A Modern Marvel

Sajjad Ashraf is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore (NUS), and a Consultant at the Institute of South Asian Studies, an autonomous research institute at NUS. He served in the Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008, and was High Commissioner of Pakistan to Singapore from 2004 to 2008. He is now based in Pakistan but also spends time in Singapore, New York, Dubai and other cities.

SAJJAD ASHRAF reflects on what has contributed to Singapore’s success today and what will keep it going in the future.




ack in 2004, early in my term as Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Singapore, I was asked to describe Singapore, to which I replied: “Sir, manicured and choreographed.”

To me, these two words define Singapore’s extraordinary rise. When you live in Singapore, you sense the multiple layers of excellence that pervade its society. They reflect the best of what it means to be “manicured” and the ease with which it is to be “choreographed”.

For a visitor, the seamless arrival one experiences at Changi Airport defies description. From the lush green road networks with people driving in sync, to the tree and shrub-lined public housing estates and shopping areas; there is no abrupt shift in visual experience.

It is all manicured to the finest detail and choreographed to produce amazing rhythm. The public transport network is like blood running through Singapore’s veins; a functioning system keeps it all moving.

You discover what the secret to this is – the citizen, who is central to the planning, development and delivery of its policies and infrastructure. The bedrock of Singapore’s societal structure is based on public good over individual rights, the antithesis to Western values of individualism. Communitycentred ethical values, instilled by its early leadership, are amongst Singapore’s strengths.

Reason, reality and pragmatism guide Singapore’s public policy choices. The test for policies is not ideology but whether they can work.

I have come to love Singapore for its values, work ethics and more. I still spend a good amount of time here on my research and speaking commitments and, more importantly, nurturing the friendships I’ve made. It is emotionally hard for me to talk of Singapore as a memory. The country remains a living experience for me.

“Singaporeʼs fi rst prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, persuaded Singaporeans to raise their abilities to meet the heights of their goals. I live by this Singapore inspiration.”


This is a delicately poised society where different religions, races and languages blend well together. The Singapore Pledge, crafted by one of its founding fathers, S Rajaratnam, instils a commitment into everyone to overcome combustible differences to build a united nation. It forms the basis of today’s Singapore.

While other societies were comfortable with lowering goals to match their abilities, Singapore’s first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, persuaded Singaporeans to raise their abilities to meet the heights of their goals. I live by this Singapore inspiration.

A proactive and nimble government that taps the best people in the prime of their lives is unique to Singapore. Its emphasis on a top quality public service as a critical ingredient of its service delivery turned Singapore, within a human lifetime, into one of the most successful societies in the world.

There is no compromise on integrity. Meritocracy allows Singapore to punch above its weight.

The result? Singapore is at the top of the list when it comes to economic freedom, and the least corrupt in the region. In a globalised world, no nation can live in a cocoon. Singapore will need to make sure that religious and ethnic harmony remain key components of its future.

It must do all it can to remain a place of opportunities where dreams are realised.

Times are changing and Singapore needs to keep pace. Involving more youth in the Singapore story will make for a more dynamic, inclusive and robust nation.

They would do well to remember what Singapore’s former foreign minister, George Yeo, once said: “Whether we do big things or small things, it doesn’t matter; make a difference, and make it a better world.”




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