Why a lot of surmons about economic transformation are a mixture of oversimplification and moralising
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | Kishore Mahbubani is a distinguished diplomat from Singapore and twice served as that country’s permanent representative to the United Nations. And he is also a brilliant intellectual and author. His three books: Has China Won? Has the West Lost it? and The Asian 21st Century demonstrate his grasp of international relations. His interviews also demonstrate intellectual depth. Yet when it comes to the development of Singapore, he abandons analysis and goes into a mixture of moralising and myth-making.
One such interview is about the “secret to Singapore’s success” which he also liberally prescribes for all poor countries. It is the kind of story Ugandan (and African) elites love to buy as a solution to our own development predicament. His formula for development is based on three things: meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty. On meritocracy, he illustrates his point by giving the example of Lee Hsien Loong, son of the legendary Lee Kuan Yew. He says he was the best in his class at Cambridge and Harvard; especially in mathematics, and his professors felt he should become a professor. So, his return to become Singapore prime minister is an example of selection of the best and brightest to take positions of leadership.
On pragmatism, Mahbubani says that Singapore avoided ideological puritanism and followed that which worked – whether it was picked from the capitalist handbook or the socialist one did not matter. What mattered is that it worked.
And finally on honesty; that Lee Kuan Yew was very strict on corruption, and that explains her development.
This oversimplification of the development is what excites African elites and their cheer leaders; especially in the West, who want to technically engineer our modernisation.
It is possible these factors helped Singapore to develop rapidly, but the history of development of many other countries elsewhere shows that they did not follow this “secret formula.”
For instance, meritocratic recruitment into government has been a feature of many Asian societies based on Confucian traditions and values for the last 2,500 years. Yet the countries that launched the industrial revolution and built the first modern states were from Western Europe. They did this while relying on patrimonial systems of rule – appointing public officials on the basis of ascription, not merit. The idea of meritocratic recruitment of officials into government is born of the 20th century in Europe. Those who have read the works of Max Weber (1905) explaining the emergence of the modern bureaucracy based on meritocratic recruitment would be my witnesses. Meritocracy in Western Europe was a consequence of development, not a cause of it.
The United States, for example, went through an intense period of industrial transformation between 1865 and 1890. It overtook the UK as the world’s largest economy and industrial power house in 1888. Up to that time, there was not a single individual recruited into the USA government at federal, state or municipal level based on merit. People were appointed into government entirely on the basis of political and family connections. In fact, the introduction of merit-based recruitment in USA delayed up to the 1920s.
Even in the UK, up until 1890, most people were appointed on basis of their family background. One could buy a commission in the army, or an ambassadorship or become a judge by buying the office.
Post-independence India, on the other hand, has had rigorous merit-based recruitment on the same level as Singapore but her development outcomes, especially between 1947 and 1990, were mediocre.
Regarding honesty, again the historical experience tells an entirely different story. Most of the acts codified as corruption today were perfectly legal and ethical in most of Europe during its intense period of transformation from backward agrarian societies into modern industrial nations. Space does not allow me to give many examples but suffice it to say that codification of many acts as corrupt was a result, not a cause, of development.
During the very period when Singapore was transforming, the same process was taking place in South Korea. That country had unprecedented levels of corruption during its intense period of economic development 1960-2000. In his book, Capitalist Industrialisation in Korea, Clive Hamilton states: “The Korean state was developmental – it provided public goods, fostered investment and created infrastructure. But this study shows that this was not necessarily intentional. Corruption was rampant in Korea and the state intervened in the economy in the way it did because doing so was in the interests of a small group of business and political elites. The production of public goods was a fortunate byproduct of actors competing to gain the private benefits of public resources.” Scholars such as Mushtaq Khan, David Kang etc. have written on the massive corruption in South Korea and how it did not impede that country’s transformation.
China today has been growing and transforming as if on steroids yet it has massive corruption at all levels. I must add that ironically, it is during the presidency of Xi Jinping, when he has clamped down on corruption, that we see significant decline in China’s growth. Please note: I am not suggesting that corruption was what was driving China’s growth and the war against it by Xi is the cause of slowing down growth. I really do not know. I am only stating a fact that the correlation is intriguing.
Even on pragmatism I would not agree entirely with Mahbubani. The USSR enjoyed its most rapid period of economic transformation from a peasant society to an industrial giant during its most intense ideological period 1930-1970. Indeed, the Second World War showed Soviet Russia under Stalin’s dogmatic communism had overtaken Germany in industrial output; especially in the military sphere. That is why the most powerful war machine, the German army, was defeated – Russia outproduced Germany in every military equipment – rifles, planes, artillery, tanks, motor vehicles etc.
After the Second World War, the Soviet economy grew faster than that of the USA up till 1975. For instance, in 1945, the relative share of wealth between the super powers was 84% for the USA against 16% for the USSR. By 1960, this was 67% to 33% finally reaching its peak of 63% to 37% in 1975 before beginning to decline. The USSR even beat the USA in some areas such as space and nuclear technology in the early 1960s. Mahbubani’s secret to Singapore’s success may be an idealised version of it. But even if it were true, it is not a precondition for development.