Wednesday, 8 April 2015

[Straits Times] Clash of the titans: The verdict is out

THE late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's great vision, uncompromising principles on strong governance, and intolerance towards corruption and inefficiency have contributed to Singapore's rapid growth over the years.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who served as Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister, has also been credited by many for the successes he brought to Malaysia during his reign ("Lee Kuan Yew was 'kiasu', says Mahathir"; Sunday).

Both men have been seen as being authoritarian, ruling their countries with an iron fist. It is clear, however, that Mr Lee demonstrated other important leadership traits and did things very differently from Dr Mahathir; all this explains why till today, Malaysia has been unable to match Singapore's success.

Mr Lee was very clear in setting the strategic direction for Singapore. He wanted a Singapore for Singaporeans. The belief in meritocracy has given every Singaporean an equal chance to be successful, regardless of race, language or religion. Dr Mahathir, on the other hand, promoted a Malaysia for Malays. This prioritised racial redistribution over others has led to the racial problems that have remained unsolved for years.

As a result of giving every Singaporean an equal chance, Mr Lee was able to get a wider pool of talent and place the right person in the right job. This has helped to create not just a strong public administrative body but also a strong private sector which, in turn, helped to attract foreign investments into Singapore.

Malaysia, till today, is still grappling with misgovernance and brain drain.

Mr Lee clearly understood the need to create the right connections and sources to support the successes of the people. Year on year, Singapore has been ranked among the easiest places to do business. The numerous free trade agreements signed with various countries have also opened doors to many untapped opportunities.

Dr Mahathir can maintain that Singapore is successful because it is a smaller country with fewer racial issues and hence, easier to manage.

He must, however, not forget that Singapore has no natural resources and also faces challenges from a multiracial population.

Dr Mahathir was given the authority to run a country with plenty of natural resources and a bigger population, which, presumably, has more talents. Greater successes should be attained. What happened then?

The verdict is out.

Erman Tan