10/22/2013 04:10 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2013

Singapore's Lesson For Washington: Morality Of Leaders Matters

This week, the world awaited a budget deal to emerge from the Senate. But, the underlying question remains: Why has our democracy become so dysfunctional? Deep division between the two major parties is nothing new, but what we have witnessed lately is a kind of hyper-partisanship which makes the job of governing all but impossible. Even more disturbing is the ongoing failure of the federal government to seriously address any of the nation's long-term challenges, such as its ballooning deficit, decrepit infrastructure, deteriorating public schools, rising income inequality and lack of an energy-environment strategy.

For a truly alternative perspective, I suggest we study a government which actually works -- namely, the government of Singapore. Just how successful has Singapore been? The diminutive city-state is currently ranked the world's 4th leading financial center, after London, New York and Hong Kong; the 2nd most competitive economy in the world; and the country with one of the highest proportion of millionaires in the world. But it is not just economic wealth which impresses visitors to Singapore.

The Singaporean government excels in almost every area one can think of. The country enjoys a low tax rate and a balanced budget. Its streets are clean, and its roads are nearly congestion-free. The city is a model for urban planning and public housing, with no slum to be found anywhere. No country manages water resources better or treats waste more efficiently. Its education system is the best in the world according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and just as impressive is the quality of its vocational training for less gifted students. The country boasts excellent healthcare, as evidenced by the lowest infant mortality in the world. It also has a well-designed public pension system, which induces citizens to build and manage personal assets.

So how does Singapore manage all this? The lesson of Singapore, for America and the rest of the world, is this: no other government takes people development more seriously. The closest parallel I can think of is not with any other government, but with the best private-sector employers such as McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. Civil-service candidates are spotted early on and are carefully groomed before being picked up by various ministries. Those who do not make the cut are weeded out. The recruiting process of the ruling party is similarly rigorous. Candidates, many of whom have already demonstrated excellence in the private sector, are put through a grueling series of interviews and even psychological tests which are meant to expose their most deeply held values. The relentless focus on people results in a high level of competence throughout the government.

It also ensures the government is free of corruption. As Lee Kwan-Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, categorically declares, "You need people who are inoculated against corruption... Once we are corrupt, we are finished." [1] Singapore has thrived because its leaders are not only able but also honest and selfless. Lee is a stoic individual who has lived in the same family house since the 1940s, without bothering to renovate it. Likewise, many other leaders have chosen politics over lucrative private careers (the current defense minister was a top surgeon, for example) because of their sense of honor and noblesse oblige. I am aware of the shortcomings of Singapore - most importantly, high income inequality and limited freedom of expression - but the caliber of its leaders inspires us nonetheless.

The meritocratic, people-driven approach of Singapore is an outgrowth of its Confucian culture. You see, the whole purpose of Confucian teachings was to create exemplary leaders, so that their civic virtue would permeate ("trickle down to") the entire society. Confucians did not worry too much about institution-building per se because, in the end, it was the people who managed the system. To the Confucians, morality of the people who managed the system mattered more than the system itself. As Hsun Tzu (312-230 BC) memorably put it,

There is no such thing as a disorderly system of state; only disorderly rulers exist.

There is no such thing as an orderly system of law; only orderly citizens exist.

Just to be clear, I am not denying the importance of institution-building here. Possibly the greatest failure of Confucianism was that due to its emphasis on "rule by men" over "rule by law," it never gave birth to the notion of constitutional rights, or other forms of checks on absolutist power, as the West did. What I am saying, though, is that we should shift our focus from institution-building to instilling civic virtue and cultivating moral leadership. Even the best institution in the world -- surely the American system of government must be one of the best to have existed in the history of mankind -- cannot function if elected leaders relentlessly pursue their self-interest at society's expense, or if a major political party thinks its only goal is to win the next election and willfully triggers a budget crisis towards that end.

Some political scientists have suggested that the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, combined with ubiquitous gerrymandering, has contributed to the polarization of the two major parties. Thus, they argue, eliminating FPTP and gerrymandering would alleviate the partisan gridlock. But will such institutional remedies restore responsible policymaking in Washington? Not really. What is needed in American politics right now is not some institutional tinkering but true leaders who have the moral power and courage to transform its culture.

[1] Kwang, HF et al. (2011). Lee Kwan Yew: Hard Times to Keep Singapore Going, Straits Times Press, Singapore, p. 124