Just under two years ago Singapore re-elected the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), handing it an 11th consecutive term in office. Lee Hsien Loon, the son of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, continues into his ninth year in office as prime minister, unimpeded. What does this South East Asian island state of just over five million people but less than one tenth the geographic size of Jamaica have in common?
Singapore became a self-governing state in 1959, declared independence from the British in 1963, and entered into a federation with its neighbour Malaysia, with which it shares many commonalities a short while after. Following heated squabbles between the Singaporean and Malaysian political directorates, Singapore in 1965 was separated from the federation and had to fend for itself.
Lee Kuan Yew is, without a doubt, one of the world’s most successful transformational leaders. He is the veritable bulwark for what Singapore is today. The country is very small, densely populated and constantly uptight about its vulnerabilities. Lee, elected into government at the age of 35 in 1959, set out on an incredible journey, turning a one-time small, uncivil, futureless, fractious, communist-ridden and problem-plagued multi-ethnic island state into now a beaming and prosperous metropolis with a very high standard of living, sharing company with Switzerland, the United States, and Canada.
Lee’s journey is worth exploring and offers Jamaica numerous lessons in how to transform a nation. Strong and decisive leadership is most essential. Leadership, in a rough sense, is the process of social influence whereby an individual can bring about the support of other individuals to achieve tasks or objectives. Jamaica has many leaders, but we lack transformational leaders. Transformational leadership typically involves a charismatic individual who is able to inspire others to perform beyond their usual capacity. A quick glance at academic literature on the subject points to a range of traits and skills embodied by successful leaders worldwide.
Among the typical traits are being adaptable to situations, alert to one’s social environment, ambitious and achievement-oriented, assertive, cooperative, decisive, dependable, dominant (influence others), energetic, persistent, self-confident, tolerant of stress, and willing to assume responsibility.
As it relates to skills, this includes being clever (intelligent), conceptually skilled, creative, diplomatic, fluent, persuasive, socially skilled, knowledgeable about group task, and well organised.
Importantly, a clear vision must form the foundation of transformational leadership; people must know where you are heading.
LEE KUAN YEW
Lee Kuan Yew embodied all these traits and skills. It comes as no surprise then that he managed to move Singapore from a Third World backwater to a gleaming First World metropolis. Jamaica never had a truly transformational leader. Some may have come close. Lee Kuan Yew’s book, From Third World to First, which takes account of Singapore’s transformation through the years, points to an experience he had while attending a 1975 Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Kingston, Jamaica.
He may have lacked political correctness, but his wisdom must be respected. He said, in part: “… Prime Minister Michael Manley, a light-skinned West Indian, presided with panache and spoke with great eloquence. But I found his views quixotic. He advocated a redistribution of the world’s wealth. His country, a well-endowed island, … with several mountains in the centre, where coffee and other subtropical crops are grown. They had beautiful holiday resorts built by Americans as winter homes … . Chinese, Indians and even black Jamaican professionals felt there was no future under the left-wing socialist government of Michael Manley. The policies of the government were ruinous … . Thereafter, I read the news of Jamaica with greater understanding.”
Michael Manley, though imbued with many of the traits and skills to make a truly transformational leader, blew a huge opportunity.
Singapore’s success is renowned in view of the extraordinary challenges faced by it. It’s roughly the size of the parish of St James with a population almost twice the size of Jamaica’s. It had no natural resources and a limited domestic market. There were regular flashes of racial upheavals among its three main ethnic groups: the Chinese, Malays and Indians. Unemployment hovered at around 14 per cent in the mid-1960s with limited industries to sustain good middle-class paying jobs.
The British used Singapore as a nodal point in its maritime empire contributing 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), 30,000 jobs, 40,000 indirect jobs and occupying around 11 per cent of Singapore’s land area. The withdrawal of such a mighty contributor to the economy in the late 1960s spelled gloom to many Singaporeans already vulnerable to the large and well-endowed countries surrounding them, including Malaysia and Indonesia.
Lee Kuan Yew assembled some of the brightest minds he could find and set about to leapfrog the region and make Singapore a First World oasis in the Third World. He encapsulated that vision into one simple guiding principle for survival. Singapore must be more rugged, better organised and more efficient than others in the region. In his usually candid and practical assessments, he argued that if Singapore was as good as its neighbours, there was no reason for businesses to be based there.
There were some major initiatives that bore tremendous success. Education is taken very seriously. English became mandatory in all schools to ensure that Singapore wasn’t competitively stunted by inability to speak English. Singapore was cleaned up and today its capital ranks among the cleanest cities in the world. Lee Kuan Yew stressed the importance of integrity and honesty in government. Over many years, members of his administrations have been imprisoned or expelled for corruption. One prominent minister, in the 1980s, committed suicide after an embarrassing corruption ordeal. Incidentally, Singapore prides itself on attracting the best and brightest to political representation and its ministers and other senior officials are the highest paid in the world; its prime minister gets around US$1.7 million per year, while Cabinet ministers earn just under a US$1 million per year. Transparency International ranks Singapore among the least corrupt countries in the world.
Significantly, the establishment of the Economic Development Board (EDB) in 1961 as a one-stop agency for investors, eliminating the usual bureaucratic craters in many other countries where one has to scramble from various agencies and ministries to achieve one thing, was a success. The agency also had specific concentrations in industries to be accommodated. The EDB is essentially an enhanced version of JAMPRO. Much of Singapore’s success is linked to this one-stop agency.
Another major initiative was the creation of an international financial centre for Singapore. In 1960s Singapore, this was viewed as highly improbable and attributable to the thoughts of a mad dreamer. After all, Singapore was a Third World backwater well below the financial centre titans of New York City, Hong Kong and London. In record time, the government aggressively developed a financial centre, putting in place the relevant policies and regulatory framework to speed up its development. It also worked to reinforce rule of law, an independent justice system, stable and honest government and sound macroeconomic policies.
The trade union movement also went through significant transition to being more consensus-driven and less disruptive. This caused some controversy. The media and opposition parties, though free, complained about its restrictive environment. Singapore’s political directorate is known to sue persons who they perceive to have sullied their character. This has caused some opposition members to go bankrupt. Lee Kuan Yew views it as essential to preserving the integrity upon which government can effectively lead the nation.
Many would argue that Jamaica cannot replicate what Singapore has done. There are too many differences, they argue. They are both right and wrong. While there exist some differences, we can certainly mould and shape some of their initiatives and transplant them here in Jamaica. We may not share the East Asian Confucian values that enabled countries like Singapore to aggressively and speedily pursue development without some of the standard constraints of Western liberal-style democracy.
Lee Kuan Yew stressed: “… Freedom could only exist in an orderly state, not when there was continuous contention or anarchy. In Eastern societies, the main objective is to have a well-ordered society so that everyone can enjoy freedom to the maximum.”
Interesting food for thought.