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Professor Kishore Mahbubani

Professor Mahbubani is the Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore and the author of a number of books including Can Singapore Survive?

Caitlin Morrissey

Kishore, in your mind, what is the DNA of Singapore?


Kishore Mahbubani

Yeah, that's a very tough question to answer. I would put forth three things that make Singapore very unique. It brings together the East and the West in a unique way, so it is by far the most westernised city in Asia, and it is also the most Asian western global city in the world. And that's what I think makes Singapore very unique. That's the first part.


Secondly, Singapore is also unique because it's been a crossroads for, I would say, Asia and the world for at least seven hundred years, and it's because of its location at the end of a peninsula. So people have always passed through Singapore, including very, very famous travellers throughout history. So, for example, people going to the Nalanda University in India would pass through Singapore.


And then the third aspect of Singapore that's quite unique, especially now, is it is very, very multiracial, multicultural: 75% Chinese, 15% Malay, 8% Indian. And in fact, it's the reason why I say - and I mentioned this earlier - why Singapore can become the capital of the Asian century in the way that London was the capital of the European century in the 19th century, and New York was the capital of the American century in the 20th century. The 21st century will be the Asian century. It needs some kind of capital, and Singapore qualifies because all the four major civilisational streams that are active in Asia - the Chinese civilisation, Indian civilisation, Islamic civilisation and Western civilisation - they are all active in Singapore. So that's what makes Singapore unique.


Greg Clark

Kishore, I'm going to follow up immediately and ask you to just say something more about, what would it mean to be the capital of the Asian century? What are the functions and the attributes that Singapore would fulfil and the traits it would bring to that?


Kishore Mahbubani

Well, I think if you look at the roles that London and New York played, those are good role models. And I lived ten years of my life in New York; unfortunately, I never lived any years in London. But number one, it'll be a key financial centre. That's very important because you need a place to go to for the big deals. And related to the financial centre, it'll also be a key legal and arbitration centre for Asia, a trusted place to go to. And then also for other kinds of services like a key medical centre you’ll want to go to.


And at the same time, it also has to be a key intellectual centre, and therefore, it's got to house the best universities in Asia. And actually, in many ways, we do already in Singapore, and anybody who wants to sort of, in a sense-- anybody who arrives from outside Asia and wants to go to one place, where he can plug into China, plug into India, plug into Indonesia, he’ll come to Singapore. That's what I mean by becoming the capital of the Asian century.


Greg Clark

And then I'm going to ask one more question about this. What does that mean in terms of Singapore's relationships with other great Asian cities, for example, with Tokyo and Seoul and Shanghai and Beijing and Mumbai? Just to take those as an example, how will the relationship between Singapore and those cities evolve then?


Kishore Mahbubani

Well, actually, I would say, quite candidly, we have very, very strong links with the cities in China and in India. They're much stronger because of people movements and joint businesses and so on and so forth. And say, for example, I have first cousins in Mumbai, you know, as an example, and many Singaporeans have relatives in China and, I would say, Hong Kong.


But our relations with Seoul and Tokyo are a bit more distant, relatively speaking; although, the Japanese community in Singapore - business community, not ethnic group - is  one of the largest outside Tokyo. I may be wrong but double-check that. I think that, if I'm not mistaken, that's correct.


Greg Clark

Very interesting. Let's go back to Caitlin's questions.


Caitlin Morrissey

So when you think about the DNA of Singapore, what does this mean for how many Singapore's there are? Is there just one Singapore, or are there multiple, and how might they be distinguished?


Kishore Mahbubani

Well, I would say Singapore is a work in progress. And I would say there are at least four distinct communities in Singapore. The Indians, especially the South Indians, are a very distinctive community. And Indians are 6% to 8%, Malays about 13% to 15%, and the Chinese make up the rest, about 74%, 75%. These are the three communities. But in the Chinese community, also, you have two different communities. You have the English-language-speaking Chinese community and the Mandarin-speaking Chinese community. So there are four communities.


But the good news is that a sense of Singapore identity is gradually developing and growing, and it's been helped by one institution that's very critical, which is national service. The two years of national service that every young Singapore male has to do ends up in delivering-- giving them a very strong sense of Singapore identity. So the Singapore identity is a work in progress, but growing stronger.


