Even after 40 years, China can still learn from Singapore

  • Sun Xi says the city state, a key role model for a modernising China, remains far ahead in social development and governance, and continues to have lessons to share
  • In economic development, the learning is now mutual. As China powers ahead in innovation, including AI, it, too, has lessons of its own to teach
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 6:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 6:35am

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the official start of China’s reform and opening up, when the third plenary session of the Communist Party’s 11th Central Committee was held from December 18 to 22, 1978. 

Just one month before the historic conference, in November 1978, Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore, marvelling over its achievements in development. During the trip, Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew told Deng: “Whatever we have done, you can do better because we are the descendants of the landless peasants of south China. You have the scholars, you have the scientists, you have the specialists. Whatever we do, you will do better.”

At that time, Deng did not respond. However, a few years later in speeches during his famous 1992 southern tour, Deng said China must learn from Singapore and would do better. China subsequently initiated a large-scale campaign of learning from Singapore. Now, 40 years later, has China done better than Singapore?

First, in terms of economic achievements, both China’s and Singapore’s performances have been extraordinary.

Over the past 40 years, China’s gross domestic product has grown at a stunning average annual rate of 9.5 per cent. It is now the world’s second-largest economy, after only the United States. Meanwhile, it has successfully lifted 800 million people from abject poverty, an amazing feat in human history. Today, China’s foreign exchange reserves, manufacturing capacity and international trade volumes are all No 1 in the world.

Lessons of past point way ahead for Xi Jinping as opening up goes on

The Singapore story is no less impressive. When it became independent in 1965, its nominal GDP per capita was around US$500, similar to that of Mexico and South Africa. Today, it is higher than Germany’s and catching up with the US. Singapore is now one of the world’s richest, most open and competitive, and least corrupt economies.

In the past, China learned a lot from Singapore on how to run an economy. However, nowadays, Singapore is also realising the urgency to learn from a rapidly growing China, especially in the areas of innovation, where China leads – in fields such as mobile payment, the sharing economy and artificial intelligence. The two nations have entered a new era of mutual learning.

Second, in terms of social development, China is obviously lagging behind Singapore. As a globally renowned “Garden City”, Singapore is one of the cleanest and most orderly countries in the world, while China is fighting massive environmental pollution and pushing for a “toilet revolution”.

Singapore has developed a very comprehensive and robust social security system, covering housing, health care, education and retirement – all of which remain top concerns in China.

Take housing as an example. In 1947, Singapore was described as having “one of the world’s worst slums – a disgrace to a civilised community” in a report by the British colonial government. Singapore turned that around by implementing a public housing programme that boosted the home ownership rate to 90.7 per cent in 2017, one of the highest in the world. By contrast, China is still struggling to build enough affordable housing and dealing with a property bubble that may threaten social stability.

Third, in terms of governance, China still has a long way to go to catch up with Singapore. Putting aside the controversial topic of Western-style democracy, Singapore has gained a reputation for strictly upholding the rule of law, ranking top in Asia and 13th globally in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2017-2018. China ranked 75th out of 113 countries.

While China lags behind Singapore in most such global indices, we must also be aware that the two countries are vastly different. Singapore is a small city state with limited natural resources, while China is a big country with many complex problems.

The Chinese cartoons with a revolutionary message for Singapore

Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo once said of the bilateral relationship: “I would describe Singapore as a bonsai, which is of occasional interest to China because of genetic similarities.” That is a humble way to put it.

As a sovereign nation, Singapore is not a Chinese country, but it has a majority ethnic Chinese population. That is why many of Singapore’s best practices are still relevant to China, and it remains the ideal role model for China, at least for some time. China should continue to humbly and wisely learn from Singapore.

Sun Xi is a China-born alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is now an independent commentary writer based in Singapore