An Afternoon With Tharman Shanmugaratnam

By Patrick Daniel

Fifty years after Singapore’s Independence, its Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam shared the lessons learned from his nation’s struggles and successes in the 45th St. Gallen Symposium. A once swamp-filled jungle managed to evolve itself into a first-class behemoth beyond the expectations of its founding fathers, despite the odds stacked against it throughout the decades.

Singapore managed to transform itself into a 1st world power within one generation’s time — a testament of how starting small can indeed be effective. “We converted permanent disadvantage into continued advantage,” began Tharman in his investigative interview with BBC’s Stephen Sackur. The nation had but a group of people willing to work hard and make themselves relevant to the world. These founding fathers essentially took the best parts of governance from different parts of the world and stitched it together into what they deemed to be the best combination.

Despite its disadvantages in size and history, Singapore was able to successfully start up and determine a future using its limited past. “The world owes you nothing,” Tharman kept saying, meaning that a leader and even an entire nation must accept the circumstances that they have been dealt, and not blame others or demand reparations for the past. “We must never be trapped by our own history,” Tharman insisted.

As a nation, Singapore learned its lessons from abroad, applied what made sense, and evolved with time. Tharman noted, “I believe in the notion of a trampoline,” to avoid that incentives change the social culture. The government actively supports mobility and develops opportunities for its citizens. Unlike what most other countries believe, Tharman noted that having an unlimited budget is unnecessary in order to apply ideas. If, on the other hand, you don’t give citizens the right incentives, you change the country’s social culture, which prohibits growth in the long term.

In many ways, being small is an advantage because it permits room for mistakes. In the West, where countries have been developed for longer, Singapore’ story is a symbol for how countries can renew themselves and remain vital.

If you enjoyed this piece by Patrick Daniel, you can subscribe to his newsletter. Edited by Theodora Karamanlis.

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