Why Bahrain Should Not Follow The Singapore Model

Photo source therealsingapore.com.

Photo source therealsingapore.com.

Let’s make something clear from the very start; Singapore is a successful country and a shining example of how determination, hard work and tenacity can literally transform a country from third world to first in just one generation.

I am a huge fan of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister. He, and the People’s Action Party (PAP,) ruled the country for over thirty years. He stepped down back in 1990 but has remained active in Singaporean politics ever since. The PAP is still very much in charge, led by his son and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

I read Mr. Yew’s From Third World to First, The Singapore Story  during summer vacation in Germany back in 2012. I could not put the book down. I think I read the 700 page book in less than two weeks. I underlined several parts of it and made notes in the margins.

What I particularly admire about the Singapore model is that even though the odds were very much against them, they managed to build a nation. It was a small country surrounded by some hostile countries and ideologies, with no natural resources to speak of, and a racially fragmented and divided population speaking multiple languages. Yet they built a nation that is the envy of the world. I really admire that. Mr. Yew and the PAP are not perfect by any means, but their track record speaks for itself. They delivered.

What I particularly liked about Mr. Yew’s approach in building the nation was that it was based on pragmatism, not ideology. A notion I share 100%.

“ If I have to choose one word to explain why Singapore succeeded, it is confidence” – Lee Kuan Yew.

For anyone interested in politics and development, reading Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s book is a must. I would make it compulsory for all senior officials.

The Singapore model is so successful that many countries have tried to immolate it, or at least parts of it. One of those countries is Bahrain. If fact our very own Economic Development Board (EDB) idea  was taken from Singapore. A Singaporean was even considered to run it.

So of course this begs the question, why shouldn’t Bahrain follow the Singapore model? The answer is plain and simple.

Singaporeans aren’t happy.

In the book the former Prime Minster acknowledges “… It will take another generation before our arts, culture, and social standards can match the First World Infrastructure we have installed.”

One might argue that the price paid by everyday Singaporeans was too high. One might ask what’s the point of all this development if it does not lead to happiness?

I last visited Singapore this summer. I went with my wife and children on family vacation. This was my third visit and each time I’m impressed with how advanced, clean and beautiful the country is. But whenever I visit a country, I make sure to speak to the locals; from taxi drivers to business people.

During the trip I heard over and over again how hard, expensive and competitive life in Singapore is. I asked a friend about her thoughts on whether the PAP could continue winning elections in the future. She told me “Lee Kuan Yew ruled with an iron fist, but he earned the people’s respect. His son has not earned it as much as his father had.”

One of course should not discount the current PM’s vast experience, but it’s unfortunate that his father has such a large shadow. It covers swaths of Asia.

The reason I asked my friend this question is because the PAP, though still very much in control, has been losing some seats in every round of general elections. So there may come a day when they actually find themselves out of office.

The Numbers

According to the World Happiness Report 2013,  Singapore is the 30th happiest nation in the world. It’s not a bad record by any means, but hardly stellar considering how much the Singapore model is lauded around the world. (Incidentally, Bahrain is number 79, right after Libya and before Montenegro).

My contention is that a country should not pursue development and growth for their own sake. Every human being’s ultimate goal is be happy. So a country’s ultimate goal should be to make it’s citizens happy, and then develop it’s long term plans based on what would make that happen.

So which countries got it right? Let’s look at the top ten happiest nations:

1. Denmark.

2. Norway.

3. Switzerland.

4. Netherlands.

5. Sweden.

6. Canada.

7. Finland.

8. Austria.

9. Iceland.

10. Australia.

A small third world nation would do well to analyse these ten countries, and adapt certain elements and create it’s own unique model. I want to emphasise this point, we cannot copy a model completely; we have to develop our own model based on our own circumstances and culture. But the ultimate goal should be kept in mind, and we should constantly ask ourselves this question “what will make our people happy?”

A cursory look at the nations in the list above reveals the following:

– They are all mature democracies.
– They have a strong regard for human rights.
– They have capitalist economies with a strong socialist bent (at least the European nations and Canada do, admittedly I know very little about Australia).
– They are not driven by ideologies, but by pragmatism.
– They have good education systems, but they do not overeducate their school children (unlike say the South Koreans, where school children routinely study 12 hours or more a day)

How other developed countries of note scored

Just for fun, let’s look at how some relevant countries scored:

– South Korea (41)
– Japan (43)
– Germany (26)
– China (93)
– United States (17)

Interesting, no? It’s also worth noting that South Korea has the third highest suicide rates per 100,000 people in the world. Japan is number 8. Which begs the question, can you consider their models successful?

Happiness should be the goal

The good thing about being a developing nation is that you can copy other nations. We’re the adolescents of the world, and we can decide how we want to grow up, and who we want to immolate. And I say we should immolate Denmark, Norway and Switzerland, while still keeping the Singaporean model in mind.

The Singaporean experience is too valuable to ignore. What makes it particularly interesting and appealing is the speed in which development was achieved. The other countries are mature democracies which developed over centuries.

Bahrain has more in common with Singapore than the European nations. The ideal would be to develop a hybrid of the different models, while keeping the ultimate goal in mind; happiness.

Can Bahrain achieve happiness?

Yes, of course it can. Certainly the odds are against us; our region is unstable and we’re going through the worst political and sectarian crisis in generations, and our citizens are unhappy.

Despite of it I think we can make it. We have some of the best human capital around, and despite the unhappiness Bahrainis of all walks of life love their country. It’s just a matter of time until we overcome the crisis and start rebuilding our nation. One day we might even make it in the top 10. I bet on it!

4 Responses to Why Bahrain Should Not Follow The Singapore Model

  1. Hussain 18 October 2014 at 10:40 am #

    Interesting article with thoughts provoking ideas. Yes, I agree with the fact that a hybrid model can be applied here, however, I still believe that every country has its own issues and potentials. Why we don’t benchmark ourselves instead of trying to mimic others? We have a strong culture, educated people, smart individuals and most of all, a wiling to make a difference. We as individuals and as groups need to aim for happiness and make our own lives better. The spark starts within, then slowly we can make this “light” bigger..

    • Suhail Algosaibi 18 October 2014 at 10:48 am #

      Good point Hussain. I like the benchmarking idea. That’s what I meant by not copying and developing our own model.

  2. Husam 18 October 2014 at 2:00 pm #

    Great article Suhail. I think what this little island we call home needs is fresh blood injected into authoritative positions in the government. We need a lean government that can shape up roads so individuals can contribute to the economy.

    I also think we need to setup a climate where is encourages people to invest in something other than real estate.

    And my solution (since I’m involved with tech) is that we should incorporate coding and electronics into schools curriculum starting from late elementary. I believe that educational systems are broken and just killa creativity and to survive we as a nation need to foster creativity in our young.

    • Suhail Algosaibi 18 October 2014 at 2:17 pm #

      Well said Husam.

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