Singapore's Smart Success Story: An Interview with Kent Calder

By Afshin Molavi

Singapore. Though it may be one of the world’s smallest countries (at less than a quarter the size of Washington, DC), this tiny city-state has been punching above its weight for decades.

It boasts the world’s second-largest container terminal port, sixth-busiest international airport, and best maths and science students. And if that wasn’t enough, it has dominated the World Bank’s Doing Business Index rankings (moving between the top three spots) for more than a decade. It has also been labelled the world’s second most competitive economy for the past five years, according to the World Economic Forum.

In the same World Economic Forum survey, Singapore has ranked first in public sector performance. In a time when governments around the world are often failing or flailing in their performance and efficiency, Singapore is thriving. As Kent Calder, author of the recently published book Singapore: Smart City, Smart State, puts it: “In a world of conspicuous institutional failure, one entity that still offers some important lessons for the practice of governance is Singapore.”

All this for a country that only gained independence in 1965. Clearly, Singapore is doing something right.

To delve into the country’s successes, emerge85 lab co-director Afshin Molavi met with Kent Calder, director of the Reischauer Centre for East Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Below are lightly edited excerpts from their conversation and from Calder’s new book:

Molavi: You first visited Singapore more than five decades ago, as a young boy, and you mentioned you have visited more than 20 times since then. Ultimately, you decided at some point that you needed to chronicle this story. What was the inspiration? Why did you write the book?

Calder: I’ve been thinking about globalisation and about how it really is a phenomenon that we can't avoid. Obviously, we have to take care of our domestic problems, jobs, employment – those are crucial questions. But, the world is globalising very rapidly and … Singapore is a paradigm of a smart response to globalisation.

I also, of course, have been thinking about the crisis of social security, public health, and environment that’s emerging in the industrialised world. I think Singapore has things to teach us about that. It teaches us the importance of public-private co-operation, about being concerned about the environment, but also about having a holistic market-oriented approach to such things – drawing in foreign investment from all over the world to create jobs, realising that you’re part of the world as a whole, realising that social security can be built on things like housing and opportunities rather than simply entitlements.

As far as developing nations of the world, I think Singapore is a tremendously important laboratory. It shows us the importance of things like transportation infrastructure and how you manage issues like public health or the environment – especially since those issues are so crucial as the developing world moves from countryside to city.

Singapore, in short, provides lessons I think both for advanced industrial nations and also the developing world.

Kent Calder at a graduation ceremony in the Japanese Embassy, Washington, DC, 2016. Noel St. John


Molavi: What is the secret of Singapore’s success?

Calder: I think the key really is public-private partnerships and outsourcing of some of the most important government services to private firms which still have a public purpose at heart.

The Economic Policy Board is a good example. This is a body that is responsible for foreign investment coming in, and for thinking strategically about the key sectors that Singapore should explore and leverage. It includes a lot of private sector people with experience in investment banks or private firms overseas, and the cream of the crop just out of school. There is a lot of interchange back and forth between the private sector and this strategic organisation which is an anomaly outside the government and, yet, builds public purposes. It’s a kind of one-stop shop for firms that want to come in and do business with Singapore.

They also frequently will take government policies or things that they’ve developed internally within Singapore and then send them to other countries, first through overseas development assistance and then through consulting.

Molavi: So, they actually have a way to export the ‘Singapore model’?

Calder: That’s right. I think it’s important to think of Singapore really as a laboratory for the world. They develop policies. They develop forms of government-business interaction. And then the ones that succeed, they take and they export overseas. Sometimes, at the very beginning, they will do this as development assistance to other countries, especially poorer nations, developing countries in Africa, and so on.

But then, later on, these become consulting services.

Molavi: And Singapore has clearly had an effect on China. You write in your book about how there was a historic visit to Singapore by the leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, in 1978, just as he was rising, just as he became the leader. You said that visit to Singapore really influenced him. How much did Singapore influence the rise of China?

Calder: I would say that it is – was – absolutely crucial. In the very, very early days as China was beginning to open to the world, just after the Cultural Revolution, Deng visited Singapore in October of 1978. A month later, he went to the National People’s Congress and declared the implementation of the four modernisations.

