Issue 113 | Apr-Jun 2018

The Singapore Paradox: Going Forward and Standing Still - All at Once

Professor Kishore Mahbubani (Arts and Social Sciences '71)

The nation has seen five decades of progress, but we are not where we ought to be when it comes to social responsibility, says Professor Kishore Mahbubani (Arts and Social Sciences '71).

Professor Kishore Mahbubani is Senior Advisor (University & Global Relations) and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He previously served for 33 years in Singapore’s diplomatic service and is recognised as an expert on Asian and world affairs. Professor Kishore Mahbubani


Singapore has the best-educated population in Southeast Asia. There is no question about it. We are the only ASEAN country with recognised world-class universities. Our school students regularly top global educational rankings, as demonstrated by our performance in PISA (Programme for International Sudent Assessment) rankings. This has gone on for several decades. The natural consequence of having the best-educated population in Southeast Asia is that we should have also developed the most enlightened population in the region. Conventional education theory tells us that education produces enlightenment. Yet, this has clearly not happened with the population of Singapore. The main goal of this article is to encourage thoughtful Singaporeans, especially the thoughtful graduates of the best university of Singapore, NUS, to engage in deep reflection over this key Singapore paradox.

Evidence of this lack of enlightenment can be seen in the behaviour and attitudes of Singaporeans at the national, regional and global levels. At all these three levels, we demonstrate a certain lack of enlightenment. At the national level, enlightenment would mean that we show a deep level of concern for our fellow citizens. At minimum, it would reveal itself in Singaporeans becoming socially responsible (for instance, by not littering). Yet, the embarrassing fact about Singapore is that we have become one of the cleanest cities in the world because we are one of the most cleaned cities. Foreign workers keep our city clean. By contrast, Taipei City, whose educational standards cannot match ours, is clean because its citizens are socially responsible.

At the regional level, there is no doubt that Singapore is the biggest beneficiary of the wonderful ecosystem of peace and prosperity that ASEAN has created in the region. Our total trade is 3.5 times the size of our GNP. Such massive trade would not have been possible if Southeast Asia had fulfilled its natural political and cultural destiny and emerged as ‘the Balkans of Asia’. As Mr Jeffery Sng (Arts and Social Sciences ’73) and I document in our book The ASEAN Miracle, our region should have been mired in strife and conflict. Instead, Southeast Asia has become the most peaceful region in the developing world. This is why ASEAN is a true miracle.


As the biggest beneficiary of the ASEAN ecosystem, Singapore’s population should be the most appreciative of ASEAN among the 10 member states. Instead, quite shockingly, we have the least appreciative population. Ambassador Tommy Koh (Law ’61) provided evidence of this in his excellent article on Singapore and ASEAN in The Straits Times on 9 January 2018. As he said, “Only 77 per cent of the Singaporeans surveyed had a favourable or very favourable view of ASEAN, compared with 85 per cent for all ASEAN countries.” This figure does not make sense. We have the best-educated population in ASEAN. We are the biggest beneficiaries of ASEAN. Logically, we should rank first among the ASEAN populations in appreciating the ASEAN miracle. Instead, as Ambassador Tommy Koh says, it is “disappointing to read that in a survey carried out by research agency Blackbox recently, the Singapore public ranks last in its favourable attitude towards ASEAN.” This simple fact alone should lead Singaporeans to engage in deep reflection on why education has not led to enlightened public attitudes in Singapore.

To reinforce this point, let me also cite the evidence of our lack of social responsibility at the global level. As a regular participant in many global conferences, I know that there is now a clear consensus among the best-educated and most thoughtful elites in the world that climate change is real. All over the world, people are trying to change their behaviour, making small individual contributions to mitigating the effects of climate change. They are also demonstrating their commitment to various environmental causes to make the world a better place.

Amazingly, despite our well-educated population, we do not lead the pack when it comes to global citizenship in the environmental realm. Rwanda is much poorer than Singapore. Indeed, its dream is to become the Singapore of Africa. Yet the population of Rwanda has accepted a ban on plastic bags while the Singaporean population has made no effort to even reduce usage. China has a long way to go before its level of public education reaches that of Singapore. Yet, President Xi Jinping stole a march on Singapore by banning shark’s fin from all official banquets of the Chinese Communist Party. As a society, we have not followed suit in discouraging the consumption of shark’s fin.

Do these small symbolic steps matter? Will they lead to a better world? Sceptics could argue that even if the 3.2 million Singapore citizens become enlightened model citizens of the world, we will not make an ounce of difference if larger nations don’t improve their behaviour. This fact is undeniable. Yet, it is also undeniable that what Singapore does can inspire others. As we document in The ASEAN Miracle , one reason why ASEAN has been so successful is that Singapore has provided quiet leadership behind the scenes. Equally importantly, our excellent public policies have been quietly replicated in many ASEAN countries. Clearly, the deeds of the Singapore government have inspired many ASEAN countries. The simple question that Singapore citizens should ask themselves is this: if the Singapore government can inspire other ASEAN countries with its behaviour, why can’t the Singapore population do the same? Let us become the most enlightened citizens of Southeast Asia.
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