Republic took steps to make a change: World Bank chief

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and World Bank president Jim Yong Kim at the Human Capital Summit in Bali on Oct 11, 2018. Mr Kim said that Singapore was "not a country full of crazy rich Asians 50 years ago".
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and World Bank president Jim Yong Kim at the Human Capital Summit in Bali on Oct 11, 2018. Mr Kim said that Singapore was "not a country full of crazy rich Asians 50 years ago".PHOTO: AFP

NUSA DUA (Bali) • Singapore got its top-of-the-world healthcare and education systems because its leaders took the necessary steps to develop them, and not because it was filled with "crazy rich Asians".

World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim made the comment at the Human Capital Summit yesterday, referencing the popular novel and movie set in the Republic to make a point about how world leaders have to invest more in healthcare and education in their countries.

Dr Kim was speaking at a dialogue with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who shared the early steps the Singapore Government took after independence to lay the foundation for its healthcare and education systems.

"The most remarkable thing about Singapore is that this was not a country full of crazy rich Asians 50 years ago," Dr Kim said, to laughter from the audience.

"This was a country that went from having low literacy rates and developing-country kind of mortality numbers to where it is now because leaders took responsibility and said, 'We are going to measure it, we will get there and try all the different innovations'."

Earlier yesterday, the World Bank launched its inaugural Human Capital Index, which saw Singapore top the list of how economies invested in people.

Still, PM Lee noted that "the job is never done" because as the country reaches new levels of development, new expectations and challenges arise.

Take education. Although Singapore has a reasonably good education system, it has to pay a lot more attention to pre-school education, the Prime Minister said.

"Children come at the age of six to school at quite different levels, some able to read, some able to write, but some barely literate or able to recognise letters of the alphabet," he said. "We want to bring everybody to a good starting point as early as possible in life, regardless of whether you are rich or poor, whether your parents are advantaged or disadvantaged."

In healthcare, Singapore has to focus on step-down care and active ageing so that people stay fit and healthy for a longer time. "We have got old folk in their 70s and 80s who are learning to dance ballet and doing not badly, and they are much healthier and happier for it," he said.

 
 
 

Dr Kim said it was also "stunning" that Singapore has achieved its current outcomes even though it spends just 4.6 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on healthcare. The US spends about 18 per cent of its GDP on healthcare, while most European countries spend 10 per cent to 12 per cent.

Dr Kim also noted that investments in healthcare and education are correlated to economic growth, and urged governments to step up work in these two areas.

When asked what countries should do if they wanted to follow in Singapore's footsteps, PM Lee said the starting point for the government must be "that we want to improve lives for all of the population, not just some of it".

"If you do that, then as people's basic lives improve and they have control over their lives, a roof over their heads, they can start thinking about their future and what they want their children to do.

"Then you can talk about public health and about improving and optimising your healthcare system, and you can talk about having a good education system. From that, you have more growth, you have more prosperity and you can make further progress with your social services," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2018, with the headline 'Republic took steps to make a change: World Bank chief'. Print Edition | Subscribe