Singapore: moving from strength to strength

When it comes to public impact, few countries – if any – have made a bigger global splash than Singapore. A tiny island state it may be, but its size has not prevented it from enjoying strong economic growth, high-quality public services, long life expectancy and much else besides. No wonder its success – which has been consistent over several decades and achieved without a reliance on domestic natural resources – has prompted admiration and envy from countries blessed with larger populations and GDP.

To visit Singapore today is to experience a horizon adorned with a mix of skyscrapers and modern architecture that is a testament to the power of bold decisions and substantial investments. Of course, much credit for the transformation of Singapore – it only gained independence in 1965 – goes to its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who led the country between 1956 and 1990. However, joining him in the annals of Singapore’s short history is his successor as prime minister, Goh Chok Tong.

Compassionate and consultative

Goh’s 14 years in office saw Singapore’s development continue apace, together with a steady accumulation of wider influence across the region. However, he is keen to stress that his leadership approach differed from that of his predecessor. “Prime Minister Lee set forth with very strong leadership and a clear vision of where Singapore should be,” he recalls. “He was determined to turn Singapore from a poor fishing port into a real metropolis, and applied several principles to do so. One was meritocracy: people must compete on the basis of their own strengths and performance. As a result, Singapore became a very competitive economy and society.”

There is no disputing the ensuing impact. Singapore swiftly surged up the regional and global ranks – garnering widespread applause for its strengthening economy, innovative public services and huge success in attracting inward investment. However, it is also fair to say that the rigidity of the approach was perhaps not as inclusive as it could have been.

“When I took over in 1990, I thought we were seeing some negative results of competition,” says Goh. “It meant that those who can do well can do much better, but those who are less able to compete will be left far behind – and the gap was widening. So I emphasised consultative government and compassionate government. Mr Lee’s government was very much top-down, and so I sought to reach out to the people and develop policies that aimed to support a compassionate society.”

This evolution, he adds, has continued under the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who has fully embraced the importance of inclusivity to the future of the city-state. “Although we still uphold the meritocracy principle, more attention is paid to those not able to compete so well,” he explains. “And so our education policy, for example, reflects this position by reaching out to the lower income groups to make sure everyone has their own peak to climb. The peaks are not just for high performers – we want everyone to maximise their potential. This approach means that our society can remain united.”

Trust talks

Born and bred in Singapore, Goh completed his education in the United States before returning home to a stint in the private sector. However, the allure of public service soon took over and he became an MP at 35. Even today, long after retiring as prime minister, he remains an “emeritus senior minister” to Singapore’s government.

From this wealth of experience he pinpoints trust and communication as absolutely pivotal to the success of any government – in Singapore or elsewhere. “We have our radar working all the time and the government must be aware of the challenges facing the country – from economics, from politics, geopolitics or climate change,” he says. “Once they know what they are, they have to be able to communicate – if you can’t communicate then you can’t win elections and you can’t get your policies accepted. But the key factor is trust – trust between the government and the people.”

So, how did Singapore’s policymakers build up trust between themselves and their electorate? “We are lucky to be able to have this trust for the last 50 years,” he says. “We’re also in the unique position of being able to plan for our leadership succession. Prime Minister Lee was in post for 30 years, I was for 14 years and I planned for the next prime minister to take over, which is what the current prime minister is doing. This allows us to project our strength, vision and ability to manage things.”

This high level of trust was reflected in the results of the last election in Singapore. Although facing a well-resourced and well-funded opposition, the government was returned to power with an increased majority. “The opposition rallies gathered crowds of up to 30,000 people, whereas government rallies had crowds of about 3,000,” recalls Goh.

“When people looked at the sizes of the rallies and the rowdiness of sections of the crowd, they concluded that the government might be weakened. But they also knew about the complex domestic problems the country was facing: an ageing population, increased foreign labour placing stresses on society, education, transport and so on. But the voters decided to stick with the government they knew, thanks to trust, our track record and our ability to listen to the people.”

Coming up

That Singapore’s has been a story of rapid progress and expansion is not in question. However, to safeguard this trajectory into the future, Goh firmly believes that its government must continue to be underpinned by the principles of inclusivity and collaboration.

“We transformed ourselves from being a low-income country into a developed economy with a high income,” he says, “but the ties between the elected leaders and the people must be constantly nurtured. Thanks to continual discussion, feedback and explanation we will shape our country’s future – together.”

FURTHER READING

  • Sustaining Singapore’s success. Singapore is not only a bridge between east and west but also a beacon of political and economic accomplishments that have given it a magnetic allure for governments around the world. The chairman of its Economic Development Board, Dr Beh Swan Gin, tells BCG’s Vincent Chin about going from third world to first – and how to stay there
  • Malaysia on the march. Dato Sri Idris Jala is tasked with overseeing Malaysia’s sweeping government and economic reforms; he tells us about a role rooted in delivery and implementation
  • It’s all about impact. Governments need to rethink and reset their approach to delivery, suggests Larry Kamener
  • The time to deliver is now. Sir Michael Barber reflects on the lessons learned and insights gained from a career at the heart of government delivery
  • Data to delivery. Former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, Martin O’Malley, tells us about a new approach to governance and delivery
  • From vision to reality. Government leaders worldwide share the objective of making an impact and getting things done but it’s rarely straightforward – Hans-Paul Buerkner offers some advice
  • The God Revolution. Public impact is easier said than done, admits former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell, who explains why impact is rarely viewed as a key priority among policymakers