As a Singaporean born to Malaysian parents, I frequently hear comparisons about the 2 countries, especially about the competence of its governments. I just accepted those comparisons at face value, taking them as a given. Various reasons for the difference were casually cast about in family conversations, such as the relative sizes of the 2 nations (smaller = easier to govern), the talent of the leaders etc.
Recently, I read 2 books which coincidentally cast the comparison of the 2 nations in sharp contrast. The first was Billion-Dollar Whale, which my Head of Commercial at Glints read and recommended last year. I picked it up because of the draw of the debauchery and my recent fascination with the darker sides of human nature. It follows the story of Jho Low, of how he plundered Malaysian government funds for personal gains, but really it's a vignette that points to a deeply-rooted problem of corruption in Malaysia where the rot runs to the top.
I can't remember why, but halfway through the book, I pulled out Lee Kuan Yew's From Third World to First from my bookshelf, 15 years after winning it in as a book prize in Secondary 1. I vaguely recall that I had a bout of success in pushing through an envisioned initiative at Glints, and was thus curious how Lee Kuan Yew did that throughout his career at a national scale. I wanted to get a peek into how this highly effective leader's mind ticked.
I got that, but also so much more about the reality of human nature, importance of institutions, the relative role of great men vs the inexorable inevitabilities of external forces in history. I have come to appreciate, in the chronological order that LKY experienced, that Singapore's success is an anomaly. Everything around me that I had taken for granted like getting things done with the government, to a green surroundings to comprehensive infrastructure, were painstakingly debated, planned and invested in with non-trivial risks in capital.