Sat, 03 Apr 2004

Leadership and national character: Singapore's experience

Aziz Alumnus Economics department University of Indonesia Kuala Kencana, Irian Jaya

Amid numerous polls and surveys, the race for Indonesian leadership (presidency) in 2004 general election does not offer a new, refreshed hope for the people of Indonesia. It is accordingly logical that to most Indonesian people, the general election merely means a big "fiesta" (music show and parade) and collecting little mementos (t-shirts and other party giveaways); a luxury they hardly enjoy in their hard lives. Little is shown by current leaders how they can shape the national character.

And do not be myopic, why not learn from the nearest neighbor, like Singapore? Is there anybody who have really devoted any efforts to study how Singapore could create a nation that is developed with a viable economy in the world? What kind of leadership made it work? In other words, what makes Singapore different from, or precisely better than, other countries in Asia? Singapore has been through an era as a foreign colony, gained independence after World War II, suffered from devastating social riots and struggled against a communist party -- similar circumstances that other Asian countries by and large shared; and even more, unlike some other countries, Singapore does not have abundant natural resources. So what makes it exceptional?

It might be easy to dismiss all the these achievements by saying the small size of that country makes it so manageable. But look at Sri Lanka, Myanmar, or other small countries which have not succeeded as well as Singapore.

On the other hand, by occupying half of the American continent, the United States stands out as the most developed country in the world. Size does not matter. Or would it be because of its population? In the absence of other answers, it probably would. Taken at a closer look, the population of Singapore consists primarily of three broad ethnic groupings: Chinese, Indian and Malay.

But if race is the major driver of Singapore's development, why haven't China, India or Malaysia developed as rapidly? Not quite so. Apparently, Singaporeans, as a whole, are greater than the sum of its parts. There has got to be an explanation somewhere else.

In his biography, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas, Lee, the most influential leader of Singapore, said that contrary to popular belief, Lee founded his leadership on the basis that no person is (born) equal. Some of the parents are rich and some are poor. Some parents are better educated and a few others are illiterate. Some groups of people are willing to work hard, others are less willing. You accept it or you deny it. His notion may be called pragmatism, but that is the way he approached problems: With honesty and objectivity. And though inviting controversy, he openly admitted that most Chinese-Singaporeans have a better work ethic than Malay-Singaporeans.

But when it comes to civil service recruitment especially for higher ranks, Lee does not compromise an inch to attract the best in his society. The recruitment system that apparently inspired was the selection of astronauts chose for the Apollo 13 mission. He was amused that from so many bright people applying for the job, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) had successfully chosen three candidates who turned out to be the most capable of managing the space craft back to earth, after it failed to land on the moon.

What was demonstrated by the three astronauts definitely took a lot more than intelligence or education, because a minute mistake or bad timing could have shot the module into outer space to disappear forever in the galaxy. "How could they do that?" his mind inquired -- and the question was not addressed to the way the astronauts salvaged their journey and saved their own lives. He wondered how NASA got these men with such strong character, poise and will, all of which meant they had the capacity not to crack under extreme pressure; the leadership traits which cannot be easily ascertained during a perusal of the one's CV or via interviews, and so Lee was inspired to strive that kind of recruitment for the civil service.

Why so much emphasis on civil service? According to Lee, development in Singapore, and probably in Asia, requires strong leadership, which is strong government, to produce essential social and political stability. North America and Europe rely on the system of democracy -- with all its checks and balances -- and these systems have been proven to work in those places; but not necessarily in the case of Singapore, which has a different history and context. He was aware that perhaps not everybody agreed with his analysis, but he was determined to stick to it, which turned out to be right. Singapore has become one of the most efficient and least corrupt governments in the world.

But more than a man with vision, Lee is also a hands-on leader. In 1979, he gathered the top brass in his government, and emphasized that although in the past the recruitment was based on ability, disregard of English fluency, he could no longer accept the sloppy use of English in formal work.

He emphasized that, "... that which is written without much effort is seldom read with much pleasure" and nobody was allowed to pen a document without thinking of the pleasure of reading it on the other end. He went on to point out several drafts presented before him that invited criticism for ambiguous meanings or meaningless complex jargon. He urged the officials not to try to impress him with big words, but to impress him with the clarity of their ideas, with clean and clear prose.

On another occasion, Lee told his officials to "make sure that every button works". In his speech before senior civil servants in 1965: "I went to a government bungalow the other day and I pressed a button but nothing happened. When you have a button, there must be a purpose. When you switch it off, the light, for example, must go off. When you want the light on, you make sure you switch it on and it goes on." And he described how he had a telephone installed in his car though he disliked it intensely and rarely used the telephone.

However, every morning the driver had instructions to take the telephone and to test-dial it. "I want to make sure that when I wanted to use it, I would just have to pick it up and it would work. And that is what I want this government to be", he asserted.

Even back in his school days, Lee was known as a meticulous observer. During holiday breaks, he traveled around Europe by train. He noticed how porters in Italy worked somewhat leisurely, and how different it was in Germany where he could sense a dynamism of an emerging nation (after defeat in World War II) and how efficient and diligent the porters were.

From those experiences, when Singapore built Changi airport, he made sure that all cargo and passenger movement went off in the most quick and efficient way. Just as he witnessed in Germany. The result? Hardly anyone is able to argue that Changi has become one of the best international airports in the world.

But the most striking point would be that Lee molded his nation among other Asian countries with the same "raw materials": The people, the location, the natural resources (or lack of it), other capital resources and even the history. The difference is that Lee led his nation with a no-nonsense approach, open and transparent in his policies, adept in adopting modernity and willing to learn from other countries, and developing a firm, as well non-corrupt, personality.

Regrettably the image of Lee among the Indonesia media is that of an arrogant and "nosey" neighbor, instead of a statesman who was able to play the role of CEO (Chief Executive Officer) for Singapore's economic development.

Can we find such quality in our current Indonesian leaders? Is there any of them who is humble enough to learn from this tiny neighbor?