By the praying mantis
It is often said that in the 1940s and 1950s, Singapore was far behind Sri Lanka in all respects. Lawlessness and crime were rampant in Singapore and corruption was at the highest level. There were ghettos all over this country. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, was a veritable paradise with a population advancing in many aspects of life.
Several decades later, today, Singapore is a proud member of the First World while Sri Lanka has sunk into a downward spiral into the quagmire of lowest Third World status. There must be something Singapore did well, compared to us, for this stark difference in the progress of the two countries. With virtually no natural resources worth mentioning, Singapore has relentlessly pursued its advance, leaving us to languish in the doldrums of despair; most certainly, a paradise lost.
Prof. Kishore Mahbubani is a born and bred Singaporean, of Indian descent, a civil servant, career diplomat and academic. During his stint at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore, from 1971 to 2004, he served as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and also served as President of the United Nations Security Council. From 2004 to 2017, he served as Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. In an exclusive interview, he described Singapore’s formula for success in the world. What he called the “secret formula” adopted by Singapore was known by the English acronym MPH. He clearly stated that any country that adopts and implements this strategy will succeed.
He said the “M” in MPH stands for meritocracy, the “P” is for pragmatism and the “H” is for honesty. He then explained how this principle works. He said meritocracy means you select the best people to run the country. He added that what brings many countries down, especially in the third world, is that when it comes to choosing their minister of finance, or the minister of economy, or any other guardian minister the legislature, they will give those jobs to their brothers, cousins, uncles, relatives and NOT the best people. These are his words; not mine.
Singapore has done the exact opposite. In Singapore, their most important positions, not only in the Cabinet of Ministers but in all walks of life, were and still are given to the best, most qualified and proven people. The current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew. When Loong went to study at Cambridge University, he was one of the top students in class and at the university. The teachers were so impressed that they said he should become a mathematician because he would become a world-class mathematician. Then he went to study at another great university, Harvard Kennedy School. There he was one of the few students to get an article published in a leading economics journal. Hardly any student gets published papers in top economics journals. He is incredibly brilliant. Then, if the best man for the job is Lee Kuan Yew’s son, he would be selected; not because he’s the prime minister’s son, but because he’s the best person for the job. Thus, meritocracy is the first pillar of the successful Singapore formula.
The second pillar is ‘P’. It is synonymous with pragmatism. Pragmatism is an English concept, but the best definition of pragmatism was given by the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. He said, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or whether a cat is white. If the cat catches mice, it is a good cat”. So in the same way it doesn’t matter what your ideology is; if it works, others might use it. So Singapore has been very pragmatic. It would take capitalist policies and socialist policies, and even mix them. That’s pragmatism. You are not bound by any political ideology.
Then the good teacher said that the third pillar, the ‘H’, is the most difficult to achieve. It represents honesty. He pointed out that what has brought down most third world countries and led to their development failure is corruption. So, Lee Kuan Yew, after becoming prime minister, made it his business to punish not young people, but very experienced people. A deputy minister went on vacation with his friend, a businessman. Upon his return to Singapore, he was arrested. He asked why he was being arrested and was told, “You went on vacation with a businessman and he paid all your expenses and that’s bribery. You will go to jail”. So when a deputy is sent to prison, everyone says “oops”, I have to be careful. I can also go to jail”. This honesty factor is one of the essential characteristics of Singapore’s outstanding success.
Now then…, here is the crux of my article and for quoting the interview above. How does this scenario compare to what you get in our Indian Ocean Pearl? My considered opinion is that if you need to have the exact opposite of the secret formula for success in Singapore, you have it right here on our beautiful little island.
Singapore was far behind Ceylon in the 1940s. Even their enigmatic, convincing and famous Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, admired us. Even then, the MPH formula, or a similar recipe, was not there as a full commitment to Ceylon, but some things were done that fit the bill, even a little; a partial MPH. This was enough to keep us above most other Asian countries, considering the natural resources of our splendid homeland and the quality of its people.
