THE LESSONS THAT MANAGERS CAN LEARN FROM SINGAPORE
September 23, 2013 13 Comments
I have been a big fan of Singapore, and in particular of its founder Dr. Lee Kwan Yew, since I first visited the island in 1977. I had the privilege of living and working there for over 6 years, before being transferred to Europe, and after an absence of more than 10 years, I recently revisited this vibrant, exciting city state for a week for a family reunion, and also for some of the best food in the world.
I loved the energy and the sense of purpose, and I also realised that there are many things that people in management positions can learn from Singapore and from Dr. Lee.
Build a vision … I am not talking about the importance of a “vision statement”, which most companies have proudly posted on their web sites, and which usually only state what companies tend to believe their markets want to see (see “The 3 great business lies” posted August 2, 2010), but a true roadmap of where to go, and of what has to be done to get there. When Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, and became an independent republic, it was a tiny, impoverished island port with a population of under 2 million. In the following 50 years it built its population to a well-educated 5.5 million, built a world class reputation for transparency and integrity, and become one of the wealthiest nations in the world on a per capita basis. Just like Dr. Lee, as a business leader you need to have a clear plan of what it is you wish to achieve, how you plan to do this, and how you will enlist the wholehearted support and commitment of your people, making sure to take them with you on the journey.
Look after your people … After independence in 1965 a major emphasis was placed on building programmes to overcome serious housing shortages, coupled with financial incentives that enabled citizens to easily purchase their government provided housing, resulting in one of the highest home ownership numbers in the world, and propelling many ordinary people into high asset wealth. My PA in Singapore sold the family home inherited from her parents for over S$6 million, and moved to Australia for a life of comfort in her retirement. In the almost 50 years since its independence Singapore’s economy has grown by an average of 9% annually, improving the lot of its people from an economic, education, healthcare and all quality of life viewpoints, and continues to do so each year. It has now attained a life expectancy that has reached 4th position in the world for males and 2nd position for females. In business, achieving results is critical, but you must look after your people along the way. Rewards and success must be shared throughout the entire team, and not just a few individuals.
Build a solid working environment … Dr. Lee was once questioned about his view of what he considered to be the most important inventions of the 20th Century. He answered that for Singapore, a country with a daily temperature of 34C with 100% humidity, it had been “air conditioning”, as it finally enabled Singapore workers to compete with the west. Dr. Lee established English as the primary language of Singapore, reasoning that if Singapore was to take its place on the world business stage, it needed to be able to speak the business language. It now has 4 official languages being English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, but English remains the language of education, business and government. As a manager you must ensure that you build the conditions, and provide the resources that are needed to enable your team to achieve its goals and to be successful.
Build Talent … After independence, quality education for all was established immediately, and the government also began an accelerated programme of overseas assignments and learning for its best and brightest, ensuring that capable people were exposed to the latest business, scientific and technological thought and innovation which could be re-imported back into Singapore to help accelerate the development of the island state. In too many companies, managers limit training and development for their people based on the fact that if you spend time and money to educate them they may then leave. A significantly worse alternative is that you do not educate them, and they stay. Those managers who feel that education is expensive should consider the cost of ignorance.
Bring in missing skills … From day one, Singapore welcomed skilled, knowledgeable expatriates and mixed them into the local government and business communities to not only use their skills and experience, but also to help “infect” the locals. During my time in Singapore, I spent 2 years as a board member of IDA (Infocomm Development Authority), which had responsibility for helping to establish and develop Singapore’s competitive positioning in Telecoms and Technology. It was an eclectic blend of people from Public and private sector, both Singaporean and Foreign, and unlike some other Government boards that I have served on, was actually listened to, with its recommendations implemented at private sector speeds. In business you need to first look at developing the needed skills and capabilities in your own people, but there are times when you need to go outside for missing skills. It is a sign of strength for managers to know when they need to ask for help.
Use story telling … Some foreigners saw Singapore as a repressive and authoritarian environment, driven mainly by the amount of press, mosly in the US, that was accorded to the banning of chewing gum, and the high fines for littering, even for something as small as a cigarette butt, both being initiatives that I fully endorsed. However, I found few restrictions to my quality of life when I lived in a clean, green, beautifully maintained, low crime environment. The reality is that populace behaviour was controlled less by edict and more by fable and storytelling. For example, there was a thriving black market in Viagra in Singapore before the Food and Drug Authority had had a chance to validate its use. One day a story appeared in the Straits Times daily newspaper describing the plight of a man who had used a questionably acquired form of Viagra and as a result had been rendered impotent. The Viagra black market died overnight. Great business leaders can benefit from telling compelling stories and doing so frequently. Stories have a significant impact on our lives. Our memory consists of lots of stories. When we talk about things we remember they are usually in the form of a story. We primarily communicate through stories.
As Lee Kwan Yew said “Mine is a very matter-of-fact approach to the problem. If you can select a population and they’re educated and they’re properly brought up, then you don’t have to use too much of the stick because they would already have been trained.”