Drawing the wrong lessons from Singapore

Drawing the wrong lessons from Singapore
August 16 22:50 2015

The following article is by Hawwa Kareem, a political science student

When the Maldives and Singapore gained independence in 1965, both countries faced similar challenges. Both were small and lacked natural resources. Singapore had it worse. It was plagued by high unemployment, urban slums, congested roads, pollution, and lack of water. Its very survival seemed uncertain after being expelled from a federation with Malaysia. But today, it is one of the world’s greatest economic success stories.

President Abdulla Yameen and his cabinet tout Singapore as a development model for the Maldives. But is Yameen’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) drawing the right lessons from Singapore?

Under Yameen, the Maldives is heading towards one-party rule, similar to that in Singapore. The PPM, through its majority in the parliament, has stacked the state’s independent institutions, destroyed decentralization and brought the judiciary under its fist. The opposition appears to have been silenced; its leaders are under house arrest, in jail or in exile. Ruling party officials, in public and in private, have said that western style democracy is unsuited for the Maldives. They speak admiringly of Singapore’s combination of prosperity and one-party rule. However, if Yameen and the PPM conclude that Singapore proves authoritarianism works, they are drawing the wrong lesson.

Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was a visionary. He kept government unusually clean and small. His government invested in infrastructure, housing and education. Lee made the most of Singapore’s strategic location and natural harbor. He embraced free trade, kept the economy open and regulations simple, transparent and effective, and established a reliable judiciary.

In contrast, Yameen’s government has no development plan to speak of. Government remains bloated, the budget deficit is ballooning year by year due to unplanned expenses and poor planning, corruption is widespread, investment in education, health and housing remains dismal, crimes rates are at an all time high, and businesses and the public have little confidence in the Maldivian judiciary.

The World Bank says of the Maldives: “Macroeconomic imbalances, especially the fiscal deficit, and a general level of policy uncertainty are negatively affecting private sector investment, and thereby, growth prospects.”

Careful long-term planning and good governance were key to Singapore’s successful transformation. Yameen’s government, however, is yet to unveil its national development plan. The PPM issued its election manifesto just four days before the election in 2013. In the rush to win polls by any means, the PPM made extravagant promises. It pledged to create 95,000 jobs, hike elderly benefits, give young Maldivians shares in resort shares, establish an airport in the northern hub of Kulhudhuffuhi, and give cash handouts to farmers and fishermen. Today, nearly two years into Yameen’s term, only one of the above promises has materialized – the raise in elderly benefits.

To attract foreign investment, the PPM has brought in a law to establish Special Economic Zones (SEZ) with tax breaks and major incentives for investors. The government held an investment forum in Singapore last year and is planning a second one in Beijing this September. In July, the PPM, with the backing of a gullible opposition, amended the constitution to allow foreigners to own land in the Maldives. However, under Yameen, the Maldives is yet to see substantial foreign direct investment. The government is quick to sign MOUs with investors, often at press conferences called at the last minute and held at the President’s Office. In April, the Maldives signed an MOU with Dubai Ports World at one such press conference to build a deep-water port at Thilafushi, near capital Malé. Plans were later scrapped.

Investors may very well be wary because of the treatment Indian infrastructure giant GMR and a whole host of other companies received in the Maldives, following former President Mohamed Nasheed’s ouster in 2012. The political turbulence following Nasheed’s imprisonment in February this year and the tense diplomatic relations with India and the West does not make Maldives attractive for business.

Corruption and red tape is another deterrent to foreign direct investments. Singapore is currently number five on a list of least corrupt countries the world. It owes much of its prosperity to a record of honest and pragmatic government.

The Maldives, however, scores low on corruption indices. Local NGO Transparency Maldives says corruption occurs on a grand scale within the judiciary, the parliament and the executive. Yameen’s administration, instead of tackling the problem, dismissed the Auditor General within days of him publishing a report implicating then-Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb, now vice president, in a US$6million corruption scandal. The police, the anti-corruption watchdog and the courts are slow to prosecute perpetrators.

Since it gained independence, Singapore prioritized spending on housing and education. Approximately 20 percent of government spending in Singapore goes into education, resulting in a well-educated work force. Its Housing Development Board built more than one million flats for its citizens. About 90 percent of Singapore households are home owners – the highest rate of home ownership in the world. Singaporeans enjoy the rule of law, with one of the lowest drug abuse rates and crime rates in the world.

The Maldives, however, is plagued by social ills, high unemployment, high drug abuse, high crime rates and a housing crisis. While Maldives has high primary school enrollment rates, there is a sharp fall in enrollment at the higher secondary education level, because of the limited number of schools offering education in grades 11-12. Of the students who complete the General Certificate of Examination Ordinary Level, a majority does not pass the examination. Unemployment stands at 28 percent.

Meanwhile, some 30 young men have been killed on the streets of Malé in the past seven years, but the state has failed in bringing perpetrators to justice. Instead of curbing the activities of criminal gangs, the government appears to be courting them. Religious extremism is on the rise. Maldivians continue to leave the country by the dozen every month to live under the banner of the Islamic State. The criminal justice system has failed, hundreds of cases are pending at the courts, some dating more than five years back.

Yet, there appears to be no comprehensive policies to create jobs, to improve access to education, to address drug abuse and crime, to increase housing or to fight the spread of militant and extremist ideologies.

The Maldives has a lot to learn from Singapore, but it is not authoritarianism. In 1992, Lee said: “My values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient in protecting its people and allowing opportunities for all to advance themselves in a stable and orderly society, where they can live a good life and raise their children to do better than themselves.” To follow in Lee’s footsteps, Yameen first needs to issue a well-thought out, imaginative and pragmatic development agenda, one that prioritizes solutions to the numerous social ills afflicting the Maldives today.

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