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Opinion
 

A tribute from Russia

Published on Jul 12, 2014 8:00 AM
 

SINGAPORE'S first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew became honorary doctor of the Diplomatic Academy under the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At the ceremony to mark this occasion, it was emphasised that Mr Lee was one of the most outstanding figures of the modern world. I had the chance to witness first-hand how, in a phenomenally short time, he turned Singapore from a Third World country into one of the world's most developed and prosperous states.

In the autumn of 1968, I was sent to Singapore to study Chinese dialects as part of a group of Soviet interns. The island immediately amazed me with its exoticism. But it was also obvious that it was drowning in problems.

Just three years earlier, Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian federation. Malaysia and nearby Indonesia viewed Singapore as "the fifth column" of Maoist China. They were not the only ones holding that view, either. In 1970, the former Soviet Unionnewspaper Pravda characterised Singapore as "the centre of Beijing's subversive activity in South-east Asia".

The economic situation was getting more and more stormy as well. The island had long based its prosperity on trading in raw materials from neighbouring states but they decided to get rid of its services as an intermediary. Singapore's foreign economic activities were in decline and national income growth was slowing down.

Most of the population lived in dilapidated slums and on dingy boats, without a sewer system, among rats, cockroaches, mosquitos, and flies. Ethnic tensions were also heating up. In 1969, Malaysia was shaken to the core by clashes between the Malays and Chinese. The echo of these events was heard in Singapore.

We interned at Nanyang University, where young people received a classical Chinese education that shaped their ethical norms and political outlook. Many of them looked towards China, the land of their ancestors, where the Cultural Revolution was raging. Nanyang students secretly admired Mao Zedong and criticised Singapore's Government for "subjugating the labourers and licking the boots of the West".

Leftist sensibilities of the downtrodden in Singapore showed themselves prominently during a festival of Soviet cinema in March 1970. A huge crowd of people without tickets burst into the screening of Lenin In October. They, and many other viewers, cheered Lenin's every appearance on screen, and sympathised with the depiction of workers clashing with the police.

In the spring of 1970, having finished my studies, I left Singapore, and got a chance to see it again only 20 years later. It was an entirely differently, shockingly ultra-modern Singapore. The downtown area was filled with skyscrapers. High-rise apartment blocks were everywhere. The residents had swimming pools, tennis courts and children's playgrounds at their disposal.

Squalid eateries became cosy, sparkling-clean restaurants. Flies and mosquitoes were nowhere to be found. And it was not just Singapore that had changed; its inhabitants had changed as well. They became proud and confident, no longer admiring foreigners who "stooped" to speak local languages or eat at a street stall.

In the 21st century, Singapore has solidified its place among the most developed countries of the world and is one of the largest global centres for finance, aviation, sea freight, and communications. What is the reason for the success? Naturally, it is the effective strategy that Mr Lee's government had adopted in mid-1960s.

His government emphasised integrating Singapore's economy into the global market, thus stimulating exports. Nowadays, special attention is paid to developing high-tech industries. To develop them, the Government made an effort to attract foreign capital. The authorities created for investors a climate more attractive than in other countries.

The next set of problems that Singapore successfully solved was supplying the economy with inexpensive, qualified labour. In the 1960s, the authorities established a tight control over the wage growth rate. The Government brought labour unions under control and prohibited strikes.

As a result, labourers worked in clean, well-lit workshops and safety regulations were observed everywhere. Whether it was supplying workers with food and accommodation, or formulating a vacation and pension scheme - it was done according to the highest standards.

Another component of Singapore's success is in maintaining its political stability. For this goal, the authorities used all means available. Seemingly, all the attributes of a democracy are present in the country but every Singaporean knows very well the boundaries of what is allowed. To fight corruption, the country uses severe methods, which results in almost a zero level of corruption in Singapore.

There is an opinion that in the domestic policies of the Singapore Government, two ancient Chinese traditions persist. The first is Legalism: controlling the population while relying on strict laws. The second is Confucianism: governance based on morals and justice.

In ancient China, the emperor had to serve as an example of virtuous behaviour for the people. Otherwise, he would lose the "mandate of heaven" to rule.

The Government maintains its mandate by ruling Singapore using economic mechanisms and political firmness. It also considers the task of educating people to have high spiritual qualities as its responsibility.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is rector of the Diplomatic Academy under Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This is translated from an article published in the June/July 2014 issue of the Russian language journal Echo Of The Planet.