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Kishore Mahbubani, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore

“In contrast to other countries, Singapore never implemented a general educational system. Indeed, the key to Singapore’s prosperity lies partly in its customized and tailored education system,” states Professor Kishore Mahbubani of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.


Since the 1960s, the world has witnessed, as Niall Ferguson states: ‘the re-emergence of Asia’. The ASEAN region has experienced startling economic growth, rising living standards and thriving inter-intra trade. What factors have driven this regional ascent?

Firstly, it is crucial that we immediately recognize that the return of Asia is a perfectly normal development. For two thousand years, the largest and most esteemed economies of the world resided in Asia. It is only in the last two hundred years that the western power imprinted their global dominance. Ultimately, the relatively recent predominance of the west has been a major historical aberration, and of course, all aberrations come to an end; thus it is perfectly natural to see the re-emergence of the east.

The ASEAN community will play an increasingly important role in the management of the region’s ascent. Firstly, the ASEAN economic community will be launched in 2015, representing a positive and strong development. Indeed, even though ASEAN only has approximately 600 million people—a comparatively low number compared to the giant states of India—its combined GNP is greater than India’s. Secondly, ASEAN, in the shape of a mediator, will play a central geopolitical role in the rise of APAC. As personified by events over disputed islands in the South China Sea, there are embedded fractures and tensions within the APAC community. Thus, ASEAN territory, perceived as neutral ground, is one of the few places where leaders from across Asia and the world are comfortable meeting, as witnessed by the recent ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asian Summit. Ultimately, ASEAN can provide a table for negotiation to resolve regional disputes.

Symbolizing the centrality of the ASEAN community is the fact it is now being courted by many of the great powers. Indeed, China was the first country to offer a free trade agreement to ASEAN and that catalyzed other regional powers into offering such economic agreements.

There has been a strong focus on how Asian states can emulate the West to catalyze growth. Considering the clear power shift, what can the West learn from the East?

As a result of implementing what I call the ‘seven pillars of western wisdom’, Asian states have re-emerged and a number are continuing their rise. One fundamental trait is that one feels a sense of forward regional momentum. Indeed, plenty of surveys convey the optimism of young people in Asia, compared to the west, where a significant proportion of young people are pessimistic about their future prospects.

One area that the West can learn from the East is in the realm of education. Western education was clearly designed for the Western mind, but Asian students in the West’s pre-eminent universities are thriving. In fact, statistics illustrate more and more Asian’s emerging as PhD holders and topping performance tables in the West. The commitment and drive to become educated is a facet that is partly driving Asia’s road to modernity. The West needs to reestablish its work ethic and learn from Asia by coming to the East to witness their practices and customs.

One area that could unhinge the rapid rise of Asia is in energy security. The region faces a myriad of profound energy demand challenges, which are compounded by a lack of supply. How can ASEAN states overcome these challenges?

Asia is confronting a number of energy challenges and Asians need to learn to grow through a moderation of their energy consumption. Furthermore, in many Asian countries, the level of energy efficiency is very low and it needs to markedly improve. Learning from regional leaders such as Japan would be a step in the right direction. Moreover, for the region’s own internal energy security, it needs to actively diversify its energy supply sources away from the dirty fossil fuels of coal and oil, towards gas and renewables.

As it has done in other fields, Singapore can take a regional lead in energy and be the role model for other Asian states to follow. For instance, in the domain of electric cars, Singapore has the capacity to leverage its small size and become the first country in the world to have an all-electric fleet of vehicles, setting a new precedent and positive chapter in human history.

Traditionally, the richest countries are suppose to show the enlightened way; but, since the US has the largest carbon footprint in the world, their preaching to many emerging states seems hollow. As a result, it is unusual, perhaps even hypocritical, for the West to ask the developing countries to take the lead in making sacrifices that may impair economic growth.

Singapore’s has experienced a meteoric rise, arguably driven by the exceptional leadership and vision of its founding fathers. For a small nation lacking natural resources, surrounded by emerging giants and vulnerabilities, why does Singapore have such a thriving business environment and reputable soft-power brand?

Singapore’s soft power can be drawn from many pillars. Perhaps most important is Singapore’s reputation for good governance; indeed, the country probably has the best public policy in the world. For example, Singapore is one-fifth the size of Rhode Island, but there is a greater variety of flora and fauna in Singapore than the 48 states of continental America. For the most densely populated country in the world, that is an incredible fact and it is a result of public policies.

As a result of good governance, people expect Singapore to be a country synonymous with stability, rational thinking and comfort. As a result, it is a natural base for businesses to grow their regional business from and that is why Singapore has been ranked by the World Bank as the best country to do business in for the seventh consecutive year.

In addition, Singapore is unique because on the one hand, it is by far the most westernized city in Asia; yet, simultaneously Singapore is the most Asian modern city in the world. The city is a fusion of different cultures, histories and creeds, working together in harmony.

In terms of maintaining its position as Asia’s financial center, what challenges do you believe Singapore faces?

Lee Kuan Yew has always stressed to Singaporeans that they should not take their prosperity for granted. Singapore is the most globalized city in the world: our total trade is 3.5 times the size of our GNP and therefore we are exposed to the fortunes of the rest of the world.

Arguably, Singapore’s greatest existential challenge is that it cannot stop running—it is on a treadmill. The country has got to keep on evolving and adapting, as the world is a dynamic and changing place. As soon as a competitor out competes Singapore in a particular industry, we need to move on and do other things. Singapore will always be a price taker and never a price maker.

A number of O&G CEO’s have told us that they are debating whether to move their offshore services to Kuala Lumpur, because of a rising overheads, a lack of space and man-power shortages. One solution raised is the economic ‘teaming up’ of Malaysia and Singapore, leveraging the manpower feed stock of the North and meritocracy of the south. Is this a realistic ambition?

I believe Singapore and Malaysia will become increasingly integrated. Crucially, Singapore has neither space nor cheap labor but as discussed, has a huge amount to offer. As such, there will be a synergy with neighboring states because they will need each other. Singapore can grow with the likes of Malaysia and Indonesia; it is not a zero sum game. The more prosperous those countries become, the more beneficial it is for Singapore.

Drawing on the role of institutions like Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, what leadership infrastructure is in place in Singapore to nurture future business and political leadership talent?

Clearly, Singapore has few natural resources. The only natural resources are its own people. Through careful planning and initiatives from the top down, Singapore has cultivated an esteemed reputation for producing highly productive, specialized and disciplined talent.

In contrast to other countries, Singapore never implemented a general educational system. Indeed, the key to Singapore’s prosperity lies partly in its customized and tailored education system: learning from the Japanese and Germans, creating vocational institutes and specific centers of excellence such as Innovation in Technical Excellence (ITE’s).

On the eve of celebrating the School’s 10th anniversary, how important is it for the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy to generate the next generation of business and public policy leaders?

The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy is similar to the Harvard Kennedy School in that our mission is to generate the next generation of public policy leaders, although some do take a private sector career path. In particular, we want to train the future generation of Asian leaders, capturing the regional growth boom and augmenting importance of Asia in global governance. To be frank, despite the economic growth of Asian states, the level of good governance is behind the curve. The school wants to attract more Asians, specifically because it needs to improve its levels of public governance.

What is remarkable is that after only nine years, the School is ranked the third best in the world for public policy and the second most generous school for public policy. The growth story of the School has been highly impressive and that trajectory is set to continue.


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