Reflections on Singapore at 50

We have indeed much to be proud of as a country. Against long odds, we have succeeded.

As Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in the Australian Parliament in a tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew: "In 1965, Singapore's gross domestic product per head was about one third that of Australia. Today, Singapore's gross domestic product per head is almost double that of Australia."

He went on to say: "It is one of the most remarkable economic success stories in history. Within a generation, Singapore has moved from the Third World to the First World."

Flying the flag for Singapore is the quality of its governance.
Flying the flag for Singapore is the quality of its governance. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

What is the secret of our remarkable success? Just two words: Effective government.

Economic policies that make for success are well-known - invest heavily in education and infrastructure, be open to trade and as far as possible let the markets have their way. But what determines whether these policies are successfully implemented or not, is the quality of a government.

Effective government therefore requires not just the ability but also the willingness to take on difficult arguments that serve the common good.

It requires leaders who have the moral courage to tell people what they need to hear and not what they want to hear.

This is what makes the difference between countries that do well and those that do not; between governments that simply talk about doing something and those that actually get it done. This is what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meant when he said that what India needs to get ahead is "minimum government, maximum governance".

Good governance is hard. This is because a government will need to make decisions that may be painful immediately, while the benefit comes only in the long term. Or, as in the case of immigration, a decision that benefits the country as a whole, but hurts sharply specific groups of people.

If the reaction function of a government is predominantly predicated on the avoidance of pain, the country will be ill-governed. This is because we do not live in a fantasy world where tough choices can be wished away.

Effective government therefore requires not just the ability, but also the willingness to take on difficult arguments that serve the common good. It requires leaders who have the moral courage to tell people what they need to hear and not what they want to hear. In fact, I would say that it is the duty of an elected leader to do so, as acting thus is to put country before self.

Today, the challenge to good governance is even greater. This is because in a world of networked devices and round-the-clock connectivity, there is increasing risk that difficult policy choices may be unduly influenced by mass emotions and instant judgments, rather than on reason and reflection. In such a world, effective leadership is all the more critical. The alternative - "all antennae, no compass" - is a recipe for disaster.

Public opinion may be divided. It may change quickly. It may well be, in some instances, harmful to the public itself. As James Madison, one of America's founding fathers, said: "There are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people upon themselves, until reason, justice and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?"

As we head into the tail end of this government with elections imminent, we will do well to remember that leaders who will do good for our country are not those who put their finger up to see where the wind is blowing, but those who have the courage to point us in the direction that we should go, even in the face of strong headwinds. Leaders who tell us as it is - the opportunities but also the challenges, priorities and the trade-offs involved, and rights that come with responsibilities. As Mario Cuomo, a former governor of New York, said: "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose."

Elections are therefore not just about a verdict on a government but more importantly about choice. It is about choosing the best men and women who can engage and lead public opinion for the common good rather than those who merely echo and pander to it for their own good. It is about choosing an effective government that puts country first. This is the critical choice that has to be made at every election.

The good news is, we have effective government. We know what "good" looks like when it comes to governance. Continue to demand it. Do not settle for less.

Our country is exceptional.

The world knows it.

I was in Stanford University recently and the taxi driver who took me there from my hotel asked me where I was from. I told him, "Singapore", and his immediate reaction was "Singapore! Beautiful country". I asked him whether he had visited our country. He said "No. But I have heard so much about it. Very good economy. Very safe."

In our heart of hearts, we know this, too.

Let us keep it that way.

So that the next 50 years will be even better.

Majulah Singapura.

• The writer is a Member of Parliament for East Coast GRC.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2015, with the headline 'Reflections on Singapore at 50'. Print Edition | Subscribe