Singapore's economic success, social policies and safety nets were some of the main issues discussed by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in an interview by BBC Hardtalk presenter Stephen Sackur at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland earlier in May.
Watch a video of the interview here hosted by St Gallen Symposium.
Below is an excerpt of the session:
Sackur: Tharman, it's a pleasure to have you here and to be able to have a conversation with you. The St Gallen theme as you know is all about size and scale and about this notion that sometimes all of us in different forms, political, economic management can learn a lot from small, and obviously Singapore is a small nation that has achieved extraordinary things. So if one looks as an overview over the last 50 years, if you could define one thing that has been of paramount importance behind Singapore’s rise, what would it be?
Tharman: An attitude of mind. We took advantage of disadvantage. We converted permanent disadvantage into continuing advantage. And that’s a very fundamental attitude of mind. What disadvantage did we have? We were not a nation that was meant to be. It’s a diverse group of people coming out of colonial migration patterns, very different origins, very different belief systems and religions. We were small, no domestic market, decolonisation happened suddenly and the British withdrew their military forces quickly and it impacted a very large part of the economy. We’re surrounded by much larger neighbours. To our south, about 50 times the size of Singapore, and (who) at the very outset objected to the very formation of Singapore and Malaysia. We had every disadvantage you could think of for a nation and we did not expect to survive, we were not expected to survive.
But that, to Lee Kuan Yew and the pioneer team of leaders, was converted to advantage because it forces you to realise that all you have is yourself, the world owes you nothing. Your piece of granite rock – fortunately it’s granite by the way – not even a waterfall or mountains that allow you to have a little bit of hydroelectric power, nothing. Just a group of people of different origins who were willing to work hard and had to fend for themselves and make themselves relevant to the world. And that mindset, thinking of yourself as not having that advantage of size or history and that you’ve got to create it for yourself, turns out to be a phenomenal advantage.
Sackur: So it's an achievement of collective will. I think back to the timing, the early '60s, there were a lot of Asian nations that were emerging at that time from colonialism, you know. One can think of...
Tharman: And African and Caribbean.
Sackur: Of course. But if we just think about Asia and your experience with Asia, you had nations which I think economists were predicting would be truly powerhouse nations back then - Indonesia, the Philippines, Burma (Myanmar). All of these were tipped for the top, and yet of course we saw all of them in their different ways really struggle in the post-independence period. So, was it just that Singapore had, maybe it was size that allowed you to find the collective will that those other larger nations could not forge?
Tharman: Well, I think it's a very difficult question but let me put it this way: People think of Singapore as an economic success...that's what sort of catches attention very easily - per capita GDP and so on. But what was really interesting and unique about Singapore was social strategy, and most especially the fact that we took advantage of diversity, different races, different religions, and melded a nation where people were proud of being who they were but were Singaporean first and foremost.
Sackur: But was it melded from top down? And we can’t get away from the figure of Lee Kuan Yew himself, you know. It wasn’t there at the beginning. He imposed it.
Tharman: The natural workings of society would not have led it to that happening.
Tharman: Not just in Singapore but anywhere in the world. The natural workings of society would have just as easily and more likely have led to mistrust, discomfort, bigotry and what we see in abundance in many countries in the world today.