Lessons from Singapore

Singapore provided insights into some useful concepts deployed by the country in their public policy. I am outlining five broad ideas emerging from my recent tour that are of overarching relevance.

2. The first one is leadership. Visionary and committed political leadership in Singapore for a prolonged period provided policy continuity and remained the main pillar of Singapore’s development.  The civil service, with merit-based promotions and peaking of careers at younger age, also have lessons for India.  Especially, the system of performance evaluation, looking at the potential of an officer – and not just his prior performance – through qualities such as `helicopter quality’ (ability to understand the broader picture, while simultaneously zooming in on details, wherever required), analysis, imagination and realism is impressive.  The public organizations also seem to have a better developed second rung of specialists/think tanks developed over the years through multiple mechanisms, including the Public Sector Leadership Programme.

3. The second important learning is focus on education – reinforcing the theory of emphasizing on this endowment for redistributive justice. Education has been looked upon in Singapore not only as an important component for individual development, but also a medium for cohesion amongst different ethnicities – Singaporeans are supposed to study only in Singapore public schools – and consequent nation-building.  The aptitude and potential of a child is gauged at an early stage to provide him specific academic/technical/other specialized education and training.  The due importance of skills and link with industry may have important lessons for ‘Skill India Mission’.

4. The third noteworthy concept is pragmatism in public policy, meritocracy and appropriate use of behavioural economics concepts and ‘nudging’ in public policy. Singaporeans are not bound by any broad ideology and the State is a wonderful mix of free market as well as State control, wherever required (for e.g. housing, health, and education).  Through an iterative process, the policy-makers developed solutions best suited to their conditions.  When they realized that their children were weak in mathematics, they worked deeply on the same and came up with a `Singaporean Maths’ model that sets global high standards today.  The country appropriately uses ‘nudging’ and ‘default options’ to promote desirable behaviour in areas such as tax payment and savings.

5. Singapore like India is a pluralistic society. Having faced racial riots in the 1960s, the country has taken proactive measures to integrate the different ethnic groups.  This has been done through housing societies that compulsorily houses people from different communities in proportion to their population, provision of open space in these localities for their inter-mingling and  common education that provides a sense of unity and builds a national value. There is a system of       specific support (but no reservations) to economically vulnerable groups.  All this may have important lessons for India.

6. Last but not the least, Singapore has used technology effectively to provide solutions to public problems. The entire State is wired, that has proved to be a big deterrent against any crime.  `Digital India’ Programme can draw lessons from this.

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