Tongan Politics Analysis 3:Tongan Economic Transformation:Look to Singapore

King Siaosi Tupou VI’s recent visit to the Republic of Singapore−where His Majesty saw the country’s phenomenal economic success–should inspire HM to urge lawmakers in Parliament to transform Tonga’s economic struggles along Singapore’s examples

Wrapping up the official Royal Visit, HM met with Dr. Amy Khor, Singapore’s Minister of Health (see Analysis 1, on health); Dr. Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, Minister of Education, and Social and Family Development (see Analysis 2, on education).

On the economic front, HM “received briefings on Singapore’s experience in heritage preservation, tourism development, and port management,” says a news release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This exposure to Singapore’s phenomenal successes in economics is vital statistics for a Tongan economic transformation.

Tourism and port management are important to Tonga. However, tourism is of a different nature in each country. Modern hotels are in great supply in Singapore, for example, while Tonga lacks international standard hotels. In 2015, 15 million international tourists visited Singapore; three times more visitors than their five million population. In 2014, 50,000 visitors visited Tonga; half the Kingdom’s population (The World Bank).

A Tale of Two Island Nations

This argument is based on a futuristic vision for Tonga. It might seem an impossible task comparing Tonga’s hand-to-mouth subsistence economy to Singapore’s world-class financial wonder, and well-lubricated technological machine. But both countries do share a few similarities to draw a fair comparison.

Both countries have no natural resources to bless either one with a significant natural economic advantage. They are both island nations of about the same land-mass size: That Singapore is a city-state, it has 277.6 square miles (719.1 square km) of clustered islets; Tonga has 288.8 square miles (730 square km) of scattered islands.

Both countries are former British Protectorates. They were both poor economies at the time of gaining independence: Singapore in 1959; Tonga in 1970. Great Britain removed all foreign-administration responsibilities – foreign trade negotiations, military protection, etc. – leaving both countries to sink or swim.

While over 70% of Singapore’s population was poor, 50% illiterate, and mostly ghetto squatters, Tonga was a well-fed subsistence economy with proud historical traditions, 98% literacy, and with a promising future in exporting copra (coconut products) and bananas − courtesy of the British Protectorate. Hence, the copra and banana markets dried up, and they have since struggled with the realities of economic shocks (natural disasters, government bureaucracy, corruptions) in a small market economy. 

Can Singapore Inspire a Tongan Economic Transformation?

But while Tonga basks in the sunshine, enjoying their laid-back, easy lifestyle and preserving their traditional customs, Singapore made difficult decisions. Faced with tough competition from China, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and neighboring Malaysia, Singapore forged their own brand of financial success.

Ease of Doing Business: Encouraging business growth Singapore welcomed foreign investments to invigorate business activities. Local and foreign merchants found a friendly home in Singapore to grow their businesses developing both exports and imports. Today, Singapore leads the world in this category. Global business giants have brought their headquarters here, and are investing in the Singapore economy.

Tongans on the other hand are xenophobic in nature preferring to do things their own way with a distrustful opinion of foreigners. 

Educate A Skilled Labour Force: From Day 1 of their independence, Singapore established English as their official language, and adopted the British education system. Although Chinese is spoken by 70% of the population, English rules. Their students have scored in the highest bracket in international examinations. Their current school system is educated under the 21st century mantra, “Teach Less, Learn More.” Additionally, technology is an integral part of the classroom curriculum.

Today, Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Põhiva, who is also the Minister of Education, deplores technology being taught in the classroom. He wants “morality” and “good citizenship” become the main curriculum core of studies.

Meanwhile, unemployment is high at 30%, and the poverty level is at 24% for Tonga. Talk about misplaced priorities, but Tongan policymakers must study Singapore's path to glory, which according to Albert Einstein: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." − Albert Einstein.


(Photo of root crops at the market and article by Sione A. Mokofisi, a syndicated journalist living in Tonga. He’s Director of English, Journalism & Business Management at Tonga International Academy, and he holds a MBA from the University of Phoenix-Arizona; BS from BYU-Hawaii. However, his opinions do not always reflect the editorial policy of this Website. E-mail:    


Sione Mokofisi