From Rags to Riches – Singapore’s Success

Singapore Skyline

Singapore’s Skyline

Just under two years ago Singapore re-elected the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), handing it an 11th consecutive term in office. Lee Hsien Loon, the son of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, continues into his ninth year in office as prime minister, unimpeded. What does this South East Asian island state of just over five million people but less than one tenth the geographic size of Jamaica have in common?

Singapore became a self-governing state in 1959, declared independence from the British in 1963, and entered into a federation with its neighbour Malaysia, with which it shares many commonalities a short while after. Following heated squabbles between the Singaporean and Malaysian political directorates, Singapore in 1965 was separated from the federation and had to fend for itself.


Lee Kuan Yew is, without a doubt, one of the world’s most successful transformational leaders. He is the veritable bulwark for what Singapore is today. The country is very small, densely populated and constantly uptight about its vulnerabilities. Lee, elected into government at the age of 35 in 1959, set out on an incredible journey, turning a one-time small, uncivil, futureless, fractious, communist-ridden and problem-plagued multi-ethnic island state into now a beaming and prosperous metropolis with a very high standard of living, sharing company with Switzerland, the United States, and Canada.


Lee’s journey is worth exploring and offers Jamaica numerous lessons in how to transform a nation. Strong and decisive leadership is most essential. Leadership, in a rough sense, is the process of social influence whereby an individual can bring about the support of other individuals to achieve tasks or objectives. Jamaica has many leaders, but we lack transformational leaders. Transformational leadership typically involves a charismatic individual who is able to inspire others to perform beyond their usual capacity. A quick glance at academic literature on the subject points to a range of traits and skills embodied by successful leaders worldwide.

Among the typical traits are being adaptable to situations, alert to one’s social environment, ambitious and achievement-oriented, assertive, cooperative, decisive, dependable, dominant (influence others), energetic, persistent, self-confident, tolerant of stress, and willing to assume responsibility.

As it relates to skills, this includes being clever (intelligent), conceptually skilled, creative, diplomatic, fluent, persuasive, socially skilled, knowledgeable about group task, and well organised.

Importantly, a clear vision must form the foundation of transformational leadership; people must know where you are heading.


Lee Kuan Yew embodied all these traits and skills. It comes as no surprise then that he managed to move Singapore from a Third World backwater to a gleaming First World metropolis. Jamaica never had a truly transformational leader. Some may have come close. Lee Kuan Yew’s book, From Third World to First, which takes account of Singapore’s transformation through the years, points to an experience he had while attending a 1975 Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Kingston, Jamaica.


He may have lacked political correctness, but his wisdom must be respected. He said, in part: “… Prime Minister Michael Manley, a light-skinned West Indian, presided with panache and spoke with great eloquence. But I found his views quixotic. He advocated a redistribution of the world’s wealth. His country, a well-endowed island, … with several mountains in the centre, where coffee and other subtropical crops are grown. They had beautiful holiday resorts built by Americans as winter homes … . Chinese, Indians and even black Jamaican professionals felt there was no future under the left-wing socialist government of Michael Manley. The policies of the government were ruinous … . Thereafter, I read the news of Jamaica with greater understanding.”

Michael Manley, though imbued with many of the traits and skills to make a truly transformational leader, blew a huge opportunity.


Singapore’s success is renowned in view of the extraordinary challenges faced by it. It’s roughly the size of the parish of St James with a population almost twice the size of Jamaica’s. It had no natural resources and a limited domestic market. There were regular flashes of racial upheavals among its three main ethnic groups: the Chinese, Malays and Indians. Unemployment hovered at around 14 per cent in the mid-1960s with limited industries to sustain good middle-class paying jobs.

The British used Singapore as a nodal point in its maritime empire contributing 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), 30,000 jobs, 40,000 indirect jobs and occupying around 11 per cent of Singapore’s land area. The withdrawal of such a mighty contributor to the economy in the late 1960s spelled gloom to many Singaporeans already vulnerable to the large and well-endowed countries surrounding them, including Malaysia and Indonesia.