Caitlin Morrissey

And why is it that people come to Singapore? What is it that makes them want to live there and grow their lives there, start businesses there? Why not somewhere else?


Kishore Mahbubani

Well, I think in the past, of course, most of the migration to Singapore took place, I think, in the 19th century, when Singapore was a British colony, and it just provided a refuge and job. So my father came to Singapore at the age of thirteen in 1933 to work as a peon for five cents a day, I think, or something like that, and because there was a business opportunity.


And Singapore has always been a business centre. And of course, it's been a port, so the port generates a lot of business too. So a lot of traders, a lot of merchants have come to Singapore over the years.


Greg Clark

I'd like to pick up, if we may, Kishore, on sort of the development model of Singapore. Obviously, if you just look at the recent history from 1964, '65 through to today, it's been an absolutely phenomenal process of development that's made Singapore a kind of world champion of modern urbanism. What are the ingredients-- or firstly, how do you interpret that journey, and what do you think have been the key ingredients of that? Not so much the functions because you've articulated those very clearly. But in a sense, how did Singapore do it? What have been the ingredients of that success?


Kishore Mahbubani

Yeah. I've also written a book on it, 'Can Singapore Survive', yeah. And have a look at the introductory essay; that explains it. But I also, on the fiftieth anniversary of Singapore in 2015 - that's when this book came out - I published an article for, gosh, some post, Huffington Post. Yeah. And it had an amazing number of readers, you know, maybe 40,000 or something like that, amazing number.


And I made the outrageous claim that not since human history began has any society improved the living standards of its people as quickly and as comprehensively as Singapore has in 50 years, which is an outrageous claim to make. Out of 40,000 readers, I thought maybe 1,000 might object, maybe 100 might object, maybe 10 might object. But nobody objected. No one wrote, let's say, this is absurd. And you can back it up with data. I mean, if you look at all the indicators - poverty reduction, life expectancy, access to education, access to medicine, housing, living standards - by every indicator of well-being, Singapore is off the charts and has done exceptionally well.


So when I was dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, I would give a lecture to the students, and I say, "I'm going to give you the secret to Singapore's success free of charge with an absolute guarantee that if you implement it in your country, you will succeed." So I give them a three-part formula called MPH, not for miles per hour. M for meritocracy: always selecting the best people to serve in key agencies, especially in government agencies. P for pragmatism, which is that we learn-- Dr Goh Keng Swee told me-- he was the deputy prime minister of Singapore. He, Lee Kuan Yew, and Rajaratnam were the three key leaders of Singapore. And he said to me, "For any problem Singapore encounters, somebody, somewhere has solved that problem. So let's go and find the solution and adapt it to Singapore." So Singapore is the best copycat nation in the world since 1965. And then the third, H, of course, is the hardest one: it's honesty, zero corruption. So I said, "If you can implement MPH, your country will succeed."


Greg Clark

Brilliant. And in a sense, the question, then, behind is, what enabled Singapore to create this MPH? Is it innate in the citizenry? Is it a function of the leadership? Was it the extraordinary challenges of the post-colonial world? Why in Singapore could the three elements come together?


Kishore Mahbubani

Well, it was a complete fluke; it shouldn't have happened. It just so happened that - and I mentioned the names - the three founding fathers of Singapore - there were a few others, but these were the three key ones - Lee Kuan Yew, Rajaratnam, and-- sorry, it should be Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam, in that order. And I've said this also in print - you can find it in my writings, on my website or elsewhere - that I would say, they were as brilliant as, if not more brilliant, than the founding fathers of the United States. So you had three exceptional men coming together -and supported by a few others, by the way, just to be fair - and they somehow or other, were incredibly honest, didn't take a penny, incredibly brilliant, incredibly dedicated.


But they had one competitive advantage over them. They were fighting the communists in Singapore, and they knew that if they lost, they would lose their heads. So they had a very strong incentive to do well because if they lost the battle against the communists, they-- in most countries, where non-communist parties ally with communist parties, they get defeated by the communist parties. Singapore is one of the few exceptions where a non-communist party allied with a communist party and defeated it. So, of course, as you can see, these are all just accidents of history.