Then for 70 odd years even this partial formula of MPH in Ceylon, and later in Sri Lanka, was eroded, overthrown, dismantled, emasculated and generally destroyed by every regime that came to power. We have gradually slipped into an abyss of ultimate denunciation of this marvelous formula. Henchmen, goons, and poorly educated misfits have been given leadership positions year after year. They worked on personal agendas and not for the benefit of the country. Far from being patriots, they were scoundrels of the first order.
The best people have been sidelined time and time again. Even some of the most prestigious people, who had made a name for themselves internationally while being here, were grossly ignored. As a result, some of our decent products and very good brains left the country for good, to do superbly well in their adopted countries.
Now we just sing hosannas and try to bask in the glory of those Sri Lankans who have made a name for themselves in their adopted foreign lands. So it is, as the powers that be here continue to suppress even some of the brightest who are still here. These Sri Lankans, who are now citizens of other countries, were born only here. Now they are “outsiders”. Their so-called achievements are not those of the Sri Lankans. It annoys and discourages this writer to see these Sri Lankan born foreigners portrayed in the media as God’s gift to humanity. It is also ironic that some of our top leaders have the ridiculous audacity to invite them back to serve our resplendent island. To say the least, this is pure wishful thinking. They are no longer real Sri Lankans. They will never come back for good.
The second pillar, pragmatism is quite prominent by its absence even in this paradise island. Politicians from successive regimes could not see anything that worked. They would do their best to put a spanner in the works. If something that worked was the brainchild of the previous regime, it simply had to be scuttled by its successors. Their ideologies are set in stone and they are totally against any kind of compromise or even being a little flexible. Rationality, practicality, logic and simplicity; the synonyms of the word pragmatism, are not there in their insane philosophies and vocabulary.
The latest from MPH, but certainly the most important; honesty, is totally non-existent in Sri Lanka. Ministers and high officials lie to the core, enrich themselves with heaps of filthy profits and are dishonest to the core. The lower ranks follow the so-called leaders. If the star Singaporean Deputy Minister has gone on vacation paid for by a businessman, the indiscretions or incursions of our worthy peers defy even our imagination.
Commissions are paid, money traded under the table or in parking lots, and all sorts of shady dealings are the order of the day. If Lee Kuan Yew was alive and asked to fix the current situation here, he would probably have filled our prisons in no time. Knowing the cowards here, it would be enough for a few miscreants to be imprisoned for the others to line up; quite nicely too.
As Singapore illustrates, the MPH formula works. Singapore and its charismatic leader Lee Kuan Yew, conscientiously and resolutely, stuck to it, as if it were the gift of providence that would make the difference. It made an extremely effective difference; Singapore has become a first world country and has risen far above us in this beautiful island, as we are quite content to remain in the pits of the world, shamelessly touting our 2500+ year old heritage. years. Given the abundant resources we have, the educational opportunities available to us and the natural abilities of our people, we should be flying much higher than Singapore. But unfortunately, our downfall was orchestrated by some of our fellow citizens.
Yet despite all of this, what bothers us most is that for us, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. We do not see on the horizon a benevolent but strict and honest statesman or woman. Only a true patriot, who would be willing to put the whole house in order, could put this wonderful MPH formula to good use to get us out of the hole we’ve been forced into. We desperately need such a person who could take this country by the scruff of the neck, make sense of it, and take us to an entirely different landscape than a promised land.
We should be very grateful to Professor Kishore Mahbubani for revealing Singapore’s secret formula for success! Humble and modest man that he is, he did not boast of being brilliant. Being a top flyer, he was indeed the best man for all the positions he held. Lee Kuan Yew probably chose this man. Also, what Professor Mahbubani did not say is that the acronym MPH also stands for miles per hour; a speed metric. The Singapore MPH formula has also shown that by using it, results will be achieved at a tremendous speed.
The need of the hour for Sri Lanka is that tried and true Singapore formula for success – the MPH.