Two months after that, the US and China normalised relations and China began opening much more actively to the world.

Editor’s note: First outlined by Premier Zhou Enlai in 1963, and embraced by Premier Deng Xiaoping after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the four modernisations planned to modernise agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology in order to create a more prosperous and advanced China. The plan represented a significant break from the class warfare ideology of the Mao-dominated era of 1949-76, towards the more pragmatic economic policies that led to China’s revival and historic growth following 1979.

Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands SkyPark. aotaro/Flickr CC BY 2.0


China’s Rise and the Singapore model

"In early November, 1978 Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore on the very eve of his historic Four Modernisations proposals. He quickly bonded with Lee Kuan Yew, whom he met several more times across the years, and was deeply impressed by Singapore’s ability to combine economic growth and political stability. Deng viewed the tiny city-state as both a useful model for his own reform program and as an indispensable intermediary for China with the broader global community … Deng dispatched numerous emissaries and study groups to Singapore to learn about planning, public management, and corruption control. He also exhorted Shenzen, Zhuhai, and other reforming special economic zones to learn from Singapore during his famous Southern journey of early 1992."

– Kent Calder, Singapore: Smart City, Smart State, Brookings Institution Press, 2016, p. 13-14.

Molavi: In your book, if we go back to Lee Kuan Yew [known as the ‘Father of Singapore’] and the institutions that were being built in Singapore, you mention housing as playing a really important role in the rise of Singapore. Can you take us through that a bit?

Calder: Well, I think that shows how they tried to pull policies in many different areas together and hit many birds with one single stone. Housing, they put housing next to industrial plants so that people didn’t need to commute. That helped to reduce pollution and to make transportation easier.

They put people of different ethnic groups together and gave them an opportunity to build trust with one another by living alongside one another. They put medical facilities very close to housing to improve health in an emergency and also to improve public health.

Then, they made sure that people had an opportunity to buy their own housing: More than 90% of Singaporeans now have their own housing. They own their own housing. It’s a remarkable story and I think that has a lot of relevance particularly for developing nations, but in certain ways even for the US.

Singapore Home Ownership, 1980-2015

Source: Department of Statistics Singapore, accessed January 2017


Molavi: You travel a lot around the world. Beyond Asia, are there other cities that you’ve seen that are really aspiring and kind of emerging as the next Singapore?

Calder: I think the UAE is doing a remarkable job. I have been several times to Abu Dhabi and also Dubai, and I think there are some very important parallels. First, first-rate transportation: Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have excellent airports that bridge Africa, Asia, Australia, East Asia, and the West.

They also are very conscious of other forms of infrastructure, and also about the importance of public health and housing. I think probably the best analogy in the developing world is the UAE.

Molavi: Let me very briefly go back to your first visit to Singapore. You were eight years old. What do you remember?

Calder: Well, the flame [Flame of the Forest] trees were beautiful. These beautiful red trees that bloomed early in the year, that’s still the same, but that’s pretty much it. Singapore has changed incredibly over the years, and I have been privileged to observe it up close.

Smart Singapore and crisis-consciousness

“Singapore’s geography and lack of resources … are innately challenging. And its national history has been likewise difficult, from the very inception in the mid-20th century. The saga of Singapore’s first two decades, in particular, illustrates clearly why Singapore needed to be smart, in the sense of being strategically yet pragmatically responsive, long before the opportunities to become smart in a narrower cybernetic sense began to arise. Singapore’s early history also shows how proactive leadership was crucial to the creation of the city-state’s distinctively open and holistic institutional architecture, collaborative policy style, and willingness to learn from abroad. All those qualities, embedded long before the Digital Revolution, later made embracing smart ICT possible. The difficult history of those founding years also shows why crisis consciousness remains so deeply ingrained in both Singaporean political leaders and in their bureaucratic counterparts even today, driving them continually toward far-sighted policy innovation.”

– 
Kent Calder, Singapore: Smart City, Smart State, Brookings Institution Press, 2016, p. 28.

(Cover image: aotaro/Flickr CC BY 2.0)