Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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People, Principles, Policies

by Prof S Jayakumar, Straits Times, February 13, 2006

WHEN I was Foreign Minister, I regularly met foreign dignitaries from both developed and developing countries. Many expressed admiration at Singapore's achievements, and asked me: 'What is the 'secret' of your success?' I usually responded by referring them to MM Lee Kuan Yew's book, From Third World To First: The Singapore Story 1965 - 2000.

Their questions caused me to reflect on what is it that has made Singapore 'exceptional'. Is it the many physical features, like a world-class port and airport, a superb SIA, or a clean and green city? But what are the factors behind these achievements?

In my view, the answer lies in certain core principles and important policies established by then PM Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues as they confronted the monumental task of ensuring that a fledgling independent Singapore would survive and prosper. We may each have our own view of what factors shaped Singapore's success. On my part, I consider the following to be the key principles and policies that underpin our society and way of life. They are well known to most Singaporeans, but we should not take them for granted as they have proven to be vital for Singapore.


Meritocracy.    This is the principle by which every Singaporean has the opportunity to fulfil his potential on merit so long as he has the ability and is willing to work hard. The Government will ensure equal opportunity and a level playing field for all Singaporeans. The Government made education virtually universal, and scholarships and assistance are readily available for those with talent but lack the financial means.

Racial and religious harmony.  While many other countries are beset with intractable problems of sectarian tensions and violence, maintaining racial and religious harmony in Singapore is an important cornerstone of our society and system of governance. It is not just a desirable end. It is a fundamental tenet essential for our stability and a critical ingredient for the tone and tenor of our society.

Multiculturalism.    Singapore is the only independent country other than China where the majority is ethnic Chinese. However, a wise decision was taken not to project ourselves as a 'Chinese' country. Rather, we see ourselves as a distinctive, multicultural nation, whose destiny is tied up with the region, and whose people, with their diverse origins, have decided to make this their home. This approach has had profound impact both domestically as well as in our foreign relations. The minorities in Singapore did not feel oppressed and they felt they have a stake in the country.

Integrity and incorruptibility.     Our strong stand against corruption and our high standard of integrity have distinguished Singapore from other countries. At its heart is the conviction that the country and public trust are best served always by a clean and corruption-free government. Only with a clean government can we ensure a clean and transparent economy and society.

Pursuit of excellence.    We should be neither boastful nor complacent that we are 'Number 1' in many competitiveness rankings and global surveys. The fact is that we are competing against the rest of the world and the competition is getting sharper. Striving for excellence in all that we do has given Singapore a valuable brand name. Let us not forget that most other countries are bigger and generously endowed with natural resources. If we do not continue to excel and endeavour to be exceptional, we will fall by the wayside and become irrelevant.


Defence, security, law and order.      Investing in the SAF, establishing National Service, and having a first-rate police force and home front agencies were farsighted policy decisions. These underpin the stability of the country and economy as well as our attractiveness to foreign investment. It has also enabled us to meet new challenges like terrorism. Some may criticise our system of law and order as harsh, but it has ensured that all Singaporeans and foreigners alike can live, work and interact in peace and security.

A pragmatic language policy.    Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team took a pivotal decision to establish four official languages, and make Malay, the language of a minority, our national language. English, which is the language of international commerce and technology, was the working language for administration and the main medium of education. This key language policy gave us an edge over other countries which, on independence, jettisoned English for political or nationalistic reasons.

Investing in our people and embracing new talent.     As a small city-state, investing in our people - their education - their housing, their employment and their well being - is critical. Equally important is our readiness to induct new talent at all levels of society - in government, in the public sector and private sector. We have also welcomed foreign talent whom we need for our growth and encouraged them to put down roots and become citizens.

Always adapting, innovating and breaking new ground.      We did not arbitrarily discard or blindly change what we inherited from the British, such as a parliamentary system, a legal system, a port and a laissez-faire economy. Instead, we consciously adapted them to suit our conditions.

Examples of uniquely Singaporean changes include our system of NCMPs and NMPs, and GRCs. In the legal realm, bold innovations include legislation on the maintenance of religious harmony, the elected presidency, and the maintenance of parents.

We have also regularly questioned our assumptions and where necessary, reviewed long established policies. Good examples are the decision to build the integrated resorts, which reversed a decades-old policy on casinos, and our FTA policy, which was initially criticised by some countries who now seek to do the same.


This process of adapting, innovating and breaking new ground must continue because we face a changing global environment. But the fundamental principles and policies are unlikely to change. They have stood Singapore in good stead and brought us this far. Collectively, they form a constellation of values and a national 'compass' to help us navigate an ever-changing landscape and preserve what makes Singapore unique.

However, principles and values are only as good as the quality of the people who embody them. From the beginning, with MM Lee Kuan Yew and his first generation of leaders, we have been fortunate to have a cadre of very capable and dedicated leaders.

We have also been fortunate in having a Singaporean people who are committed and hardworking, who want to keep the Singapore Story going.

Together with some other ministers, I am now involved in the selection process to recruit new candidates for the next General Election. I chair one of the party committees which interviews potential candidates.

I am cheered by the fact that many younger Singaporeans are willing to come forward and serve. They have a good grasp of the challenges and realities facing Singapore. They are committed and dedicated people, who have the same conviction of principles, and want to do their part to ensure Singapore's continued success.

Prof Jayakumar is Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Law. This article appears in the current issue of Petir, a publication of the People's Action Party. 

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