A growing number of academics and officials from China have been visiting Singapore to study its policies and development experience. Insight looks at what the fascination is all about
By Leong Weng Kam
HE MADE his first trip here six years ago. It was a week-long packaged tour to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand with a group of fellow tourists from China.
On that trip in 2002, Professor Lu Yuanli from Shenzhen University in Guangdong, China, spent two days sightseeing in Singapore.
It was just enough for him to catch a glimpse of the country that he had written about in a book he published in Chinese earlier that same year.
The book - Asian Values: Annotated Studies On Singapore Politics - was based on research and reference material, not from any first-hand experience of having visited Singapore and interacted with movers, shakers and citizens here.
So when Prof Lu, 47, arrived on his 2002 trip, and despite a packed two-day itinerary, he made time to go to the Bras Basah Complex in North Bridge Road where he got his hands on all the books on Singapore that he could find in the Chinese-language bookshops there.
'I was very excited because I was able to see what I had written about earlier, and found that the real Singapore was even better than I had imagined,' he tells Insight in a telephone interview from his Shenzhen office.
Prof Lu had been teaching at the university's Contemporary Chinese Politics Research Institute. It was there that he began his research and started writing academic papers on what made a tiny country like Singapore, with a then-population of no more than four million, tick.
Since that first visit in 2002, he has made at least four more visits, all lasting much longer - from two-week stays to almost a year.
During those trips, he visited think-tanks, tertiary institutions, media organisations and met politicians and academics.
His last visit was a year ago, when he came to deliver a lecture at Singapore Press Holdings, organised by Lianhe Zaobao, the Chinese-language daily.
He was also here to promote a two-volume publication - his latest on Singapore - Why Can Singapore Do It?
The books examine the one-party dominance of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), and the reasons behind Singapore's success in maintaining a harmonious, multiracial society.
He also met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who wrote the foreword to his two-volume book.
The books are now widely read by political leaders, government officials, students and academics all over China.
Earlier last year, Prof Lu also co-authored and published another book on Singapore with three other academics from Guangdong - Merlion Politics: Governance By Singapore's Ruling Party.
A graduate of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) Central School in Beijing, he has been a lecturer and researcher on South-east Asian countries at Shenzhen University since 1994.
Prof Lu's focus on Singapore is not an isolated case.
He is among a growing number of Chinese academics who have developed an interest in studying Singapore's rapid economic growth, political stability and harmonious social order in recent years.
This is because these and other characteristics have made Singapore an attractive model for China's future development.
Since the early 1990s, at least two dozen books on Singapore have been published in China. These have been written by academics from different Chinese universities and stem mainly from the doctoral theses that they completed.
The areas they cover range from Singapore's economic development, political system and public administration to its foreign policies and growth of the social and cultural spheres.
Much of this interest has also been encouraged by the central government in Beijing, Prof Lu says.
He notes that funding for research projects on Singapore has been far more easy to come by than for projects involving any other country.
Prof Lu, whose own interest in Singapore began in 1996 when he was preparing to teach an undergraduate course on politics and public administration in South-east Asian countries, says he found the country 'fascinating' compared to others in South-east Asia.
'We learn about concepts and ideas to make things work. But there are practical lessons too - like why there is no traffic congestion in the city, and how the grassroots groups are organised, and about urban planning,' he explained in a recent interview with Lianhe Zaobao.
The importance of good industrial relations is another lesson that officials have picked up from Singapore.
'In the West, they advocate antagonism between management and labour. But in Singapore, the Government encourages cooperation.'
He has now gone a step further than his peers. With the support of his university in Shenzhen, he has set up the Centre for Singapore Studies there.
It is the first centre of its kind in China.
To mark its official opening last Saturday, the university and the East Asian Institute (EAI) of the National University of Singapore held a two-day international conference on the Singapore experience and China's 30 years of reform and development.
Seven speakers from Singapore presented papers on Singapore, together with 30 academics from China and Hong Kong.
EAI's research director John Wong, who has been made the centre's honorary director, tells Insight that China's fascination with Singapore's development began with the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's celebrated tour of South China in early 1992.
He had singled out Singapore as a country that achieved both rapid economic growth and good social order - what CCP officials later referred to as jing shen wen min or 'spiritual civilisation'.
Following Mr Deng's remarks, the CCP sent a high-level delegation to Singapore in July that year, led by a deputy minister, Mr Xu Weicheng.
The aim was to 'observe and investigate' the reasons for Singapore's success.
Over 400 more delegations from various government departments and public organisations all over the country were reported to have come to Singapore between 1992 and 1994 alone.
And delegations have been coming ever since.
Most are interested in Singapore's social and institutional development, including the success of its public housing programme, the Central Provident Fund scheme, the legal system and the virtually corruption-free civil service.
To help senior officials gain in-depth knowledge of Singapore's success, the Nanyang Technological University started a Master of Science in managerial economics programme, specially for top government officials from China, in 1998.