Greg Clark

But this was a very important-- how can I put this? So you're pointing to a very important example where a certain kind of leadership managed to defeat a communist threat, as it were. And the program of MPH that you've described, was that the weapon of winning the battle, or was it the consequence of winning the battle?


Kishore Mahbubani

No, it was the weapon; it was the weapon they use. And they knew that they had to deliver results, and they knew they couldn't deliver results unless they selected and found the best people to join them, and they succeeded brilliantly in that.


Greg Clark

I mean, to this extent, it's a brilliant example of what we might call a 'talent-lead strategy', isn't it--


Kishore Mahbubani

Absolutely.


Greg Clark

--if you like, creating the conditions in which human beings can be the very best that they can be but using the tools of democracy and discipline and everything else. What about the nation-building aspect of this, Kishore? How did they create this idea of the modern Singapore?


Kishore Mahbubani

Well, I think this is where you need-- this was Lee Kuan Yew's big contribution. He was a very strong, powerful, charismatic leader. And every year he would give a National Day rally speech, and he would talk about Singapore’s potential. Because when I grew up in Singapore, when Singapore was a British colony, everyone thought that Singapore would remain a poor third-world country. And we were lamenting the fact that we were in South East Asia and not where Cyprus or Malta are, close to Europe, the developed part of the world.


And when Singapore became independent in 1965 - you know, it was expelled from Malaysia - it was expected to die because it was a city without a hinterland. But in a sense, this adversity of being expelled from Malaysia only reinforced the conviction of Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and Rajaratnam that we had to leapfrog out of the region and in a sense, become the most globalised city in Southeast Asia and eventually, in Asia, too. So that was a brilliant strategy, but it was a strategy carved out of necessity, yeah.


Greg Clark

Very, very helpful. And my last question, before we go back to the other list is, was there anything you think in Singapore's longer history, the seven, eight hundred years that you referred to a few minutes ago, from which you could begin to see the elements of the strategy that then came into play from '65 onwards? Was there anything cultural there or anything? Obviously, the locational issue is a permanent trait, but is there any way this could have been predicted or somehow prophesied?


Kishore Mahbubani

I would say absolutely not. There's nothing in the history. I mean, we would have always been a port trading city, yes, but the exceptional success that Singapore has had, as I say, is off the charts. That's due to this fluke of having these exceptional leaders in 1965 here.


Greg Clark

This is a sort of by-the-by question, if you don't mind, but one of the things I always think, when I come to Singapore - and I'm a real fan and a great enthusiast for what Singapore has achieved - is, will it be able to adapt its role as the other cities of ASEAN and Asia-Pacific emerge and develop their own high value-added industries, their own innovation, ecosystems, their own better forms of democracy? Will it know how to stay ahead? Which I guess is the question behind your book.


Kishore Mahbubani

Yeah. Yeah, that's right. Oh, yeah, absolutely. And in my book, there, in the introduction, I explained that there have been examples of cities-- in fact, the first two pages are all examples of cities like Venice, like Athens. They were great cities and then disappeared, so Singapore does face that existential challenge.


And I also use an example from the commercial world. I say, when I grew up, Kodak was the brand that everyone thought would live forever and will always be number one. And then it just collapsed and died because it didn't adapt in the face of new technology. So Singapore does face what I call the 'Kodak challenge'.


Greg Clark

And are you optimistic?


Kishore Mahbubani

So far, yes.


Greg Clark

And forgive me that I haven't read the book - although, I did hear you speak about it a couple of years ago - is it clear, from your point of view, that Singapore knows what it needs to do not just to survive but to remain a leader for the region and to fulfil those sorts of roles you were just talking about?


Kishore Mahbubani

Well, I think right now there is quite a debate going on in Singapore of where we go next, and that has not been settled yet. But there's an awareness that we face some real challenges domestically, regionally, globally, so there's a debate going on, on how we cope and how we adapt.


Greg Clark

And that debate's not yet settled.


Kishore Mahbubani

No, no, no, no. Absolutely not.


Greg Clark

Okay. Very interesting. Caitlin, let's go back to your questions. And Kishore's already spoken a lot about leadership, but you may want to pick up the other ones as well.


