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Singapore a lesson for subpar countries - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

It would seem a cliché to say Singapore has figured it out. But it has, more or less, especially when compared to its subpar neighbours.

Take Singapore Airlines. It is the island-state's flagship national carrier under majority ownership of Temasek Holdings, the country's sovereign wealth fund. Like other major legacy carriers with a large fleet and costly overheads being pressed by low-cost and peer competitors, Singapore Airlines is forced to find innovative ways to overcome mounting challenges.

One of those ways is evident at Bangkok's main Suvarnabhumi airport. As one of the busiest air transport hubs in the world, it is poorly managed but remains popular because of Thailand's location and value for money.

What Singapore Airlines has done, essentially, is carve out its own sanctuary at the sprawling airport, where the contact gates can require long walking distances.

This is also a major global airport that regularly used bus gates, almost from the day it opened for commercial operations in 2005. The most convenient gates for arrival and departure are on the D Concourse, particularly gates D4-D8, because they are within view of immigration desks. Frequent travellers with enough air miles will also notice that Singapore has built a brand new airline lounge in front of gate D7. This lounge practically offers a spacious restaurant service, and is now possibly the best of its kind in the entire airport, certainly far superior than Thai Airways' overlapping and inefficient lounges.

All flights beginning with SQ, the airline's two-character code, take off and land from the D gates. Outbound passengers leaving SQ's lounge are just steps away from their flight, as opposed to passengers of other airlines who typically need to trek several hundred metres or more to embark. Travel to and from Singapore is now most convenient on SQ.

What Singapore Airlines has done at Bangkok's main airport is just a microcosm of what Singapore has done so well more broadly. Its university education system is now the best in Asia, competitive with the best of the US and UK. How can it be that Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is ranked 12th in the world and second in Asia? Ahead of NTU is the National University of Singapore, 11th in the world and first in Asia. These two have been around for three to four decades, whereas Thai universities have been around longer but with declining rankings.

The answer is Singapore does it through merit. While its students are mostly Singaporean, NTU's faculty is multinational. Teachers are held to the highest international standards. The university pays top money to attract top teaching and research talent from around the world. As a result, its workforce is equipped with skills and requirements to be competitive and innovative in the 21st century. Investing in and cultivating top universities has enabled Singapore to forge and fuse synergies and complementarities among teaching, research, policy and ideas in a collegial atmosphere.

The Singapore government also ranks near the very top in the world for integrity and performance. According to Transparency International, its rule of law and anti-corruption scores are consistently in the top 10 alongside New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries.

And the island's democratic institutions are going strong. After its founder and patriarch Lee Kuan Yew passed away, the political process and democratic rule continued to function as soundly as before. The elder Lee son and current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is poised to step aside for new leadership to take over. After the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) lost popular support in the 2011 election, it listened, responded, regained electoral ground and trounced the opposition in the 2015 polls.

Cynicism is rife, not least among Singaporeans. Many will note that the PAP has benefited from gerrymandering and electoral manipulation. They will say that the country is managed by a connected web of elites, that its laws and regulations are rigid. Perhaps Mr Lee will step aside so his offspring will take over. While many outsiders will say Singapore is a soft authoritarian state, regional regimes have tilted to authoritarianism so much that Singapore may now have the steadiest democratic rule in the region.

Thais who see Singapore up close and personal can only reflect out of concern. Thai universities are becoming second- and third-rate. Malaysia's universities have also climbed up steadily in the global rankings. Yet there seems no sense of urgency or crisis for Thai universities to shape up. At the secondary level, the education minister recently insinuated the world has to adjust to Thailand, not Thailand competing to excel globally. He wants the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which conducts periodic tests on maths, science, and reading on 15-year-olds in multiple countries, to be more lenient with Thai students. As for anti-corruption and Transparency International, Thailand pulled out of this global body earlier this year.

Thailand has been at a standstill, which may lead to stagnation if it becomes prolonged without a way forward. It has been 13 years since Thailand's political conflict and polarisation began in earnest with street protests that have become recurrent. The Thai economy has been expanding but most will admit that it is subpar for a country with much greater potential. When Thai state-owned enterprises can do what Singapore Airlines has smartly done with its gates and lounge at Suvarnabhumi airport, it will be a sign that Thailand is on the mend.