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PM Modi recently called Singapore ‘a metaphor for dreams becoming reality” and hailed Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), the country’s founding father, as ‘a personal inspiration’.


I hope he hasn’t forgotten his visit to the remarkably successful city and his lecture extolling how India can learn much from Singapore. His reformist intentions can gain much momentum and even help India leapfrog a few steps in its development path by studying the Singapore success story.

Beyond grandiose schemes, Modi could study a ‘few tricks of the trade’ from LKY & Singapore. 50 years back, when Singapore gained a forced independence after it was thrown out of Malaysia, 20 years after India gained independence, it was an impoverished small island with no natural resources, doomed to fail. LKY started with a few basics to differentiate & grow Singapore.

  1. Rule of law. Firm & fast delivery of justice, clear & progressive laws, an independent & incorruptible legal system, severe penalties & deterrents, law-abiding citizens etc. have far reaching network effects in a society. Singapore attracts investments & skilled people because of its peaceful, fair & predictable environment, which compounds its growth & development efforts. India sorely lacks this fundamental social need.
  2. Food, water & shelter. If basic needs are not met, the country & its leaders have failed. If a resource & space constrained Singapore can boast today of almost zero poverty, potable water from every single tap, & 90% house ownership, a huge country like India with immense natural resources must be ashamed of its failure. Any country, including India, can do what Singapore did to provide these basic needs to its citizens.
  3. Education. Singapore’s only resources were its people and so it spent huge efforts on education & upgrading skills. As the engine of business growth and profits shifted from manufacturing to services, to new industries like IT, biotech, etc., Singapore was able to ride the shifting waves well because of its continuous investment in education. It is a favored destination for both students & teachers today, across all levels, and India can learn much from its experience.
  4. Meritocracy. All the above, and more, are possible only if the best men are at work. Meritocracy has to start from the top, and in all spheres, especially in politics & public institutions. Only the best leader can attract the best team. And the best team attracts other best people and so on. Besides a social calling, the best people can be compelled to stay & contribute in politics or public service only if they are compensated well for their efforts. The way Singapore attracts & retains the best talent in politics, parliament & bureaucracy offers interesting lessons for India.

While simply copying Singaporean policies may not help, PM Modi could do well by studying how LKY’s many unpopular & unusual (at the time) policies and methods could be transplanted in India.