MEXICO CITY — Singapore and India are as different as can be: order and disorder, government and its absence, planning and chaos. Yet these two radically different worlds have their similarities, in spite of appearances. After a week-long study group that took place in each country, it was easy to conclude that both had big lessons to teach my own country, Mexico.
One particularly significant conclusion I drew is that development can be planned down to its tiniest detail, as often happens in Singapore and China, or it can follow several broad but well-appointed strategies. These can slowly pave the way for positive change that becomes unstoppable, as everyone in the country comes to adopt them with conviction and enthusiasm.
These schools churn out some one million graduates a year
My first lesson was the scale and depth of the integration happening in the region. Were it not for the oceanic waters between them, regional productive processes appear indistinguishable from those in the United States. Components made in Japan are joined to others from Taiwan and Singapore, and further integrated in Vietnam and Bangladesh before their final assembly in China. And while many economic activities and sectors function independently, figures tell the story of a regional industrial economy that keeps producing more and raising revenues in all countries.
It is no coincidence that President Donald J. Trump's attacks on China should be unnerving people throughout Asia. Changes to trade patterns would disproportionately affect Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam, all of which are close U.S. allies. As one Japanese member of our group said, it is paradoxical that a country that has historically worked to build and keep stability in the region should now have become the biggest factor of instability in the world. Mexicans, of course, can sympathize with that position.
The most interesting part of what I learned that week however came from India. While wealth differences inside the country remain as severe as ever, one notes a positive, hopeful social atmosphere that contrasts radically with Mexico. In one of the many engineering schools that have become key to explaining India's 7.5% growth rate and its social mobility, 90% of students were from families from the very poorest sectors of society. These schools churn out some one million graduates a year.
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India, a nation both eminently democratic and full of poor people, is one of the world's most complex countries, with marked diversity and an array of ethnic and religious groups across regions with different kinds of resources. In contrast with China, where vertical control is implacable and reforms are implemented top-down, India seems dispersed and almost ungovernable. But while each reform requires years before it is approved, once done, its implementation is far less complicated as its components were already negotiated and processed. This year for example, a general VAT sale-tax rate will come into effect, making internal tariffs obsolete. This reform is the fruit of 15 years of negotiations.
And while India is far more complex than Mexico, it has lessons for it. For a start, India has not endured "great" reforms approved in camera. Its reforms have been important but the most crucial changes here have been the product of separate initiatives, which taken together have unleashed growth. Many argue that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent reforms were possible because of everything else happening at that time. His efforts to resolve problems (like taxation) have hastened processes that were already underway. That is, his leadership has not come from some unique enlightenment or inspiration, but rather was the fruit of working to untie ancestral knots.
India's engineering and scientific schools, which are both state-run and private, are not centers of academic excellence but factories of technical abilities and know-how that have built the foundations of an impressive service economy. The number of beneficiaries may be small for now in relative terms, with the country's middle class numbering some 300 million, out of a population of 1.3 billion. But other indicators may matter more in the long run, including the number of applicants for these schools, and their contagious desire for betterment once they graduate and their faith in the democratic process. The contrast in all this with Mexico is dramatic.
My biggest lesson here? That small things end up making the biggest difference.
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