There are many things one can criticize Singapore for, but the one thing that no one can gainsay, not even Mr William Safire, is that Singapore has come a long way since it gained independence from the British in 1965.
Year after year, we have posted economic growth averaging about 8% annually for the past three decades. By 1990, our GNP per capita rose to almost $19,000 - higher than that of New Zealand and Spain.
And all of this has translated into visible affluence for the entire country. I should know, because I could see the transformation first hand as I grew up in the city and it has been quite remarkable.
City-planning and landscaping has created an environment which is both pleasant and efficient. The Singapore skyline has sprung up almost overnight, the literacy rate and educational levels of Singaporeans have risen just as quickly, and the population is generally in good health. We built up from scratch an airport and an airline that has been touted by other countries as, very possibly, the finest in the world.
Now if you take into consideration that we are a country of 2.7 million people living on an almost barren island of only 235 sq. miles - you can run a marathon from the northern tip of the island to its southern most point and I have cycled around the country's entire circumference in a day and a half - take all this into account and you will find it hard to ignore the odds against which we have succeeded. If you are honest about it, you cannot but be impressed. Likewise, you cannot deny the politicians who have governed the country all these years the credit for Singapore's development. The PAP has made promises of economic progress in the past and - and this is where it counts most - it has made good on many of them. The improvement of the standard of living has been very real and very tangible for most Singaporeans.
And how has all this been achieved? The PAP says that these achievements were possible only because the political leadership insisted on a no-nonsense authoritarian mode of government. Discipline, social order, and political stability are the key ingredients for Singapore's success, says the Singapore Government.
But there are others who argue that Singapore would have flourished anyway without the PAP's strict control over society. Just look at Hong Kong, they point out. Today, the British territory is just as rich, if not richer than, Singapore. And, more importantly, this has been achieved without a harsh and paternalistic government.
Which view is correct? Short of us conducting s true scientific experiment to determine the cause, which is not possible in the realm of social sciences, this will remain as an angels-on-a-pinhead type of question.
But how Singapore has achieved its economic success in the last three decades is not what concerns me. What I am interested in is how we are going to progress in the next 30 years. Our success in the past tells us absolutely nothing about how we are going to succeed in the future. This is because as the global economic situation alters and competition intensifies, Singapore's economic concerns in the international arena are going to become increasingly profound. This being the case, is more of the same enough for us, or do we need to seriously rethink our future economic direction?
In Singapore, it is no longer possible for us to rely on some of the measures that have, arguably, brought us success because these same measures threaten to obstruct the essential transformations that are necessary for continued upward economic mobility of the country. Rising wage levels, higher expectations in working conditions and living standards, an appreciating Singapore dollar, internal yearning for greater political openness, and increasing competition by other developing economies and a reluctance of the more advanced economies to maintain the status quo of giving economic concessions all necessitate a change in economic strategy.
But in such a discussion, it is not possible to bifurcate the country's economy from its political system and analyze them in isolation. Indeed, there is good reason why analysts chose to talk about the political economy.
When the PAP took over as government, it was faced with a country that has inherited enormous problems of racial unrest, communist insurgency and massive unemployment. In order to get things going, the government instituted strong measures of political control so that an environment conducive to foreign investment could be created. And as the companies or MNC's started pouring into the country and brought us almost instantaneous wealth to Singaporeans. This process continued until today where we have more than 7,000 MNCs which is responsible for 90% of investment in the manufacturing sector and 75% of its production on the island.
The problem with such dependency on the MNCs is that a our neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia are no longer contented to play second-fiddle. These countries have already embarked on programs to attract MNCs as Singapore has done in the past.
With strong local currency, high business costs and improved facilities elsewhere, MNCs would have no qualms in moving their operations overseas as many have already done. When the trend continues and more and more MNCs move out in search of greener pastures, what happens to the Singapore economy?
The Singapore economy is also dominated by the Government which is directly involved in the corporate sector through what we call Government-linked companies or GLCs. A GLC is a firm in which the Government has a controlling interest usually one-quarter or more equity.
More often than not, the Government fully owns these companies on the island with more than 500 subsidiaries and a capital of $10 billion. GLCs compete with local business enterprise for a major share of the economy and effectively puts a strangle-hold on the domestic/private sector.
Put together, MNCs and GLCs form the overwhelming bulk of the economy in Singapore marking it unnecessarily difficult for private business to compete at the local level. Recently, however, the Government realized that Singaporeans needed to be more adventurous and enterprising. In a campaign to get Singaporeans business communities to regionalise, the Government called on Singaporeans to venture overseas to open up a 'second wing' for Singapore's economy.
But herein lies the problem: How do Singaporeans become suddenly more enterprising when the local business environment does not foster such an entrepreneurial attitude and mentality?
In addition, with the authoritarian style of government which encourage more conformity than innovation it is difficult, if not impossible, for a climate conducive to entrepreneurial flair to come about.
This is the one factor that is of primary concern to us, that is, the continued authoritarian style of the PAP government. At a time when the nation requires individuals to innovate and create so that it can stay ahead on an increasingly competitive world economy, the PAP's heavy-handed approach and tight control produced a generation of Singaporeans who are averse to risk-taking.
