Malays have also imbibed the same mindset to acquire knowledge and compete
By Li Xueying
IN making Singapore into a knowledge-based economy, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said he had the 'great advantage' of a population that includes the ethnic Chinese and the Indians, both with cultures that place great emphasis on knowledge.
'So I had a population that was eager and voracious to acquire knowledge and education,' he said. 'Without that, we would not have taken the easy leaps we did,' MM Lee told 300 business leaders and government officials at the Global Competitiveness Conference on Tuesday.
And while the Malay community did not initially have that same culture, they have - through inter-mingling with their neighbours - imbibed the same mindset, he added.
Today, there is a new Malay generation that has 'learnt to compete'.
'They see what their Chinese and Indians neighbours are doing with their children... emphasise on education and learning math and science, and their performance have come up,' said Mr Lee.
He cited Singapore's experience to make the point that the Saudis will have to also change their mindsets as they move to ratchet up their economic competitiveness.
'You have to move from a bedouin culture into the modern world, into the knowledge society,' he told the audience.
'Your first problem is how do you get your people to understand that you can't just live a quite happy peaceful childhood and suddenly you grow up and you acquire knowledge. Education is like training a violinist or a pianist - you got to start very early, pick up the urge to want to learn.'
Taking 10 questions that were variations on the same theme - what should Saudi Arabia do to become more competitive - Mr Lee said the resource-rich country should leverage on its revenues to reform now.
'This is the modern world where you have an untold, unbelievable opportunities to convert your oil and gas resources into a modern civilisation.'
This is what he would do if he is a Saudi given the task: 'I'd say, what makes me relevant to the rest of the world - not my sand, my camels, my dates, but my oil, and that's a scarce resource so let's not waste it,' said MM Lee.
He said he would move away from industries that extract oil for cheap energy. Instead, there are others that 'maximise' its value - for instance land and air transportation, plastic and resins, and other 'new discoveries that you can make out of oil'.
'It's how you manage those reserves,' he said. 'You're not going to build new cities all the time, you'll have to learn to invest in them judicously worldwide.'
Touching on social mores, Mr Lee also said that the country must educate its total population including the women, in a way that does not upset the social balance. It should also try to retain its foreign talent.
Mr Lee cited how Dubai allows its foreigners to live how they like. Saudi Arabia will have to find a way to allow its foreigners 'live a Dubai-type of life'.
For instance, while the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology will have a gated enclave, a university cannot exist in a vaccum without stimuli from the outside world, he observed.
Speaking to the Singapore media later, Mr Lee, who last visited the country two years ago, gave his impressions of the country.
'They're building at a very fast pace. The key for them is to have the people who will manage and run the system to catch up with the speed of the building,' he noted.
On criticisms from the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority governor Amr Al-Dabbagh who said Singapore companies are not aggressive enough in investing, he said: 'This is a new country for us. We don't speak their language, we don't understand the intricacies of the system and we got to know where are the advantages we can go into which will be needed by them.'
In 2006, Mr Lee said Singapore companies have a window of five to seven years to enter the Middle East market.
On the progress made so far, he noted that Singapore companies are 'making more progress in the smaller Gulf states' such as Abu Dhabi and Qatar where a simple ruling structure is in place.
'Here you got, I don't know how many, hundred princes, royal princesses and different divisions of authority about who's in charge of what. So you got to find your way around.'
Mr Lee returned to Singapore on Wednesday.