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COVID-19: Lessons from Three Smart Small Asian Nations     Part 1. Singapore 

By Shlomo Maital

  We can learn a great deal from three small Asian nations or semi-autonomous areas (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan) about how to deal with COVID-19. These lessons are summed up in today’s New York Times, by Hannah Beech:*

     Here, Part 1, is how Singapore acted. 

   I taught MBA students in Singapore, at Nanyang Technological Institute, for many years, and came to know Singapore and its people well.

     I can sum up Singapore’s cultural DNA, in place from Day One, in large part thanks to its brilliant founding leader Lee Kwan Yew: We are a small nation, disliked by our huge neighbors. To survive, we must be the very best at everything, and accept no excuses for incompetence.

     “Singapore’s strategy of moving rapidly to track down and test suspected cases, provides a model for keeping the epidemic at bay, even if it can’t completely be stamped out completely.

       “With detailed detective work, the government’s contact tracers found, among others, a group of avid singers who warbled and expelled respiratory droplets together, spreading the virus….   If you chase the virus, a Ministry of Health official said, you will always be behind the curve.”

       Singapore has had a relatively few cases and few deaths, even though the Chinese New Year brought a lot of arrivals from China initially.

     The author writes: “Early intervention is the key. So are painstaking tracking, enforced quarantines and meticulous social distancing – all coordinated by a leadership willing to act fast and be transparent.”

     Singapore’s key benchmark: To trackers seeking where the COVID-19 was contracted, for those testing positive —   you have two hours to bring us concrete answers. Two hours. No excuses.

     In Singapore, “details of where patients live, work and play are released quickly online, allowing others to protect themselves.”  

         Violation of privacy? Embarrassing? Of course. But public health comes first. And a disciplined population accepts this.

[Important correction: My friend Bilahari Kausikan, former senior Foreign Ministry official in Singapore, writes:  NYT story was misleading in one detail: it gives the impression that we release the names of the infected. We don’t do that but refer to them by case number. The details are of date, time and places they have visited so that you can be alerted and if you have been there at the material time and date, get yourself checked.”]

       Western nations seem to be chasing the virus, after it has arrived, rather than acting pre-emptively well before it unpacks its bags and settles in.  

         Perhaps next time, we will follow Singapore’s lead? 

  • “Asian hubs offer model for tackling an epidemic”. New York Times March 19/2020


What I Learned from Lee Kwan Yew

By Shlomo  Maital   

  Lee Kwan Yew

Singapore’s legendary founding leader, Lee Kwan Yew, has passed away; he was 91. 

 I personally learned a great many  things from this wise and courageous man, who led Singapore to independence in 1965 and like the founding leader of my country, David Ben Gurion, knew the odds were strongly against survival.    He shaped a prosperous country with per capita GDP of over $60,000, double that of my country Israel. 

   I recall two things vividly.  First, in the early days of Singapore, he appealed to the mothers of Singapore, to “urge your children to study math”. Why? So they could study engineering in college. Why? So Singapore could build its wealth on knowledge, having no resources or land.  And it worked. They did, they did, and it did. 

  Second – he explained why America leads the world.  China has 1.4 billion people.  Among them are geniuses.  America has only some 340 million.  But America is a magnet. It attracts talent from the whole world – its talent pool is 7 billion, not 340 million.  That is a huge advantage.  My own parents migrated to Canada as immigrants from Bessarabia, now Moldova, worked hard, and passed their aspirations on to me.  Canada, I think, benefited.  

    Recently, Harvard Professor Joseph Nye wrote a book, with the title asking a question, is the American excellence and domination over?   His answer was, no.  But I’m not sure. Because many Americans (especially the Republican party) are anti-immigrant,  and I personally have waited hours and hours and hours to have my visa approved (in Toronto), just so I could go to Boston to teach a course FOR FREE. (Babson insisted I enter on a visa, rather than as a Canadian visitor).  Amusingly, I had to show my Princeton diploma to the immigration official; it was in Latin!  That took another few hours. 

     I know Singapore well, having taught there.  I got to know a very senior civil servant, a man of enormous wisdom.  I often wished my own country could have civil servants of such quality – and leadership like Lee Kwan Yew.  Very few countries do.  He will be missed.   