Caitlin Morrissey

Yeah, I'd like to ask about Singapore's approach to doing things and the things it has discovered in its journey and whether anything stands out as being particularly world-changing or notable in that time.


Kishore Mahbubani

I mean, you talk about world-changing, what Singapore has been able to do-- you'll find that, for the most part, Singapore didn't really invent anything new, okay? So, for example, Singapore has the best-run port in the world. And the reason why it's the best run port in the world is because it studied all the ports around the world and then extracted best practices from everyone and then implemented all the best practices and ended up being the number one port in the world.


And I remember, I accompanied the then prime minister of Singapore, Mr Goh Chok Tong, to visit Rotterdam in 1996. And when he walked into the boardroom, the CEO stood up and said, "Mr Prime Minister, I'm very embarrassed that I have to give you a briefing about the Port of Rotterdam. Actually, you should be giving us a briefing about the Port of Singapore because the Port of Singapore operates much better than the Port of Rotterdam." And what was strange about that statement is that we actually went to Rotterdam in the 1960s to study what they were doing, and 30 years later, we were far better than Rotterdam. So that's an example of how Singapore is.


So similarly, that's true in the airport. Also, they're saying that the Changi Airport is rated one of the best in the world. That's true of the airline, rated one of the best in the world. So wherever Singapore is world-class, it's the result of studying best practices and then, of course, adapting. Adapting best practices is also a big challenge. It doesn't necessarily mean you can just copy; you have to learn how to copy intelligently. So that is the specific special skill that Singapore has, yeah.


Caitlin Morrissey

And I'd like to now come onto this question about mythologies that unite people in Singapore and then the question about misconceptions that people might have about Singapore and what the implications for those are. So let's start with the mythologies and stories that unite.


Kishore Mahbubani

I think the two key mythologies-- number one is that Singapore is-- you know how Australia is seen as a lucky country, right, because it's got so much mineral resources? Singapore's mythology is that it's an unlucky country. It's absurdly small, as you know. It's only 400-- even when I grew up, it was 400 square kilometres. But you had a question earlier about Singapore's geological, geographical features. I would have mentioned that Singapore has added more reclaimed land than any other country in the world has, I mean, as a percentage of the territory. Now, we are close to 700 square kilometres. Double-check those figures, please. (Singapore’s land area was 581.5km2 in 1960 and 728.3km2 as of 2020). 


And so, because we are so absurdly small-- and that's why one term that Singaporeans use is an insult that the vice president of Indonesia hurled at Singapore. He was Vice President Habibie - then he became president, by the way, of Indonesia - and he says, "Who cares about Singapore? It's a little red dot." And now that term 'little red dot' has become a term of pride in Singapore. So that's why you notice that at the bottom of the question mark, there's a little red dot. That's associated very much with Singapore.


And then, of course, the exceptional success story of going from Third World to First World. That's a book written by Lee Kuan Yew. And the fact that we've gone on a journey from Third World to First World is unique about Singapore. So those are the two myths that unite us.


And the common misconceptions about Singapore. I would say the number one misconception is that Singapore is the same as North Korea, that it's run by a dictator who manages everything. And as I said, I lived for 10 years in New York. There was an assumption that Singapore only succeeded because it had a dictator called Lee Kuan Yew. And Samuel Huntington once famously said - and I quote him in this book, 'Can Singapore Survive?' - that all the good that Lee Kuan Yew has done will accompany him in his grave, and nothing will be left of Singapore after he dies. So he's now died five years, and so far, we have survived.


Greg Clark

Kishore, where does that myth come from, that misconception? Because I, of course, have encountered this many times around the world. Particularly the political left, often saying it's a dictatorship, it's an autocracy. But this doesn't seem to me to have any resemblance to reality, so where does this misunderstanding come from?


Kishore Mahbubani

Well, I mean, this was generated very much by the, I would say, Anglo-Saxon media. So it would be New York Times, Washington Post, maybe even the London Times and others. And it's true that Lee Kuan Yew was a tough ruler, okay? There's no question whatsoever.


