mr. Mahbubani, the key to Singapore’s success is in their implementation of three policies: meritocracy, pragmatism, and honesty.

He said: “Meritocracy means a country picks its best citizens, not the relatives of the ruling class, to run a country. Pragmatism means that a country does not try to reinvent the wheel. However, implementing 'Honesty' is the hardest thing to do. Corruption is the single biggest reason why most Third World countries have failed. The greatest strength of Singapore's founding fathers was that they were ruthlessly honest. It also helped that they were exceptionally shrewd and cunning.”

One way the nation employed “shrewd and cunning” measures was through constraints on political freedoms.

Politicians have often used defamation suits to bully dissenters and intimidate the foreign press, Bloomberg noted.

As the Financial Times reports, "Former PM Lee’s silencing of critics resulted in an 'air-conditioned nation' […] which purrs like a machine. It also lacks a richness of debate, divergence, and dissent."

Restrictions on freedom of expression have created a darker dimension to Singapore's success story.

A court sentenced 16-year-old blogger Amos Yee to four weeks’ detention after he criticized Prime Minister Lee in an eight-minute video celebrating his death. He was released on time served in July.

According to The New York Times, Amos was convicted for posting an obscene image and hurting religious feelings because he compared Lee’s supporters unfavorably to Christians.

Singapore has also been condemned for intense government control of the media and its reputation as an “enlightened dictatorship,” Mahbubani noted.

Although the country has held elections every five years, the same political party has stayed in power since the country's inception.

Singapore’s National Day will be celebrated on August 9 – the date of Singapore’s independence 50 years ago – but preparations are already underway.

According to the BBC, an extravaganza costing nearly $15 million will take place in the middle of the city, where 150,000 people are expected to attend.

Some companies are desperate to capitalize on the marketing potential of Singapore’s half century.

"Even supermarkets are in nationalistic overdrive," reports the BBC, "trying to sell shoppers everything from 50 grams more bacon [to] fishcakes shaped in the number 50 for their noodles."

Luxury goods are no exception: Singaporeans can order a special Rolls Royce model commemorating 50 years, according to the BBC.

However, many Singaporeans view such attempts as cash grabs rather than sincere expressions of patriotism. Most residents of the island-city-country feel deeply proud of their home.

Although Singapore has established secure living standards for most of its population, it remains to be seen whether the country can demonstrate leadership on the international stage

Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told CNBC that Singapore excelled in being a successful early-adopter. He especially praised the country's "high capacity for internationalization, for technology and adaptation." But, he warned, it will be much tougher for the country to become a leader.

To move into that role, suggests Tay, Singapore will need to work on "elevating the mentality of the people" and finding a way to increase "civic engagement."

But this doesn’t mean the nation can’t have any influence on global affairs.

Singapore is in a "sweet spot," Frank Lavin, former US ambassador to Singapore (2001-2005) told CNBC, due to its good relations with both US and China.

In the future, he says, Singapore should remain close to both China and the US, increase its presence in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and find a way to be "as open as possible to all other powers to enhance its security."

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