Singapore’s Prime Minister Looks Ahead Two Decades

By Shlomo  Maital

Lee Hsien Loong

   After many visits to Singapore, I’ve come to appreciate the highly intelligent, competent political leadership, and capable civil service, this small nation enjoys.  (And, by the way — good-looking!)….

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of founding leader Lee Kwan Yew, is a Harvard graduate and highly articulate.  Recently, he delivered an address, “Scenarios for Asia in the next 20 years”;  here is a summary. 

   “Since the end of the Cold War, Asia’s strategic weight in international affairs has grown. It is home to more than half of the world’s population, and its share of global GDP has risen from one fifth to one third.   This morning I will talk about both the clear trends and the critical uncertainties in Asia over the next 20 years. The key players will still be the US, China and Japan.

    “Let me begin with the US. Today it is the dominant global power. In the Asia-Pacific, US power and influence have underpinned regional security and stability since the Second World War, and enabled all countries to prosper. The US has been a benign and constructive power, which explains why it is still welcomed by countries in the region. The Obama administration’s “rebalancing” towards Asia reflects the American strategic view, that the US has been and always will be a Pacific power. Unfortunately, the strains of being the global policeman have taken their toll on the US. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the US more than 50,000 soldiers killed or wounded .  The American people are naturally war weary. They are reluctant to engage in new fights or take on fresh burdens, whether in Syria, Ukraine or Asia. Its adversaries sense this, and harbor hopes that the US has lost the will to advance its interests and defend its “red lines”.                  

  “I believe that in 20 years’ time, the US will remain the world’s pre-eminent superpower. China’s GDP will probably exceed America’s in absolute terms, but not in per capita terms. The US will still be the world’s most advanced economy, leading the way in innovation, technology and talent. I expect the Fortune 500 global list to include many new American companies which do not yet exist today, just as neither Google nor Facebook existed 20 years ago. Shale gas will enhance the competitiveness of US industries, and could also be an additional tool of American diplomacy. The US armed forces will still be the most formidable and technologically-advanced in the world.”

     “There are two key uncertainties … The first is how soon Americans get over the current mood of angst and withdrawal, and regain the confidence and will to advance American interests around the world. The second is when the US can get its politics to work. Politicians on both sides need to come together to overcome the present gridlock and forge a consensus on the way forward, rather than be mired in partisanship and fundamental disagreement.”

      Lee’s key point: The U.S. must continue its role as the world’s superpower/babysitter/democracy advocate.  If it turns insular and fails in this role, the world will be a mess.  To succeed in this role, America must regain its self-confidence, and fix its gridlocked political system.

     Keep in mind – Singapore is tightly linked to America, economically and politically, and has enormous interests in America continuing to play a key role in Asia.  So part of PM Lee’s speech is wishful thinking, and part is analysis.  Let’s hope his optimism is based on analysis, not just hope. 

   Today is Memorial Day in America.  In a memorial ceremony, the names of some 50,000 American casualties since 9/11 are being read.  Years ago, the names of the 58,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam were read; it took three whole days non-stop.   If America is tired of policing the world, one can understand.  It matters for all of us, and our children and grandchildren, whether America will have the energy and spirit to continue to act for the world’s interests, not just America’s – and whether America will have the wisdom to intervene wisely,  much more wisely than its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 Singapore Redefines Literacy

By Shlomo  Maital


   “Kids who read – succeed!”   Of course.  But somehow, technology keeps raising the bar.  It used to be that literacy meant the ability to read and write.  A sad proportion of the world’s kids still can’t read or write.  Today, literacy means, or should mean, computer literacy.  And as usual, Singapore leads the way.

     Singapore has announced plans to start software-programming classes in public schools, so that more students will learn how to write computer programs, according to the website Tech in Asia.

    Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority (how many nations even HAVE an infocomm Development Authority???) will introduce computer-coding classes in the schools in the next few months.  The courses could be part of the curriculum, or perhaps an extra-curricular activity.

   Singapore sees developing programming literacy as a “strategic catalyst for Singapore’s competitive advantage”.

    My guess is, programming will become part of the official curriculum. It should be – and it should in other nations as well.  Literacy is no longer the ability to write words.  It is the ability to write computer code.  Let’s imitate Singapore, which as usual has blazed the educational trail for the rest of us.   

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital