It is rather difficult for us Thais to remain jubilant and optimistic these days. Murphy’s Law – everything that can go wrong, will go wrong – applies politically, economically, socially and educationally. Not many things make much sense. Many of us are in a “wait for the axe to fall” mode of thinking while we go on with our daily life like Sisyphus.
That’s why it is quite refreshing to look beyond our borders, 1,423 kilometres away, and see the Goldilocks of Asia.
Last week, the Young Ambassadors of Virtue Foundation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Thailand took six of its young ambassadors and their teachers to Singapore on a study tour. It was the penultimate activity of an ambitious year-long project named “Young Ambassadors of Virtue for the Strength of the Nation.” The project, aiming at fostering unity among young Thai citizens, was adopted as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) by the MFA for human resource development. The fostering of unity objective was a tribute to His Majesty the King on his 84th birthday in 2011. It has been His Majesty who, throughout his reign, has tried to inculcate among citizens that unity is a necessary condition for the country to move forward steadily and sustainably.
Singapore was the destination of choice for the study tour, the first ever carried out by the Foundation. If there is one single country in the world that has proven how important human resources are, it’s Singapore. The country has absolutely no natural resources, not even fresh water. The only resource it has is people. But they are only one side of the story in the phenomenal strides the country has made since independence in 1965.
Another side is the country’s leadership. The country’s founder and first prime minister Lee Kwan Yew has clearly demonstrated to the world that it’s not a cliche to say that one man can make a difference. And what an immense difference he has made.
Singapore does not want to call itself anything but “Lion City”. Before the colonial days it was called the “Gibraltar of the East”; now it is often referred to as the “Switzerland of Asia”. The country has seen wars and ethnic massacres, deep divisiveness between and among her citizens – Chinese, Malays, Indians and Tamils. Yet, Singapore has managed to emerge a winner and become one of the most peaceful and safest countries in the world.
Today, Singapore does not look like an Asian city. You could mistake it for Manhattan or any Western cosmopolitan city. It’s not only the skyline that leads you to that perception, but also the name plates of the world’s largest corporations lining the streets.
Singapore now boasts a gross domestic product to purchasing power parity per capita of int’l$59,711 (about US$ 50,000) which is the highest in East Asia, higher even than Brunei with all of its petro wealth. To put things in perspective, Singapore’s per capita GDP in 1965 at current market prices was US$516. In less than one generation, this tiny nation has gone from rags to riches – for the people, not politicians.
To think of Singapore only in terms of monetary prosperity is misguided. Singaporeans are known for their discipline, sense of purpose, determination, and drive for excellence. If all work makes Jack a dull boy, it is perhaps worth it. Singaporeans have made hard work seem easy; they have made being small beautiful. While much larger nations stumble on the globalised stage, Singapore sings all the way to a rousing curtain call. One of the main reasons that makes this possible is the unrivalled quality education that the country’s leadership has placed as the highest national priority.
Asean has been an important tenet of Singapore’s foreign policy. Unlike the EU, which has been driven ostensibly by the Franco-German pact, Asean has Singapore as its reticent and sublime keeper. As a smaller nation surrounded by much larger neighbours, Singapore sees clearly the importance of trade and commerce. Being a historical trading post gives the country a heritage to build upon, turning disadvantages into advantage. But Singapore also realises that for Asean to be a successful collective regional grouping, Singapore cannot appear too heavy handed as a driving force; other nations will have to share the sense of ownership.
The government affairs of Singapore are among the most transparent in the world, with incidents of corruption few and far between. The country has been voted the easiest place to do business because there are very few or no “unusual” fees to be added to the cost of doing business. An example of the keen sense of duty by government officials’ as guardians of the public interests is illustrated by the current troubles of the transport minister whose job is on the line: the underground rapid transit system has had a couple of age-related breakdowns in recent weeks.
In life, every gain is marked by a sacrifice. In order to keep the country’s act together – with an eye firmly not only on survivability but also on excellence – the Singaporean leadership has chosen to do away with other visceral traits. Everything about Singapore is so staid, the exact opposite of the lighthearted, easy-come-easy-go Thainess. Many of us look to Singapore for inspiration; Singaporeans look to us for relaxation.
With the visit that broadened their perspectives, the students and teachers of the Young Ambassadors of Virtue Foundation returned home in awe. The consideration that was extended to them by the government of Singapore made them realise that they were worthy of respect. That, to them, is priceless, as some did not even have the money for a passport application.
In only 47 years, Singapore has run past others to be ahead of the pack. It may be going through growing pains with the younger generation yearning more for things than their parents sacrificed to ensure a good life for them. People are rarely satisfied with what they have. But Singapore’s success story, against all odds, is worth telling and repeating, for it is miraculous and inspiring.
Coming back home, several members of the delegation wondered if it could happen there, why not here? It is a million-dollar question that is begging for an answer.
Irene Ng shares
interesting piece. But I must say Singapore has much to learn from the Thais too, particularly their graciousness and resilience