Lee Kuan Yew assembled some of the brightest minds he could find and set about to leapfrog the region and make Singapore a First World oasis in the Third World. He encapsulated that vision into one simple guiding principle for survival. Singapore must be more rugged, better organised and more efficient than others in the region. In his usually candid and practical assessments, he argued that if Singapore was as good as its neighbours, there was no reason for businesses to be based there.



There were some major initiatives that bore tremendous success. Education is taken very seriously. English became mandatory in all schools to ensure that Singapore wasn’t competitively stunted by inability to speak English. Singapore was cleaned up and today its capital ranks among the cleanest cities in the world. Lee Kuan Yew stressed the importance of integrity and honesty in government. Over many years, members of his administrations have been imprisoned or expelled for corruption. One prominent minister, in the 1980s, committed suicide after an embarrassing corruption ordeal. Incidentally, Singapore prides itself on attracting the best and brightest to political representation and its ministers and other senior officials are the highest paid in the world; its prime minister gets around US$1.7 million per year, while Cabinet ministers earn just under a US$1 million per year. Transparency International ranks Singapore among the least corrupt countries in the world.

singapore edb

Significantly, the establishment of the Economic Development Board (EDB) in 1961 as a one-stop agency for investors, eliminating the usual bureaucratic craters in many other countries where one has to scramble from various agencies and ministries to achieve one thing, was a success. The agency also had specific concentrations in industries to be accommodated. The EDB is essentially an enhanced version of JAMPRO. Much of Singapore’s success is linked to this one-stop agency.

Another major initiative was the creation of an international financial centre for Singapore. In 1960s Singapore, this was viewed as highly improbable and attributable to the thoughts of a mad dreamer. After all, Singapore was a Third World backwater well below the financial centre titans of New York City, Hong Kong and London. In record time, the government aggressively developed a financial centre, putting in place the relevant policies and regulatory framework to speed up its development. It also worked to reinforce rule of law, an independent justice system, stable and honest government and sound macroeconomic policies.


The trade union movement also went through significant transition to being more consensus-driven and less disruptive. This caused some controversy. The media and opposition parties, though free, complained about its restrictive environment. Singapore’s political directorate is known to sue persons who they perceive to have sullied their character. This has caused some opposition members to go bankrupt. Lee Kuan Yew views it as essential to preserving the integrity upon which government can effectively lead the nation.

Many would argue that Jamaica cannot replicate what Singapore has done. There are too many differences, they argue. They are both right and wrong. While there exist some differences, we can certainly mould and shape some of their initiatives and transplant them here in Jamaica. We may not share the East Asian Confucian values that enabled countries like Singapore to aggressively and speedily pursue development without some of the standard constraints of Western liberal-style democracy.

Lee Kuan Yew stressed: “… Freedom could only exist in an orderly state, not when there was continuous contention or anarchy. In Eastern societies, the main objective is to have a well-ordered society so that everyone can enjoy freedom to the maximum.”

Interesting food for thought.



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10 responses to “From Rags to Riches – Singapore’s Success

  1. Freedom is great but without order anarchy sets in. We have too much freedom in Jamaica, it has gotten to the point where the unfettered freedom of some is causing mayhem and havoc in our society. We MUST remember that we are not free to deprive others of their freedom. We really need to start at the INFANT level to teach the young ones about RESPECT for others and self DISCIPLINE.

    • You have no idea what freedom means.

    • Jamaicans do not have a government that protects the freedoms of people. Rather than saying that Jamaicans have too much freedom, you should be acknowledging that the state has failed in it duty to protect its citizens. Freedom in and of itself does not a guarantee protection, nor will a set of rules and laws to deny freedom, if neither are protected or enforced by the state.

      The state (under both JLP and PNP) has for the most part given lip service to the term “serve and protect”. Their primary interest has been focused on obtaining power and consolidating that power.