But see, what makes Singapore unique is that we actually had genuine elections every five years and people voted. So the party in Singapore never got 99% of the vote, unlike in North Korea. Say, we will get anywhere from 60% to 70%, so there's always 30% to 40% voting against the ruling party. And in the last elections that took place a few months ago, the votes for the party is among the lowest they’ve ever got, 60%. But despite that, there's still this perception that Singapore is authoritarian because it doesn't have--


It's obviously not as free a city as, say, London or New York. One has to be very clear about that. But then the argument that was made by Lee Kuan Yew is that we cannot allow the same degree of freedom because if you do that, you might get ethnic riots. So, for example, in Singapore, you're not allowed to say anything negative about the races. There's no freedom of speech to say that at all. So there're very, very strict laws on speech in some sensitive areas. And that's what makes Singapore different, yeah.


Greg Clark

It makes me want to ask you how you think that will evolve. So we go from a situation of one party winning 90% coming down to 60%. Do you think it will become, let's say, a more plural political democracy, or do you think it-- how will that evolve over time?


Kishore Mahbubani

Oh, I think it is evolving in that direction, and it's already happened in some ways. In the last election, for the first time, since one opposition-- we always had many opposition parties, but many of them didn't win seats or didn't succeed.


But this time around, one of the opposition parties won up to 10 seats out of 93. And the prime minister made a very wise decision to appoint the leader of the party, the Workers' Party - who, by the way, is non-Chinese; he's Indian - Pritam Singh as the leader of the opposition. So in some ways, the shadow prime minister of Singapore is non-Chinese in a 75% Chinese city.


Greg Clark

So it allows for some pluralism, but it also makes clear some of the distinctions. There's some clever tactics there.


Kishore Mahbubani

Oh, yeah, yeah. It makes it very clear that some issues are-- there's a term that a former minister used: when you play golf, you have out-of-bounds (OB) markers. So Singapore has got OB markers. You cannot venture out of the OB markers. OB markers is a very well-known phrase in Singapore.


Greg Clark

Great. Let's go back to Caitlin's questions. I think she's got two more.


Caitlin Morrissey

Yeah, I want to come back to the question about shocks and traumas in Singapore's history and what it’s learnt. I know you've spoken about the adversity it faced when it became independent and was expelled from Asia, but what has it faced more recently, and what has it learnt about how to deal with the adversity that comes into its path?


Kishore Mahbubani

Well, I think, I would say, frankly, for a newly independent country, if you look at most of the former British colonies, especially the multiracial British colonies, in every region, you have Guyana in South America - you have Cyprus in the Mediterranean, in Europe, you have Sri Lanka in South Asia, you have Singapore in Southeast Asia and Fiji in the Pacific - all the other multiracial colonies had some kind of problems. And so Singapore's success as a multiracial, small state is very unusual. So we've had 55 years of continuous peace and prosperity. That's amazing.


So the real adversity we faced was in 1965, and since then, there have been a few shocks, like, for example, the Asian financial crisis, but the remarkable thing about the Asian financial crisis is how strong Singapore stood in that crisis. And then we had the SARS crisis in 2003. It's comparable to COVID-19 but on a smaller scale, and the city shut down for three and a half months. And then I guess now, COVID-19 is the biggest challenge since probably 1965.


Caitlin Morrissey

And do you think that it has acquired certain tactics to help it deal with traumas like COVID-19 based on its past experiences?


Kishore Mahbubani

Well, I mean, the smartest thing that the leaders of Singapore did was to save for a rainy day. So for a small country of 3.2 million citizens, we have spent a hundred billion dollars on the COVID recovery programme. I think if you divide up a hundred billion dollars over 3.2 million, we may be number one in the world, in terms of money we have spent to rescue the economy. And Singapore has been quite brilliant, and this was told to me by economists in New York when I was there.


During the 2008, 2009 financial crisis, many countries gave unemployment benefits. Singapore was unusual; we gave employment benefits. So we paid every employer up to 25% of the salary to keep each worker employed. Everybody, every worker, up to a certain amount. So there was an incentive for all the employers to keep the employee because you're only paying three-quarters of his salary. So that gave an incentive for employment to carry on. And we did the same thing with SARS too-- with COVID-19, also gave employment benefits. And so that's why the unemployment rate in Singapore is very, very low.


Greg Clark

So that sounds like the advantage of having had SARS recently is that, in a way, you're more ready for COVID-19.