Professor Michael Porter underscored this point when recently visited Singapore and aid, "The only competitive advantage today that's sustainable is the capacity to improve and to innovate. Competitive advantage today is about innovation."
Yet, innovation is not Singapore's forte. In the recent World Competitiveness Report compiled by the Switzerland-based International Institute for Management Development and the World Economic Forum, Singapore was rated the second most competitive economy after the United States. The report took several factors into consideration such as people, infrastructure, management, science and technology, government and so on. On almost every factor, Singapore was rated as better in 1995 than in 1994.
All except, the factor of science and technology. In this area, Singapore showed a down grading in its competitiveness. As I have mentioned, as the regional economic fabric in East Asia undergoes rapid change, what Singapore needs is greater advancement in innovation which is the key ingredient in science and technology. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be taking place.
To get around this problem, the Government is attempting a restructuring of the economy where ore foreign manufacturers are now enticed to set up higher-end industries and their R&D operations in Singapore with the hope of encouraging technology transfer. The problem is that MNCs don't seem to be too eager to pass their know-how to other countries. In 1981, of the more than 5,000 MNCs in Singapore, only 59 engaged in R&D, and the number increased by just one on 1984. The just last year, a senior manager at Singapore's National Science and Technology Board said that very few multinationals, if any at all, are carrying out basic research work in Singapore. The truth of the matter is that companies in the industrialized countries still prefer to cooperate with each other more than with developing ones, especially in the areas of R&D. Statistics show that since 1929, U.S. Foreign Direct Investment grew by almost 20% in Europe alone as compared to only 12% in the whole of Asia, Africa, and Middle East.
And yet, our inability to excel in the creative world is, I believe, going to be Singapore's Achilles' heel in the future. And the cause of it is the political gargoyle of authoritarianism. An authoritarian state breeds fear among the people who are afraid to express themselves and explore new frontiers. As Alvin Toffler presciently remarked, "The more any government chokes off or chills this rich, free flow of data, information, and knowledge - including wild ideas, innovation and even political dissent - the more it slows down the advance of the new economy... The fight for free expression, once the province of intellectuals, thus becomes a matter of concern to all who favor economic advance. Like adequate education and access to the new media, freedom of expression is no longer a political nicety, but a pre-condition for economic competitiveness."
It is important as Singapore makes the transition into a developed country, for the Government to realise that a maturing Singaporean people want more political space and to allow the citizenry greater participation in the nation's political process. Unfortunately, the ruling party has embarked on the dangerous campaign of labeling its local critics as being anti-Singapore. Needless to say, criticism of government policies must not be equated with criticism of the country and its people.
Let me make my position unambiguous. By giving this lecture, my party and I are not protesting or even opposing Williams College's award of the honorary degree to Mr Goh. It is a decision that Williams College has made and it is a mater between the College and PM Goh.
In the past couple of weeks leading up to this convocation, Singapore has been very much the talk of this college, much of it in heated debate. But rather than add to the heat, our intention here today is to shed more light and in the process give you a clearer picture of Singapore. If you believe everything that Mr William Safire has said in his column a few months back, then you are mistaken about Singapore.
Singapore is not like Burma or China or the erstwhile Soviet Union. Although I maybe under surveillance, I travel freely in and out of the country. Although the national newspapers are government-controlled, press statements and letters expressing the views of my party are published. Although the sale of chewing gum is banned, the chewing of gum doesn't carry a $1,000 fine. Although the penalty for drug trafficking is death, smoking a marijuana cigarette does not automatically earn you a place on death row. Singaporeans enjoy a high standard of living with relatively safe environment. The civil service of efficient and the PAP government is comparatively corrupt-free. ours is not a dictatorial regime Iraqi-style although we have a long way to go before we find democracy.
We in the Opposition in Singapore continue to face tremendous problems in trying to entrench democracy in our country just as you here n America face enormous problems with drugs and crime. Like you, we are finding our way, pushing and pulling in search of something better. But ultimately, Americans will have to find your own solutions to your own problems. So too in Singapore, we have to fight our own battles.
I do not want to dwell on the negatives about the PAP government. I'd rather focus on the hope that change, positive change, will come about for Singapore as we enter the 21st century. We want to work with and encourage the Singapore Government to continue to open up and convince it that opposing and diverse views are indeed healthy for our nation and necessary for continued economic progress. I want to persuade my Prime Minister to see that a more open society can only mean a more confident and secure Singapore and that we, as a people, realize that together with more openness comes greater responsibility. Singaporeans, I want to assure him, are ready for both.
Ultimately, it is not a question about East vs West, or Americans vs Singaporeans. it is about intellectuals, thinkers and professional who must accept the responsibility of leadership, not by choice but by the law of nature, to constantly seek to better society. For in every society since human-kind began, thinkers and those who value information have always been at the forefront leading society to greater progress.
But thinkers need the freedom to think and express themselves. I am sure this is what the faculty and students of Williams College, and indeed the whole of the United States take great pride in - that is, your prowess in higher education. I, together with almost all of Singapore's Government leaders, have experienced and benefited from America's higher educational system. Don't compromise on your standard of academic discipline and freedom. It is of immense value to you and to the world.
And as we continue to learn from you, it is important that you continue to learn from us - our culture, our successes, and our ways of doing things. Let us build more bridges and knock down more barriers. On this note I say, thank you very much for inviting me to your College.