New national watchwords—meritocracy, pragmatism, honesty

Today, I’m just a messenger. I give you an almost exact transcript of an interview with a man whose name may be unfamiliar, but whose words are priceless, especially as we strive to build a country of which we can all be proud.

He is Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean civil servant of Indian descent, a career diplomat and an academic. During his stint at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1971 to 2004, he served as Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations and was president of the United Nations Security Council between January 2001 and May 2002.

To give you a sneak preview, I suggest we create new national watchwords—meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty. But let the man speak.

Kishore Mahbubani: “I’ve lived in Singapore for almost 70 years now. When I grew up, Singapore was still a poor, developing country; per capita income when we became independent was $500, the same as Ghana in Africa. Either you can say the misfortune or the good fortune of being born in a very poor family in a poor Singapore.

When I was six years old, when I went to school for the first day, we were weighed at school. They wanted to see how heavy we were. And I was declared under-nourished. So I was put in a special feeding programme. The principal had a big pail of milk and all the children who were underweight were asked to take one scoop from the pail.

Our house in Singapore had no flush toilet. There was crime and riot, gangster fights in my neighbourhood. In a sense, I grew up in what you call the typical Third World environment. And it’s quite remarkable that in my lifetime, Singapore has gone from being a Third World country to a First World country, and I have lived through this remarkable transformation.

I was dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy for 13 years from 2004 to 2017. And I would give every student who came to Lee Kuan School the same lecture. I’m going to share with you the secret of Singapore’s success, free of charge. And I tell the students that if you implement this secret formula, your country will succeed. And I capture the secret formula with the acronym in English, MPH.

The M stands for Meritocracy. Meritocracy means that you select the best people to run the country. And what brings many countries down, especially in the Third World, is that when it comes to selecting the finance minister or the economics minister, they will give their jobs to their brothers, their cousins, their uncles, their relatives, and not to the best people. Singapore did the exact opposite.

In Singapore, their jobs were given to the best people. In the case of the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, when he went to study in Cambridge University, he was the top student in the class, if not in the university. In fact, his professors were so impressed that they said you should become a mathematician because you will become a world-class mathematician. And he went to study in another great university, the Harvard Kennedy School. And in that university, he was one of the few students to get an article published in a tier-one economics journal. Very few students get articles published in a tier-one economics journal. So he’s incredibly brilliant.

So if the best man for the job is Lee Kuan Yew’s son, then he should be selected, not on the basis of the fact that he’s a relative, but on the basis that he’s the best person for the job. So meritocracy is the first pillar of Singapore’s secret formula.

The second pillar is P, and P stands for Pragmatism. Pragmatism is an English word, it’s an English concept. But the best definition of pragmatism was given by China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, when he said it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black, or a cat is white, if the cat catches mice, it is a good cat.

In the same way, it doesn’t matter what your ideology is. If it works, you use it. So Singapore was very pragmatic. It would take some policies that are capitalist and some that are socialist, and even mix them up. You’re not bound by any ideology.

But the third pillar, the H, is the hardest to achieve because H stands for Honesty. And indeed, what has brought most Third World countries down and what has led to their failures in development has been corruption. And so, Lee Kuan Yew, after he became prime minister, made it a point to punish, not the junior people, but the very senior people. So when a deputy minister went on holiday with his friend, a businessman, when he came back, he was arrested.

They said you went on a holiday with a businessman. He paid all your expenses. That’s corruption. You go to jail. So when a deputy minister is sent to jail, then everybody says, “Oops, I got to be careful. I can also go to jail.’’ So that honesty factor is one critical reason why Singapore has been exceptionally successful. So it’s a combination of meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty. That’s the formula for Singapore’s success.”

Need I say more? Do we have the moral strength and the fortitude to do what is right to take our beloved country forward? I believe we do, but we all must play our part, honestly.


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