Sixty years ago, in March 1962, my family packed up our home in Belfast, Northern Ireland and we travelled to Singapore for three years. For me, there were no tears or doubts when we boarded the overnight ferry from Belfast to Heysham to connect with the train to London. In those days, most families heading to Singapore with GCHQ had a long sea voyage ahead of them. My father was needed quickly so we went by air. We stayed overnight in London and next morning took a taxi to the London Air Terminal in Victoria to catch the coach to Heathrow. In those days, there were no x-ray machines and minimal security checks. As we walked out to our plane, a BOAC Comet 4B, I remember two thoughts: how sleek the Comet looked, and how small it seemed sitting parked beside BOAC’s new Boeing 707s.
The Crown colony of Singapore was dissolved on 16 September 1963 ending 144 years of British rule. The island became a state in the new nation of Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew was the political leader whose vision and leadership guided Singapore. Elected Prime Minister in 1959, he favored union between Singapore and Malaya. But even Lee Kuan Yew reluctantly recognized that remaining part of Malaysia limited Singapore’s development. Less than two years after joining Malaysia, on August 9, 1965, Singapore withdrew to become the independent Republic of Singapore. That insignificant fledging city-state with a population of around two million people is now the financial hub of Asia, with among the highest GDP growth in the world. In 1965, Singapore’s per capita GDP was $517. In 2020, it was $59,798. (For reference, the US per capita GDP values for those years were $3,828 and $63,798 and for the UK were $1,874 and $40,285.)
The Comets on Far East routes had around 20 first class seats and 48 tourist class seats. Our family did not rate first class but all international air travel in those days was special. Even tourist class seats were configured in a 2-2 formation so my brother and I sat together and shared the window alternately for take-off and landing. Passenger aircraft performance has advanced dramatically during the past sixty years but the differences are largely restricted to the number of people they carry and the range between refueling stops. Speed, and to a lesser extent cruising altitude, have not changed as much. Before Covid struck, Singapore Airlines flew their Airbus 350-900 from Houston to Manchester in England and then non-stop from Manchester to Singapore. In 1962, our flight from England was a little more complicated. The Comet stopped for refueling almost every 3 or 4 hours. We landed at Rome, Beirut, Karachi, and Calcutta before finally reaching Singapore’s Paya Lebar airport.
My career in the oil industry enabled me to visit countries on every continent except Antarctica. Most of them have more natural resources than Singapore possessed in 1965. Yet none of them has managed to develop and advance like Singapore. Instead, with the sole exception of Norway, they have all succumbed to the curse identified by Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo. He was Venezuela’s oil minister in the early 1960s and one of the brains behind OPEC. He claimed that oil is not black gold. Instead, he called it the devil’s excrement. Alfonzo singled out oil, but the curse applies to any natural resource that distorts the economy of a nation. Singapore’s only natural resources in 1965 were its geographical position, and a hard working population. Lee Kuan Yew and the core government team that included Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen, Lim Kim San, and S. Rajaratnam set the foundations to their vision for the future. Together, they developed and implemented the policies that became Singapore’s economic miracle. Countless authors have written umpteen books and scholarly articles analyzing the policies they implemented and the choices they made to achieve this success. Not being a scholar, my analysis of Singapore’s transformation is simpler. I attribute Singapore’s miracle to a few key parameters that have been diligently and rigorously followed. They are:
- Educated, competent and incorruptible government and officials;
- A strong legal system and a fair tax environment that includes all citizens giving them a stake in their country;
- A focus on quality education and an economic system that rewards merit regardless of race, religion or language
As I visited all those countries blessed with abundant natural resources, I could not help but notice how many lacked at least one of these qualities in their leadership and statutes – and several lacked all three. In many, corruption is rife. If corruption is present and accepted at the top, it quickly permeates throughout all levels of government and administration. The result is a weak society where merit and ambition are stifled. In others, natural resources provide so much income that the government can operate without support or input from its citizens. Here, those resources truly are the devil’s excreta as the will of the people is irrelevant to those in power. Lastly, in many it is not what you know but whom you know that opens doors. Where merit and competence are not essential requirements for positions of leadership the result is always a failed society.
There are thousands of online photos of the modern Singapore. The title image for this post is a scan of an old slide that I took around 1963. Sadly, poor storage has allowed molds and dirt to eat at the image. It shows the Singapore River as it was sixty years ago (near the Cavanagh Bridge, as I recall). That part of Singapore has changed dramatically. (Check out Google Maps to see today’s vista.) What has taken its place is a clean, safe, efficient, and vibrant modern city. Manilla was known as the Pearl of the Orient, but to me, Singapore is the Supreme Jewel.
Postscript. As I look at the United States today, I wonder if the will of the people has any effect on the decisions of our politicians. If opinion polls are to be believed, the answer is a resounding “No”. Perhaps if we applied the three requirements highlighted above to our government we might end America’s divisive politics and identify the other reasons for our political miasma.