  2. Jamaica will never be like Singapore or come near to it unless an “Obama” (not the policies – the inspiration of an Obama) leader emerge from Jamaica and that may not happen in my lifetime with the current political culture.

    Surprise me Jamaica.

  3. Noel Richards

    Lee Kuan Yew was a good leader, primarily because he employed those who knew what they were doing, enabling them to implement policies that have made Singapore a more affluent society.
    What you are obviously unaware of however, is the name Albert Winsemius. He was the economist that Lee Kuan Yew brought in to transform Singapore from an entrepot port into the developed country it now is. Understand the unseen and mostly publicly undocumented actions of Winsemius and you will come a little bit closer to understanding how and where to lead Jamaica.
    Know this, as much as Singapore has the aura of success, it is an aura and not as grounded as you may think. Singapore is too reliant on forces that you do not understand. That is precisely why Jamaica needs information it is not yet privy to.

    • Delano Seiveright

      Yes i read about Albert Winsemius… Do you think Jamaica can ever be so bold ?

      • Noel Richards

        Jamaica can do much better than Singapore with the right understanding of what is actually transpiring externally. Jamaica has much more in its favor, potentially, it just needs to figure out some questions to make the proper decisions. Here are two.

        What is the common factor relating to the emergence of economies like China and others in the BRIC’s? The US. That part is simple. It’s the lack of understanding of the dynamics that gets countries in a long term bind.

        What mistakes have the BRIC’s made in implementing policy? The primary mistake is not properly understanding who controls the world financial system, how it’s controlled and how a country like Jamaica can benefit without the harsh consequences of predatory exploitation.

        There are more questions, but I want to say that while I am harsh with both political parties in Jamaica, calling them JLPNP, and saying that they are two sides of the same coin, my main focus with those comments has to do with the fact that Jamaica is stuck within the economic model that is the reason for its woes. I actually believe that the JLP has the tools to properly manage Jamaica, the PNP does not, but the JLP needs direction. For example, the money sourced for JDIP would have been wisely sourced for increasing and making power generation much more efficient (cheaper). For many critical reasons, Coal has to be the focus, not Natural Gas. The JDIP effort was a misapplied opportunity. There are high tech companies that would seriously look at creating facilities in Jamaica, to serve the Caribbean and Latin American regions, if Jamaica had the infrastructure to accommodate their needs. The investment of just one of the companies I am thinking of would attract many others. The railway is another example capital expenditure that must be done.

        Audley Shaw had the right idea to create stability. He had to work within the parameters within which Jamaica exists. Although he had to go the route of the JDX, and did so successfully, the issue is implementing the things that will pull Jamaica out of this regressive paradigm. Jamaica has to bite the bullet and take the IMF’s prescriptions. The IMF won’t help Jamaica, it’s helping itself, it is trying to ensure that countries like Jamaica do not default. Jamaica can help itself by using the IMF, but only if it understands where to go.

        Jamaica will do much better when it finds out how to bypass the multilaterals for capital spending, when it figures out how to invest in a future that doesn’t rely on remittances, begging and borrowing for recurring bills. With the right moves Jamaica can access the US$67+ Trillion “Shadow Banking System” and the US$19+ Trillion in Retirement savings and even better long term opportunities to be discussed in greater detail soon. The opportunity is there, but the leadership isn’t there as yet. It does appear that Andrew Holness is receptive to doing things differently, that much I like. He will get solicited advice as a result.

        A tip. If you want to get a better understanding of what Dr. Davies did relative to FINSAC (1997), look up the US Congress’ RTC (Resolution Trust Corporation of 1989-1995). The RTC was set up to address the US Savings & Loans crisis of the 1980’s. FINSAC was a very bad copy of the RTC. Observing the differences between both is information Jamaicans must have and a lesson in humility that Dr. Davies, the world’s “best Finance Minister”, needs.

  4. You should all read up Sir John James Cowperwaithe and his transformation of Hong Kong!

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