Last Wednesday’s class was both a lesson in Singapore’s history and in leadership. Our speaker, Dr. Marium Aljunied, was an educational psychologist by training and worked for the Ministry of Education of Singapore for over 20 years. As a Singapore native going six generations back, Dr. Aljunied was also qualified to speak on the cultural, social, economic and political history of the young but successful nation she called home.
In the latter part of her presentation, Dr. Aljunied had the fellows complete a short version of the Myer-Briggs assessment and discussed how personality preferences can impact leadership styles. However, for the greater part of her presentation, Dr. Aljunied shared valuable insights on Singapore’s journey from independent statehood in 1965 to the present. In just over 40 years, Singapore developed from a largely agrarian society struggling with ethnic divisions to being one of the strongest, freest and most diverse market economies in the world. It also boasts one of the lowest rates of corruption. Singapore’s rapid success begs the question: How?
According to Dr. Aljunied’s analysis, Singapore enjoyed progress without comprising principals because of sound political, economic and educational policies. Singapore’s reputation for having unfathomably rigid laws, like a $500 fine for littering or chewing gum, is a testament to the country’s staunch, unwavering attitude towards a collective discipline for a common good. People follow such rules, Dr. Aljunied pointed out, because they see the bigger picture, they see a better quality of life for all.
Dr. Aljunied’s presentation then shifted to address the ethnic and religious pluralism of Singapore with a special focus on the Muslim population. Singapore has always been diverse. Its languages include English, Mandarin, Tamal and Malay and reflect its ethnic groups. Religiously, its population includes Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and other faiths as well as a noticeable population of atheists. The largely Malay Muslims of Singapore have grown as a community in the country’s short history especially through the efforts of the Majilis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS), also known as the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. MUIS has had to work tirelessly in order to form networks with the Singaporean government while at the same time gaining the trust of Muslim citizens.
Even utopian-like success, however, comes with its trade-offs. To that end, Dr. Aljunied encouraged the fellows to always think critically about “progress.” What are the potentially negative effects of having an overly competitive capitalist system? Unemployment among the elderly has led to high suicide rates, for example. Also, some students thrive under the job market competition, but others lag behind and are unable to meet the high expectations set in the education system and workplace environment. Also, what happens when people become too dependent on the government and its policies and do not question them? Complacency can become a roadblock to progress, therefore, a healthy dose of criticism is crucial to continued growth.
Despite some of its imperfections, I think that Singapore presents an interesting case study for countries seeking both successful and sustainable growth patterns. It is proof that a country can build its infrastructure, institutions and human capital from within. It need not depend solely on financial aid and expert assistance from outside its borders. Political, economic and educational autonomy are critical to this internally-motivated path to development. However, as Singapore or any other country builds its future, its people should never forget to be introspective and self-analytical, always questioning...is this good enough?