“Singapore as a Miracle,” Interview with the Dean of the Graduate School of Public Policy Weng Tat Hui

3335581. Why is the history of Singapore often called a miracle?

Singapore is considered an economic miracle. When it became self-governing in 1959, unemployment rate was high (over 10%), corruption was rampant. The majority of the population lived in slum areas. Although some of the key institutions were in place, the country lacked natural resources. The entrepot economy was unable to generate sufficient jobs for the new labour market entrants.  

Government had bold vision to transform the country from a third world nation into a thriving first world nation by uniting the people and giving everyone a stake in Singapore success. That began a story of Singapore. The focus was to build the country that people of Singapore could be proud of. The focus was to provide them with good education, housing and promote corruption free environment.

The government of Singapore focused on developing education system in order to produce enough adequately equipped workforce to meet the needs of a modernising and industrialising economy. Today, in 2018 compared to 1960, Singapore’s GDP in real terms has increased by 56 times, real per capita GDP by 17 times (population 3.4 times). Unemployment rate is at 2.1% and 80% of the resident population (4 million) have publicly built quality housing with 90% owning their homes. Singapore currently has the lowest infant mortality rate and recently became the country with the highest life expectancy rate in the world of 84.8 years.

So this is an economic miracle – transformation from the third world nation to a first world nation. Singapore is ranked very highly in many aspects whether it is social or economic. 

2. What is the specifics of the economy of modern Singapore?

Modern Singapore is driven by two major sectors – manufacturing which contributes 21 % of GDP and employ 13 % of total workforce and services which contributes 66 % of GDP and employs 74 % of workforce. Singapore doesn’t have natural resources but it has human resources. The country relies on large contingent of foreign labour of 1.39 m people which constitute 37.3% of the total workforce in the economy.

3. Some features of the development are already being adopted by Kazakhstan and in what areas our economies may be similar?

Physically, Singapore and Kazakhstan are very different. Singapore has very small area of 722 sq km. Kazakhstan has 2.724,900 sq km. Kazakhstan is 3 thousand times more than Singapore. In terms of population Singapore has 5.8m, Kazakhstan has 18.5m. Kazakhstan is more than 3 times a size of Singapore in terms of population. Singapore is highly densely populated. Kazakhstan is sparsely populated with 6 persons per sq kilometre.

In terms of the policies that were adopted by the government of Singapore there are some similarities. The similarities are, first of all, are human capital development. Kazakhstan places a lot of emphasis on the development of human capital. In particular, the education of the brightest students. I am referring to the Bolashak program scheme where you have already sent and trained about 13 000 of your brightest students overseas and locally.

Secondly, of course, the similarity is having a long – term perspective. The first President in several of his speeches has given a very long-term vision for Kazakhstan. In 2012 Kazakhstan 2050 strategy was initiated where Kazakhstan will be within the top 30 developed nations of the world. So likewise in the case of Singapore when we became independent the government also adopted a very long-term strategy in developing a country into a first world nation. Bold vision of developing the country and the emphasis on human capital and, of course, to have in place a development strategy to achieve what you have set in terms of vision for the country. 

The differences between the countries mainly lie in implementation. How you manage, for example, the top talent from the Bolashak scheme. I think there is a difference between the Singapore and Kazakhstan. When the top talent returns from overseas Singapore has a deliberate policy in managing those talents within the country to utilize them more fully to ensure that they contribute to the development of the country. Secondly, in terms of differences between the two countries is that while Singapore embark on its development strategy by emphasizing the importance of non-corrupt environment, so there is no perception of corruption within society in Singapore, in Kazakhstan there is still perception of corruption within the country. Today there is a general perception that there is a need to get rid of corruption within the country in Kazakhstan.       

Thirdly is how you implement the development plans. In the case of Singapore the development strategies and plans were effectively implemented with efficiency and adaptability with the changing environment. In the case of Kazakhstan while you have both strategies, what is probably lacking is effective implementation of those strategies.

The third area is the provision of the basic necessities. In the case of Singapore what the government has done is provided public affordable quality public housing to the 80% of the population. In the case of Kazakhstan housing is still in short supply. I think this is one area which the current government emphasizing on.

4. Why did Singapore succeed, and is there any chance that Kazakhstan will succeed?

Singapore succeeded because of the focus and emphasis on importance of core values. And the core values are honesty, integrity and non-tolerance of corruption. If we have those values firmly established in Kazakhstan it becomes easier to implement and achieve some of the vision that the government has set for the country. The other area that I have mentioned is the provision of the quality and affordable housing. This is the area that I am heartened to know that Kazakhstan is currently focusing on. It is important to provide affordable housing because it gives people a sense of belonging, a stake in the future of the country. So they will want to remain and contribute to the future of the country,  and building hope and retaining talent.

Another area which Kazakhstan can continue to focus on and has begun to is provision of quality education and healthcare. If you compare the expenditure on healthcare and education between Kazakhstan and Singapore, currently Singapore spend twice as much on education as Kazakhstan even though the Kazakhstan has larger population. Singapore spends almost 3 times as much as Kazakhstan on healthcare in terms of government expenditure compare to Kazakhstan. This area needs attention i.e. on provision of quality education from the young age to university and quality healthcare, you will make an important investment which will work well for the future development of Kazakhstan.

In addition to ensuring non-corrupt environment which requires political will, changing laws, swift and efficient enforcement, and independent judicial system, there is also a need to have good communications with the population. Government should emphasize on importance of engaging population, communicating with the population on the policies that were adopted so the people could identify what the government is doing in terms of these policies.

Finally it is important to educate public officers in the designing of efficient and good public policies. This is where the school of public policy comes in. Our role is to promote good governance and we promote good governance by providing quality education in public policy and public administration. This is not only restricted only to Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Public Policy. This can be replicated in other universities around the country where public officers can receive education in what it means to design good and efficient policies.