This was followed by a Master of Public Administration programme in 2005.
To date, over 600 top Chinese government officials have graduated from the two programmes, better known as shi zhang ban or the 'Mayors' Programme'.
Another 128 are currently attending the two full-time courses, each of a year's duration.
Former Member of Parliament Lau Ping Sum, 68, the executive director at the PAP headquarters who gave an update of the party's renewal programme at last week's conference in Shenzhen, also traces China's interest to the 1978 visit here by Mr Deng.
He pointed to the extensive knowledge that Chinese scholars built up about Singapore since then, and the many books and articles published about the political and economic systems here.
He says: 'I think they are interested in us because of our very pragmatic approach, which is a hybrid of the Western and Asian models which they find useful.'
Chinese scholars, including Prof Lu, say it was no coincidence that Mr Deng announced China's open-door policy and economic reforms soon after his Singapore trip.
He had been impressed by what he saw, especially in how the country benefited from trade and foreign investments.
Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the EAI, Dr Yang Mu, 62, who spoke on Singapore's governance at the Shenzhen conference, believes that the close economic relations which developed between China and Singapore are another reason for the Chinese academics' interest in tiny Singapore.
Bilateral trade reached $91.6 billion last year, placing China as Singapore's third-largest trading partner after Malaysia and the European Union.
China is also Singapore's second-largest source of visitors, with 1.1 million arrivals last year. Only neighbouring Indonesia provided more - 1.9 million arrivals.
Dr Yang notes that Singapore is also a popular destination for Chinese students wanting an education abroad.
The number of Chinese students studying in schools and tertiary institutions here has been growing over the years.
It reached 36,000 last year, representing about 25 per cent of the estimated total of 140,000 Chinese students who go to study overseas each year.
'Though Singapore is just a tiny red dot, its influence on China is significant and has surpassed some bigger nations,' Dr Yang adds.
Chinese scholars, including those from Xiamen, Beijing, Henan and Sichuan provinces who undertook research and published books on Singapore, also spoke at the conference.
Among them was Professor Cao Yunhua, 51, director of South-east Asian Studies Centre at Jinan University in Guangdong province. He was among one of China's earliest batches of scholars to undertake research on Singapore.
His first book, on Singapore's 'spiritual civilisation', was published in 1992.
Two other volumes followed: One was an overview of Singapore's economic success, and the other a case study of Singapore as the Switzerland of the East.
Both were published in the latter part of the 1990s.
Asked for the reason for his interest in Singapore, he explains: 'Though Singapore is a small nation, we shared several similarities.
'Both are one-party dominant states and Singapore, with its ethnic Chinese population in the majority, is also the only one outside China, Hong Kong and Taiwan ruled by an ethnic Chinese leader since its founding in 1965.'
Prof Cao, who has been visiting Singapore annually since the early 1990s, says that Singapore's first prime minister and now Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is also the subject of great interest among Chinese scholars.
In fact, Shenzhen University's Prof Lu is currently working on a compilation of MM Lee's speeches over the years and may hold a conference focusing on the thoughts and ideas of Mr Lee, whom he describes as the 'Father of modern Singapore'.
Another scholar, Professor Li Luqu, 49, from the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, said his interest in Singapore's governance began when he was doing his master's degree at Shanxi University in the late 1980s.
Says Prof Li, who wrote and published a book on Singapore's road to modernisation in 1996: 'That was the era of the Four Asian Dragons, also known as newly industrialised economies, comprising Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. So it was a hot topic for research for students like myself.'
He chose Singapore as it was the only appropriate example among the four to do a research paper on at the time.
Hong Kong was out because it was still a British colony; Taiwan could not be considered as it was viewed by China as a breakaway province; and in the case of South Korea, the country was seen as being too pro-America, and it had no diplomatic relations with China until 1993.
Prof Li says interest in Singapore's success among Chinese academics was at fever pitch from the mid-1990s onwards, following the establishment of the Singapore-Suzhou Industrial Park in 1994.
Currently, much of the interest in Singapore is being generated among Chinese scholars in the southern province of Guangdong.
This follows the appointment last year of Mr Wang Yang, 53, as the new party secretary there.
He visited Singapore recently and is known for having called on Guangdong province to not just learn from Singapore but to 'surpass Singapore'.
In the first eight months of this year alone, the province has sent 3,000 of its officials on study trips here. More are expected to follow.
He has told provincial officials that leading cities in southern China must restructure their economies if they want to move forward.
How can they do that?
His advice: 'Singapore has been independent since 1965. Its economy today is still more vibrant than the economy in Guangdong. So if you don't know how to restructure the economy, go and learn from Singapore.'
[I have no doubts that China can surpass Singapore. The challenge is for Singapore to reinvent itself to stay relevant. To continue to be a player by adding value where others cannot or cannot do as well.]