When Singapore gained independence in 1959, its literacy and morbidity rates—two important measures of human capital—were similar to those of other lower-middle-income countries. In 1960, the port city-state’s per capita gross domestic product was US$428, less than the world average of US$453 and less than one-sixth that of the United States. There was little reason to expect that this small country (716 square kilometers in area) would become a world leader in the health and education of its people.
Modernizing the economy and achieving prosperity required building and harnessing Singapore’s human capital. The government charted a new path for Singapore, adopting a fast-paced industrialization strategy to create employment for an unskilled workforce and generate export earnings. Implementing that plan required overcoming fundamental challenges such as ethnic tension, high unemployment, regional instability, and turmoil caused by Britain’s withdrawal from the former colony. From these difficult and uncertain beginnings, Singapore would attain the highest score of any country in the world in the World Bank’s 2018 Human Capital Index, which took into account several health and education indicators.
This delivery note examines some of the strategic decisions and policies that contributed to Singapore’s success, with attention to the “whole of government” approach that, according to the Human Capital Project, can overcome challenges countries face in developing their human capital. The three elements of this approach are continuity (sustaining effort across political cycles), coordination (ensuring that sectoral programs and agencies work together), and evidence (expanding and using the evidence base to improve and update human capital strategies).