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Seven pillars of Singapore's soft power

Kishore Mahbubani | Monday, Nov 11, 2013

Singapore has many strengths, including a unique ability to bring the East and West together in a way that provides hope to those who worry that such competing civilisations may be incompatible.

CAN Shanghai learn anything from Singapore's soft power?

This was the question posed to me for my opening keynote address for the Shanghai Mayor's International Business Leadership Advisory Council (Iblac) meeting in Shanghai on Oct 27.

I was tempted to go to the podium and say: "Nothing". It would have been my shortest speech ever.

However, on deeper reflection, I realised that even though Shanghai's population is almost five times that of Singapore, it might learn a lesson or two from Singapore's experience. I therefore gave a speech on the seven pillars of Singapore's soft power. It was well-received by the mayor and Iblac. Hence I thought it might be worth sharing it with my fellow Singaporeans in the hope that it will generate a robust discussion and produce a more authoritative list of the key pillars of Singapore's soft power.

Leadership and governance

THE first pillar is obvious: exceptional leadership. The quality of mind of our founding fathers is equal to that of America's. One of them, Dr Goh Keng Swee, even became an adviser to the great Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. There is also no doubt that Mr Lee Kuan Yew is one of the best known global leaders of our time. I told my Shanghai audience that even though he is highly respected in the West, he never hesitated to convey hard truths to Western audiences. One of Dr Henry Kissinger's favourite stories is about how Mr Lee once told a distinguished group of Harvard professors at the height of the Vietnam War: "You make me sick". Mr Lee has clearly put Singapore on the global map.

The second pillar is good governance. As I tell every student of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore's success is based on three key elements: meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty (with honesty being the toughest part). Fortunately, even though rule of law is a Western concept, it works equally well for Eastern societies.

I emphasised that in Singapore the law stands above the Government. The entire Cabinet is subject to the same laws as the rest of us. Hence, when a former law minister was found to have been driving recklessly, he was charged in court for driving without care. No one in Singapore is above the law.

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