Kishore Mahbubani

That's right. Exactly. Yeah.


Greg Clark

And other countries, of course, have copied Singapore's policies now.


Kishore Mahbubani

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it's good. I mean, I always say that it's good. Since Singapore learned by copying best practices from other cities and countries, why shouldn't other countries copy and learn from Singapore?


Greg Clark

Yeah, well, there's much more of that now, of course, where Singapore is a global good-practice guide on urbanisation, isn't it?


Kishore Mahbubani

Yeah, yeah. I'm told there's a new book out by John Micklethwait. It was reviewed in the Financial Times today, I think. I forget the name. But apparently, the role model they keep citing is Singapore. And John Micklethwait has cited Singapore on his previous book, I think, if I'm not mistaken--


Greg Clark

That's right.


Kishore Mahbubani

--as a model of good governance, yeah.


Greg Clark

Yeah. And, you know, I've been looking for your book, 'Can Singapore Survive?', and it seems to be sold out on Amazon.


Kishore Mahbubani

Oh, dear. Okay, I'll try and see whether they can get a copy of it. Oh, yeah, there's no electronic copy. They want to bring out an electronic copy. I'm supposed to write a preface for it. So let me do that. And it's ironic because just this morning, I spoke to a friend of mine, who runs a small book club, and they're discussing 'Can Singapore Survive?' this Friday.


Greg Clark

Oh, great.


Kishore Mahbubani

So I guess I should tell the publisher that.


Greg Clark

It may be one of those books where you'll have to rewrite it many times. I think Caitlin had one more question, if we may, and then we'll, I think, be nearly done.


Caitlin Morrissey

So I know we've spoken about what the future might hold for Singapore. I wonder if you have any ideas about which traits will come to the fore as it embarks on whatever is next, even though, obviously, the debate is very much open. And then I have one very final round-up question.


Kishore Mahbubani

Sure. Well, I would say, I mean, the last election, just in case I didn't mention it, was a bit of a shock for the ruling party. They didn't expect to get-- they were expecting about 65% of the popular vote; they got 61. They didn't expect to lose ten seats; they were expecting to lose six. They lost ten, and they came close to losing a few more. So it was a bit of a shock for the ruling party.


So right now, the ruling party of Singapore is in a very introspective phase, thinking very hard about whether or not it needs to change course. And I would say that there are a few big worries. And I actually discuss in this opening chapter in 'Can Singapore Survive?'. I discuss, what are the challenges that we will face internally and externally?


And external challenges, the one that I see - and now, I've written a whole book about - is the US-China geopolitical contest because Singapore has got very close links with the United States. We've got very close links with China. And the worst thing for us is to be asked to choose between the United States and China because we would lose either way.


And so the prime minister of Singapore, very wisely anticipating this, gave a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June last year, saying that Singapore doesn't want to choose. And recently, he published an article in the magazine 'Foreign Affairs' saying Singapore doesn't want to choose. So look at those two speeches. So we have internal challenges and larger geopolitical challenges, too, facing us.


Greg Clark

Do you think that's a sustainable position, that Singapore doesn't wish to choose? Will that be able-- will Singapore be able to navigate that position?


Kishore Mahbubani

Well, I would say it'll be very difficult, but I think it can be done. It would be very, very difficult, but it would require very strong leaders. And we still are fortunate; we have very strong, capable leaders in Singapore. So if we didn't have good leaders, yes, it would be a challenge.


Greg Clark

Okay. Caitlin, back to you.


Caitlin Morrissey

And the final question we have is, if we were to have asked you the right thing or a better question, would there have been anything else you would have wanted to say about the DNA of Singapore?


Kishore Mahbubani

I would just say that the tragedy about Singapore is that, if you dig deep, there's so many interesting stories about Singapore, but the Anglo-Saxon media just doesn't get it and has a very negative, harsh view of Singapore.


The most common view of Singapore that I heard in the Western media-- they like to use the phrase 'Disneyland with a death penalty', a disparaging phrase, or dictatorship and so on and so forth.


So the tragedy is that it is actually a very interesting experiment in both economic, social, urban development that is quite unique and worth studying in great detail. So I hope your study tries to bring out the real hidden genius of Singapore.

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