19 October 2018
Officials from China attending a 'mayors' class' at NTU take part in a team-building exercise. Photo: Outward Bound Singapore
Officials from China attending a 'mayors' class' at NTU take part in a team-building exercise. Photo: Outward Bound Singapore

Asians flock to Singapore, seeking secret of its success

Every year, dozens of Asia’s most promising government officials, most of them from China, fly to Singapore for what has become known as the “mayors’ class”.

There they study good governance, economic management and how to make their countries work like the can-do city state.

Their mentors at its two top universities are high flyers from Singapore’s political, government and financial sectors who reveal the secrets of what it takes to make a country efficient, competitive, and rich, Reuters reported.

Many of the students are drawn by Singapore’s “managed democracy”, a legacy of its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who died Monday aged 91.

The model is based on one-party rule, keeping a tight rein on the press and rewarding politicians with wages pegged to the top executives in the private sector.

For countries such as China and Myanmar, experimenting with granting their citizens more freedom while maintaining a tight grip on power, Lee’s model is intriguing.

The city state boasts one of the highest proportions of US dollar millionaires in the world and an economy that is the envy of many developed, let alone emerging, countries.

It’s no surprise that dozens of countries are sending civil servants to study the Singapore way.

Many of the students from China have become mayors, governors and vice ministers after taking the course run by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Wang Zhenping, head of research for the standing committee of the provincial legislature in Hebei province, studied at NTU from 2005 to 2006 and wrote a book about his experiences.

“For a developing country, Singapore’s advantages are its highly efficient government, good infrastructure, stable political environment … and stable economic growth,” Wang said.

“For China in particular, Singapore is geographically close, culturally similar and has a wealth of experience at managing markets.”

The model that drew the likes of Britain’s Tony Blair to the tiny island state seeking ideas for welfare reform has recently come under strain at home, as some Singaporeans have complained it favours the privileged and wealthy.

But developing countries across a region where poverty and graft are widespread remain impressed by Singapore’s clean streets, low levels of corruption and dynamic economy.

Despite doubts among some in China’s ruling Communist Party over whether many of Singapore’s economic and social policies are meaningful for a much larger and more diverse country, traces of Singapore can be seen dotted throughout mainland China.

Industrial parks have sprouted across China, after the first of its kind was developed by Singapore in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, more than 20 years ago.

Some cities have lined their boulevards with wide green belts — a nod to Singapore’s “Garden City” campaign.

“The rapid urbanisation in China means that many things Singapore, as a city state, has done are worth learning,” said Mao Shoulong, a professor at the School of Public Administration and Policy at Renmin University in Beijing.

“[Singapore's] high-standard municipal management, high-quality public administration is worth something to almost all Asian cities.”

Students are also watching how Singapore tackles pressing issues of its own — from the rapid influx of foreigners to a widening income gap — that have upset its citizens and cost the ruling party a record number of seats at the last election.

“Every country will have policy challenges, and the important thing is how countries respond to these challenges. Singapore has a strong civil service, and its responses to policy issues are quite thoughtful,” said Louise Beehag, head of the executive education department at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.

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