Lee Kuan Yew, excellence and education

Taxis in major cities have their own livery. Here it was blue. And the boxlike vehicle I was in was scampering down a glistening highway, leaving the airport behind. Rains had cleared the smog drifting in from Indonesia, cleansing the air, and an otherwise ugly trip into town, typified by overpasses, running walls of patched grey concrete and merging roads suddenly blossomed. For bougainvilleas in their thousands hung flowering along our way. Teeming parapets of green and purple. I was back in Singapore, and glad of it.

Glad because I had come to appreciate countries that valued the ‘rule of law’. Nations where law ruled, favouring no one, no matter whether you were rich, poor, Chinese, Indian or Malay. In Singapore you’ll be treated equally—neither race, rank nor religion curry favour.

I had also grown to love promotion based on competence or merit, rather than as a result of an old boy’s network, friendships or family connections. I value introductions, but only as such: I have come to value ability more.

Out of Africa and having travelled throughout South America, I had come to detest corruption, too.

Where corruption was endemic, I had seen the poor (already miserable) further abused. The potential of education with its tremendous ability to catapult people from a low socio-economic bracket into middling income is shut down.

Not so in Singapore. A hard working child from a blue-collar family, if they wish, can get ahead. In terms of evenness of quality (high) the schools in Singapore are arguably second to none.

Working with Singaporeans whether they were Chinese, Tamil Indian or Malay was exhilarating, too. They were highly disciplined, extremely thorough, hardworking and reliable. At that time, somewhat different to their neighbours.

Some of my friends said the city was too authoritarian, and people lacked a sense of humour. I found neither charge true. But then again, I don’t like illegal drugs, graffiti or litter. Caught doing any of these in Singapore and it’s a public canning, or worse.

In short, the upside of social stability, economic prosperity, civic order, a civil society, freedom of association/movement/religion, arguably outweighs the downside of a ‘tough’ Singaporean government (see Henry Kissinger’s comments).

Why has Singapore been so successful? Why does it rank consistently as one of the least corrupt nations on earth? As one of the best places to start a business, and to run it? How did it become so efficient, wealthy, and why did it place itself under the rule of law, when so many other nations’ leaders put themselves above it?

Some argue its success lies with its geography—with its position at the southernmost neck of the Strait of Malacca, the tightest chokepoint in the globe’s sea-lanes that enjoys 40% of the world’s maritime trade passing along its waters.

Certainly Singapore has made marvellous use of its deep-water ports.

Many commentators, however, hold Singapore’s success lies less with its natural location and more with what might be called its founding father: Harry Lee (Lee Kuan Yew).

Biographies of the country’s leader/prime minister (1959-90), who remained in Cabinet until 2011, and who died recently, point to two formative events early on in his life.

First: the occupation of Singapore by the Japanese during the Second World War. Largely a negative, injurious experience, Lee Kuan Yew in a grudging manner came to admire Japanese efficiency and order. He learnt from it. He learnt, also, that hardship brings out toughness, resolution and resilience in people.

As he built Singapore up from the rubble of occupation and a broken economy, he drew these attributes out of its people. For people, in a way, was all he had. And unlike Australia or America, gas, gold, cotton and wheat couldn’t simply be harvested from the ground.

Second: his experience at Cambridge University and then London in the United Kingdom. He read law with total dedication and achieved the almost impossibly high grade of ‘double starred first’. He then practised in London.

In the flat landscape of East Anglia and then the cityscape of the Inns of Court (where he worked as an attorney), he grew to revere the rule of law, the value of education, and Government largely free from corruption.

Returning to his country to become leader, he held tight to a vision that saw people flourishing because (1) the institutions of government allowed them to do so; and (2) the institutions of civil society—the family, schools and businesses, etc.—were jealously guarded and nurtured. The elderly were never found in rest homes; they were cared for by their children or extended family (yes—often at personal cost).

As Lee Kuan Yew began to lift Singapore out of its slums, stray dogs, garbage and infestation, he gathered a group of public servants around him employed on merit. They were ruthless in prosecuting corruption, and determined to open Singapore to free markets.

Equally, they made education the linchpin of the nation’s future. Initially, they faced the challenge of capacity: there were not enough skilled people to teach Singaporean children.

Over two decades they fixed this. They did not draw back from their insistence on quality. Only those with top results in their degrees could apply for teacher training; and then applicants were rigorously screened for classroom suitability. Were they the type of people who would naturally get on with kids and model character? It wasn’t enough that they were able, they needed to have integrity, too.

It goes without saying that civil servants in Singapore are highly paid, and teachers even on a starting salary are among the highest paid in the world. Singaporean society places high value on its educators; with absolute clarity it understands its best assets are its people, and its children are its future. Teachers are therefore regarded as formative to the nation.

It also goes without saying Singapore regularly tops the tables in mathematical, scientific, engineering and reading literacy. It has always been a first mover in adopting any technology that shows it can yield better results than those presently attained. In the late 1990s it rolled out broadband Internet for schools, and it is an everyday practice for teachers to use programs and apps in teaching and assignments.

With its lucidity of vision and the high quality of the execution of its mission, it is extremely likely the Ministry of Education in Singapore, will continue to lead in the uptake of digital technology and learning. This will be undoubtedly supplemented by families because education is so highly prized. Lee Kuan Yew’s national narrative is successful: Singaporeans have a common vision, and share common values. These lessen, even erase ethnic differences, and place the country, all things being equal, on a really great trajectory.

The BBC which usually praises more ‘liberal’ nations has acknowledged Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership, applauding the country he created: ‘In a region where such achievements [stability, transparency and prosperity] are rare,’ it amounts to an ‘unparalleled accomplishment.’

At the heart of this accomplishment was an education. An informal one through the school of hard knocks and Japanese occupation; and a formal one through Cambridge University, the Westminster system of government, and the Inns of Court.

Formal, now, too, in the daily reiteration of the national narrative taught in Singapore’s schools with its vision for the rule of law, a free society, free enterprise, high literacy and common values, reinforced at home and streamed—possibly more effectively than anywhere else in the world—through notebooks and handheld devices.

Take away points: education takes on different forms, but it is formative. Parents, families, state and federal leaders who value the rule of law; freedom of association, religion, expression, etc.—; mastery of concepts and skills that will create wealth and sustain employment; social stability and peacefulness, will be especially attentive to informal and formal education. They will also use technologies to get the best possible outcomes for the children and their future. Singapore is a leader in doing this.

Research: A history of nations in SE Asia: Robert Kaplan. (2014). Asia’s Cauldron. Random House: New York. http://www.amazon.com.au/Asias-Cauldron-South-Stable-Pacific-ebook/dp/B00G8ELTCK

Henry Kissinger on Lee Kuan Yew (brief, but powerful): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3uGkTRs28I

A moving and beautifully rendered OECD video on education in Singapore! http://www.pearsonfoundation.org/oecd/singapore.html

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