25 March 2015

Lee Kuan Yew and Lessons from Singapore's Development Experience

Comment on The Straits Times article:
'Mr. Lee Kuan Yew's Red Box' by Heng Swee Keat

The article is an interesting personal story of how the late authoritarian — 'benevolent dictator' to some, 'human rights violator' to others — Lee Kuan Yew had governed one of the most boring and repressive, yet economically successful, city-states in the world - Singapore....

Source: http://www.lee-kuan-yew.com
It isn't surprising why many Filipinos would rather have an authoritarian figure, even a dictator, again like LKY in the Philippines. This is an obvious indication of Filipinos' sheer frustration of the current state of affairs. After thirty years since the end of Marcos dictatorship, the promises of democratization have been hollow. Others, perhaps, are just ignorant of the particularities of Singapore's historical, political, and socio-economic dynamics and circumstances. 

Ironically, many Filipinos want to have disciplinarian leaders, but we do not even (want to) discipline ourselves. 

The development history of Singapore cannot be solely attributed to LKY's leadership. Workers have contributed tremendously to its development -- the impressive infrastructure of Singapore have been built by migrant workers, and many of the city's skilled workers and their children have been taken good care of household workers, many of whom from the Philippines and Indonesia. 

It's also important to note that the 'Chinese' population were already thriving on commerce, business, education, culture, and politics in colonial and post-independence Malaya. This, among other reasons, compelled Malay political elites to strategically expel Singapore from Malaysia to secure the dominance, and advance the interests, of ethnic Malays. Thus, it is not right to say that LKY built Singapore from scratch. 

The Singapore development experience cannot be replicated anymore. Not in or by the Philippines at this juncture. It has had its own historical specificities. 

  • One, Singapore has had, as what economists would call, a 'minimum efficient size', which has roughly the same land area as Metro Manila and only twice the population size of Quezon City.
  • Two, it pursued industrialization with a strong manufacturing sector at the time when Keynesian economics ruled the ethos of development strategy in the postwar era -- a favourable catching-up period to industrialise which Marcos and the Filipino elites failed to capture.
  • And many more....

However, there are some important lessons that the Philippines can draw from Singapore's economic development experience. 
  • First, do some serious planning for industrialization. Critical components of this strategy are: policy coordination; specialization in manufacturing, while designing the synergy between manufacturing, agriculture, services, and SMEs; and the prerequisite completion of land reform. NEDA and Philippine economic planners and managers since the 1960s would appear amateurs when compared to the serious planners and managers of Singapore, and even Malaysia.
  • Second, having a large public enterprise can be efficient and can be a national asset. Contrary to the claims by neoliberals and free marketeers, Singapore has large public enterprises which has been key to the country's economic success. Governments are not necessarily inefficient, and government intervention in the economy are not always bad.
  • Third, encourage the existence and organization of labour unions. At the level of Singapore's economic development, high wages have been realised not out of the benevolence of LKY's government or the generosity of businesses, but due to active negotiations and duly recognised activities of labour unions (even if these unions are state-orchestrated in the case of Singapore).
  • Fourth, FDIs and MNCs can and must be disciplined by the state. There are good and bad FDIs. Distinguish between greenfield and brownfield investments. Thus, the strategy of the state is to attract the good ones, and make them work towards the realization of the country's national and social goals. 

In short, here's my explanation to Singapore's successful "economic" development which may be emulated by developing economies like the Philippines: 'good' people + good institutions + good policies + good governance + good timing + good luck!

Yes, I must add, remember Philippines: 'development' and 'democracy' can be together! 
wink emoticon

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