Singapore is small and resource poor. Kazakhstan is huge with vast reserves of natural resources. Yet the Kazakhs feel they have much to learn from the Singapore story, spurring deep bilateral engagements.
The eminent historian, Professor Wang Gungwu, has come out with a new perspective on human history in a brilliant new book, The Eurasian Core and Its Edges. In it, Professor Wang questions the Sino and Eurocentric views of ancient world history.
He argues, instead, that it was the contests between the nomadic societies of Central Asia and the agrarian ones of Europe and China that have shaped the development of world history.
The significance of this new perspective was brought home to me when I was recently in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, the biggest and most successful country in Central Asia. As the gateway for China’s “New Silk Road” to Europe, Kazakhstan also promises to emerge as the region’s most important country, economically and geo-strategically.
I was there to attend the first graduation ceremony of Nazarbayev University (NU). For the last three years, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY School), National University of Singapore, has been working closely with the new university to establish the first graduate school of public policy in Central Asia. Its inaugural class of 19 Master of Public Policy students were among the 450 students who graduated that day.
Friends of the LKY School are often surprised when I tell them of our deep involvement in Kazakhstan. Why would a Singaporean institution be interested in Kazakhstan and vice versa? Singapore and Kazakhstan could not be any more different. While we are small and resource-poor, Kazakhstan is huge (all of Western Europe can fit into Kazakhstan). It has vast reserves of oil, gas, uranium, coal, zinc, copper and many other natural resources. Kazakhstan is also one of the world’s largest wheat producers.
Singapore is one of the most densely populated countries in the world; Kazakhstan’s population of 17 million makes it one of the least.
Singapore’s success owes a great deal to its port and its status as an entrepot along one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Kazakhstan is land-locked and also lacks the navigable rivers that have enabled other land-locked countries like Hungary and Austria to prosper through trade.
Besides geography, Kazakhstan is also handicapped by its Soviet history legacy of central planning. Singapore, in contrast, has always subscribed to free trade. Hence, Singaporeans instinctively understand the power of markets and commercial incentives.
Yet despite the significant differences in context and circumstance, the LKY School has developed a deep portfolio of engagements with the highest levels of the Kazakh government.
We have conducted courses for over 700 senior officials from Kazakhstan, including the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, deputy ministers, and permanent secretaries in all branches of the government. Some of our faculty members have advised national leaders in Kazakhstan on policy and governance reforms. I have also been invited to serve on the international advisory panel of a commission that was recently established to advise on civil service modernisation.
Over the years, there have been at least five major programmes in Kazakhstan that reflect some learning from Singapore’s experience. The first is the Bolashak scholarship programme which sends Kazakhstan’s best and brightest to study abroad on government funding. It is similar to Singapore’s well-developed public service scholarship system.
A second example is the establishment of Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund – Samruk Kazyna – which has drawn lessons from the experiences of Singapore’s Temasek Holdings and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC).
Thirdly, Kazakhstan has also studied Singapore’s education system. It has sent its senior officials to study our polytechnic and technical education system as well as university governance. Kazakhstan has also established its own version of our gifted education programme.
A fourth example is the establishment of the Kazakhstan Corps A – an idea similar to Singapore’s Administrative Service. It has also been studying carefully other practices of our civil service.
A fifth example is pension reform, where Kazakhstan has borrowed ideas from our Central Provident Fund system. More recently, Kazakhstan has expressed an interest to learn about how Singapore has become the financial hub of our region. The governor of Kazakhstan’s central bank – whom I met on this trip – recently told Bloomberg News that he would like Kazakhstan to become the Singapore of Central Asia.
So why does Kazakhstan find Singapore’s experience useful? I think there are at least three reasons.
First, there is a growing recognition among much of Kazakhstan’s governing establishment that the country needs institutional reforms, especially in building a meritocratic civil service, in strengthening the rule of law, and in developing an independent judiciary.
Previous government-led initiatives in industrialisation, economic diversification and higher education were held back by the lack of implementation capacity, and also by corruption and clientelism. President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the reformers in his Cabinet have concluded that Kazakhstan’s modernisation has to start with the modernisation of the state. This is something that Singapore has done remarkably well over a short span of time.
Second, Kazakhstan’s geopolitical environment, not unlike Singapore’s, is also challenging. In one of my lectures, I observed that Kazakhstan was able to maintain good relations with both Russia and China (partly because the West had succeeded in driving Russia into China’s arms). In the longer term, Russia could view China as a threat. If that were to occur, Kazakhstan would face some difficult choices.
Unlike many of its neighbours, Kazakhstan has enjoyed peace and prosperity because of the skilful diplomacy of its founding President Nazarbayev.
Like Singapore, Kazakhstan also has to focus on succession planning in leadership. Also, like Singapore, Kazakhstan needs to develop long-term policies that will motivate great powers to develop a strong stake in its independence and success. So far, Singapore has been successful in doing this, partially by strengthening ASEAN’s role as a vehicle for great power engagement in South-East Asia.
Third, there is a great deal of admiration and goodwill for Singapore and what we have achieved in the last 50 years. In May 1991, Mr Lee Kuan Yew visited newly independent Kazakhstan at the invitation of President Nazarbayev. Mr. Lee left a deep and lasting impression on the Kazakh President.
In his memoirs, President Nazarbayev singled out Mr Lee and Charles de Gaulle as his role models. In 2013, on the occasion of Kazakhstan’s national day, Mr Lee received the highest award given by the Kazakh government.
Significantly, the PM of Kazakhstan, Mr Karim Massimov, flew to Singapore to attend Mr Lee’s funeral. President Nazarbayev sent a message saying, “Kazakhstan will never forget the great contribution of Lee Kuan Yew to building strong friendly relations between our countries.” Such is the reservoir of goodwill that Singapore has developed in Kazakhstan.
The Kazakh officials that I met were also impressed that Mr Lee’s passing did not affect our markets or our economy. The smooth leadership transitions Singapore has had, the absence of corruption, and our strong institutions are key elements of the Singapore story that have impressed the Kazakh leaders. All this creates an opportunity for the Singapore Government, its academic institutions and the private sector to deepen their engagement with Kazakhstan.
At the LKY School, our partnership with the NU has produced a number of benefits. First, it has given us the confidence that we can compete with the best academic institutions in the world. NU is very selective in its choice of partners. The other partner institutions are Cambridge University, University of Pennsylvania, University College London, Duke University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and University of Warwick. In fact, we are the only academic institution from Asia that NU has chosen to partner.
The second benefit is that it has forced many of our professors to ask the “Kazakhstan Question”: How does a country overcome its legacy and its geographical handicaps to develop rapidly? Somewhat paradoxically, resource-rich countries often face a natural handicap. The resource curse drives up costs and makes the rest of the economy uncompetitive.
The few countries that have developed rapidly in the decades after World War II have done so through export-led industrialisation. This was how Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore did it, and how China has been succeeding in the last three decades. But geography and a low population density make it extremely difficult for Kazakhstan to pursue the same development strategy.
Contemplating the “Kazakhstan Question” should also help Singaporeans realise that both geography and history have not been completely unkind to Singapore.
When one goes to Kazakhstan and understands its developmental challenges, one can appreciate Singapore’s geographical advantages. History, too, has had a mostly benign influence on us.
The British established Singapore as a free port. They also endowed us with a workable administration and the rule of law. The first generation of Singapore’s leaders built on that legacy and created one of the most effective states in the world. This achievement is now a source of growth and learning for other countries, as the LKY School is discovering in Kazakhstan.
The writer is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. This opinion first appeared in The Straits Times and is reprinted here with permission.