Meritocracy and pragmatism keys to Singapore’s success

Singapore emerged as the real star of the 2019 edition of the WEF report on global competitiveness. To better understand the secrets that allowed the Asian city-state to overtake the US as the most competitive economy in the world, we sat down with professor Kishore Mahbubani, Senior Advisor (University & Global Relations) and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Author of several books and expert on Asia and world affairs, he also served for 33 years in Singapore's diplomatic service.

 

 

Professor Mahbubani, what would you say are the main lessons we learnt from the leadership that transformed Singapore and which we can still apply today?

 

Singapore had three remarkable leaders: Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and Rajaratnam. No country has improved the living standard of its people as quickly and as comprehensively as Singapore did in its first 50 years. When I was dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, I told the students who were coming from all over the world that I would have given them the secrets of Singapore success and I would have done so free of charge. And the secrets are captured in an acronym –MPH – which stands for three words. M for Meritocracy: one reason why Singapore is exceptionally successful is because its leaders tried to get the best possible people to join them in government, so the quality of minds of the leaders matter, but the quality of the minds of the people that are around them is equally important. The second letter, P, stands for pragmatism: Singapore is by far the most pragmatic country in the world. It will try anything without thinking whether this it will fit its ideology. The third letter is the hardest one and that is why most countries fail: it stands for honesty. By accident of history we had three brilliant leaders who were also exceptionally honest, even when Singapore was a very poor country and the salaries were very low. If any country can implement these three principles, I guarantee you the country will succeed.

 

 

How important are vision and long-term goals in establishing leadership at times of hardship and difficulties?

 

In difficult times you have to take the long view and you have to be able to persuade your people that you have to make short-term sacrifices. So for example, at the end of the Cold War there was a mood of euphoria in many Western societies and they did not pay attention to the fact that China and India were waking up. It was natural that when China injected 800million new workers into the global capitalist system, workers would loose their jobs in the US and in Europe. But at the same time, if you take the long view, you see that in many ways the return of China is not a bad thing, because if China grows and succeeds, it will also create a big market. The world middle class population is going from 1.8 billion in 2010 to 3.2 billion in 2020 and 4.9 billion in 2030, which means that for the first time in human history more than half the world population is going to enjoy global middle class living standard. Surely that is going to create opportunities.

 

 

When it comes to companies operating today in the global arena, what are the essential qualities business leaders should develop?

 

The main thing is to understand the global environment. We live in one world and the competition is going to come and hit you not necessarily from your own country, or your own region but possibly from somewhere far away from the rest of the world. So you have to be aware of the world as your operating environment and dealing with competition wherever it comes from.

 

 

Do you think we need new international institutions to govern the next stage of globalization?

 

I was ambassador to the UN twice and as someone who knows the UN very well, I can tell you that if today you try to create new institutions to replace the 1945 institutions you will not succeed in getting better results. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the UN, or the IMF, the World Bank or the WTO. It is a question of restarting them and deciding that it is important to make them strong rather than weak. If you live in a small, interdependent world you actually need to have stronger institutions of global governance rather than weaker institutions of global governance. The solution to our problem is very simple: do not try to reinvent new institutions, just double the money you give these institutions and you would see a dramatic difference happening.